by Rajagopalan Rohinee
Since his comeback in 2017, after sitting out for the latter six months of the 2016 season with a knee injury, Roger Federer has been riding on the wave of unpredictability to the fullest. Not that it was not the case before the ill-fated 2016 season, but his professional timeline has come to be cleanly divided along the ever-in-vogue theme of before and after.
That Federer turned back time and continued to do that for much of 2017, and for extended portions in 2018, which included him adding a couple of more weeks to his already existing record as the world No. 1, then, extinguished the idea of the Swiss player being done for good on the ATP Tour. Alongside, it also left many wanting more from him in terms of his results – as if seeking a reassurance that the Federer of old, harking back to his peak in the early 2000s, had finally returned.
Reality, however, has been quite different from such labeling. For while, Federer did seem to control time at the start of 2017, it caught up with him as the months sped by. And across these months, the two have been engaged in the tussle that marked Federer’s career right up to the time his knee gave away.
What we now see when he takes to the courts is a tangible demonstration of him trying to wrestle time trying to reassert his say over an entity that answers to none. Ergo, the display of good days and bad days of play in matches.
Euphoria of him holding aloft his 100th title at the Dubai Open left behind any naysaying the Australian Open fourth-round loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas – who, incidentally was the same player who had ended his two-year run of dominance at Melbourne Park – but it only briefly covered the weaknesses in his game, which once again made themselves known at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, especially in the final.
The title in Dubai conveniently camouflaged the fact that it took Federer a couple of matches to settle in, in the tournament. It also tamped down on the certainty that the 37-year-old had started to miss a step or two, even though he more than made up for it with experience-filled subtlety and shrewdness. And while, Federer did well to make it to the Indian Wells final, this dissonance proved to be one time too much.
The aftermath of the result in Indian Wells has heightened the murmuration of dismay around the 20-time Slam champion. And though it has not yet risen to the level as seen before-2016, it is no less vehement than how it used to be then. This cacophony of scepticism growing louder, then, forms the crux of the matter at hand. As to Federer being held to such high standards which essentially omit the basic fact that he is human like others – prone to getting beaten and sidestepped by time – which include facing losses, as an athlete.
One aspect where Federer has made his peace with time can then be seen in how he puts his defeats in perspective. Where before, the champion in him scoffed at losses as if he were unable to bear that stain clotting his otherwise pristine scroll of wins, he now understands that defeats are the other side of victories and there is nothing wrong in accepting them as such. ‘
Federer’s statements in his post-final press conference in Indian Wells reiterated as much. “Maybe that’s why I’m okay with it…, because I felt like I’m actually playing, you know, good tennis. Like, in Australia, I wasn’t too down on myself because I feel like my game is there, my body is there.” He added, “I think when you feel that way, you know, you take it more, how do you say, positively? I don’t know how to explain, but it’s just not as dramatic. Whereas, when you’re hurt and things are difficult and, you know, that maybe those hurt more. I’m not sure.”
When seen from this context, Federer’s career has come to epitomise If’s verse that is well-known among the sport’s followers. And if, Roger Federer can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same, why cannot the world, too?