By David Zakhodin
On an overcast Sunday last July in London, mayhem surrounded the grounds of Wimbledon at SW19. A drama-filled second set tiebreak in the final match of the tournament had the crowd jumping out of its seats after every single point. The source of their pleasure was familiar. For the second year in a row Wimbledon icon Roger Federer was going for an eighteenth Grand Slam title against nemesis and reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic. The score was 11-10. Having saved seven set points earlier in the tiebreak with a combination of angle forehands, big serves, and scintillating backhand passing shots, Roger was prepared to take matters into his own hands. As he approached the baseline, his RF97 racquet, making its Wimbledon debut, bounced the ball several times and fired a blistering flat serve out wide to Djokovic’s weapon and strength, the backhand return. To the crowd’s surprise, Roger followed the serve into the net to hit a tough volley toward the sideline, a tactic that caught the already antsy Serb by surprise. What happened next was something we had already seen from Federer twelve years ago when he first won this title. Closing the net for another backhand volley, the most decorated player in tennis history put the ball into the open court and leveled the match at one set all.
An immense eruption took place inside Centre Court and outside on Murray Mound. The seven-time Wimbledon champion was on his way to avenging his loss to the man who had beaten him in five sets a year ago. All the momentum was on Federer’s side; even his coach Stefan Edberg showed some energy after the set-winning than volley, something Edberg would never have done in his own playing days. And by no means was this crowd supporting Djokovic the way the Parisians supported him this past Roland Garros in his quest to complete the Career Grand Slam. With the crowd behind the Swiss, it appeared that Roger would carry his high level of play from his semifinal victory against Andy Murray into the final to defeat Djokovic and win his first Grand Slam since 2012. However, despite the momentum in his favor, Roger would lose the next two sets as a result of his own poor play combined with the increased level of intensity from a raging Djokovic. The eighth Wimbledon crown would have to wait until 2016.
And now that The 2016 Championships Wimbledon are here, Roger Federer once again has a great opportunity to further distance himself from the man who defeated him the last two years and is fast approaching his record Grand Slam title count. However, Roger is not exactly coming into this year’s Championships on a hot streak. Speaking of streaks, his record of 65 consecutive Grand Slams played was snapped as a result of a back injury that forced him to withdraw from Roland Garros several weeks ago. Furthermore, this back injury has prevented a player who is the epitome of durability from playing his predetermined schedule. While the back has been an on-and-off problem for Roger through recent years, the real issue began with an arthroscopic knee surgery that caused him to miss every tournament on his schedule between the Australian Open and the Monte Carlo Masters. Even when he returned to the tour in April, Roger played a mere handful of matches before making the decision to not play in his first Major since 1999. Now, on the back of two semifinal appearances in Stuttgart and Halle, Roger Federer enters Wimbledon without having won a title earlier in the year for the first time since 2000 (atpworldtour.com). Think about that for a second: the guy had a streak of winning a tournament in the first half of the tour season for fifteen straight years. Out of all of the arguments I’ve heard for Roger to be considered the greatest of all time, this measure of longevity and success may be another indicator as to why Roger has had such a successful career.
While you may be thinking that this is another one of those “beginning of the end” storylines claiming that Federer is on the downturn and can no longer win, I actually believe that this Wimbledon is a fantastic opportunity for Roger to show that he is still a master on grass. Because he has largely flown under the radar and not been mentioned among the ranks of Djokovic and Murray for the last several months, Roger has the ability to strangely enter Wimbledon as a dark horse, something no one has ever referred to him as at this tournament. In a press conference on Saturday, Federer was asked about any concerns he had with his back coming into The Championships. In response Federer said, “This back has won me 88 titles, so I’m OK with that.” Not only does this show that the press is doubting Federer’s stamina going into the tournament, but it’s also a source of extra motivation (if he even needed any) for proving his doubters wrong by defeating the two men behind whom he has fallen in the rankings. Moreover, the pressure of replicating last year’s final result is not as high because Roger still has a considerable lead in the rankings over the injured Rafael Nadal and Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka who recently dropped points by not backing up his 2015 performance at Roland Garros. Besides, history shows us that Roger Federer plays his best tennis at Wimbledon, and it’s no coincidence that many experts claim that if he is to win another Major, it will come at the All England Club.
The final obstacle that always comes into play when determining the outcome of a Grand Slam event is the draw. Much scrutiny has surrounded the fact that Roger Federer was placed in Novak Djokovic’s half, meaning that the two would potentially face off in the semifinals as opposed to contesting a third straight final as a result of Federer being ranked number three in the world. Perhaps the public may be disappointed in this supposedly unlucky draw, but Roger Federer should not be. After all, he has not beaten Djokovic in the final of a Grand Slam since the 2007 U.S. Open. On the other hand, the last time they played in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinal, Roger not only won the match but also went on to win the tournament. Hence, if he can get through the early rounds unscathed and avoid the sort of upset he suffered in 2013 when losing to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round, Roger can go into the semifinal with nothing to lose and put all the pressure on the defending champion. By no means am I picking Roger to take down the world number one, but if anyone can, it’s him.
When Roger Federer steps out onto Centre Court Monday afternoon for his first round match against Guido Pella, the crowd will erupt in cheers the way it did when he hit the backhand volley last year that had them thinking he would win. This time, however, Roger will seek to embrace the role of dark horse and find a way to take sole possession of the all-time Wimbledon title record. Entering the tournament having played six events this year and only reached the final of two, Roger is fresher and more rested than he ever has been going into The Championships. The more confidence he builds in the earlier rounds, the more prepared he will be to take on the opponent that has derailed him the last two years. And if his game produces the sort of brilliance we have seen in past Wimbledon victories, then we will once again smile as we watch Roger Federer fall to the grass in triumph at the end of the fortnight at SW19.