Tipping Point: Sentimentalists hoping time and logic yield to Roger Federer
Veteran champion returns to happy hunting ground in search of an eight Wimbledon title
Roger Federer: hasn’t won a Grand Slam in four years but is still third seed for Wimbledon. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
It’s one of sport’s most alluring narratives, the grizzled veteran aiming for one final shot at the top prize. Only the underdog tale trumps it. Roger Federer is too suave for grizzle but the fate of tennis’ greatest champion as he tries for one more Wimbledon could dominate the next fortnight.
He is 35 in August, plagued with a bad back, hasn’t won a Grand Slam in four years, a title of any sort since October, and has barely played two dozen matches in 2016. There is ample evidence too that Novak Djokovic has definitively got his number over five sets.
So by any reasonable measure only arch-sentimentalists can argue he has a chance of what would be a unique eighth Wimbledon title. Yet rarely if ever in the history of sport will there be so much sentimental yearning that both time and logic are overcome.
It won’t be everyone of course. Some souls continue to doggedly resist the near canonisation of the Swiss maestro, a process that reached a shuddering climax all of a decade ago with David Foster Wallace’s New York Times bit on “Federer As Religious Experience”.
Such spectacularly overwrought stuff by the American novelist was enough to test even the sturdiest gag reflex. To his credit no one appeared more uncomfortable with such fervent literary tonguing as Federer himself.
“In sport, everything is a superlative,” said the man who has provoked more superlatives than most.
If explanations for that aestheticism can go wildly over the top sometimes it won’t prevent a vast well of emotional investment being placed in the fortunes of the men’s third seed. There is a vulnerability to Federer’s game now which only adds to the sentimental mix.
That third seeding is a remarkable testament to Federer’s sustained excellence over the last number of years, something that nevertheless can’t prevent the widespread presumption that his Grand Slam winning days are over.
In Roland Garros, Flushing Meadow and Melbourne Park, Djokovic’s overwhelming dominance means they are. There remains a lingering suspicion though that Wimbledon’s grass could contain the seeds of a fairytale lash-hurrah, to correspond perhaps to Pete Sampras’s 2002 US Open victory.
Sampras went into that seeded only 17, a shadow of his former self. A year previously his Wimbledon reign had been ended by a Swiss pup who looked like he’d come from playing bass in a bad Basel heavy metal pub band. But Sampras won, and then never played again.
If that was exquisite timing then Federer’s argument that he won’t quit any time soon because he enjoys the game too much means a repeat is unlikely, and hard to quibble with even by those preoccupied with the legacy of a very rich young man with mountains of cash collecting dust.
And of course Sampras is American and the Yanks do the fairytale farewell bit much better. Kobe Bryant did it recently although hardly in a game that mattered. John Elway however went the whole nine yards with a Super Bowl win, shuffling wearily off stage like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers.
Such neat mawkishness doesn’t quite work on this side of the Pond, even when the circumstances seem perfectly aligned.
Zinedine Zidane’s final match in the 2006 World Cup Final for instance teed up perhaps the ultimate sporting farewell. By then ‘Zizou’ could barely break out of a walk but his brain had computed his French team to the brink of glory.
And the outrageous penalty Zidane scored was the sort of Hollywood moment any scriptwriter would initially baulk at before pressing their luck on the basis that the audience’s credulity is really stretchy.
Unlikely resultsArthur Ashe
In 2001 the perennial Wimbledon bridesmaid, Goran Ivanisevic, summoned up one final titantic effort to land the SW19 crown. That was the same year Federer announced himself on the big stage by beating Sampras. A year later he was champion himself but there had been a significant change by then, one that could ultimately rule out another fairytale this time.
In 2002 attempts to slow the game down included reseeding the courts. The balls were slowed down too. We’re talking fractions of a second but it worked. Doubt that and examining the pristine green surface close to the net next week will convince you otherwise.
Serve and volley, once the grass-court staple, is now an oddity. Surface has become largely irrelevant in tennis. The troika of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic has been unique but their dominance has been aided by the similarity of bounce whatever the surface.
In the past Wimbledon’s grass could theoretically make enough of a difference to encourage hopes of a successful final Federer fling at the prize he covets most. After all the legs might be slower but the brain isn’t, and he still has the greatest all-court armoury.
Except that was Wimbledon then, and this is now. Final fairytales don’t really happen anymore. Maybe one is due.