By David Zakhodin
When we last saw the greatness of Roger Federer on display, he was wagging his finger and reminding everyone that the title of greatest player at Wimbledon belonged to him. Overcoming a two set to love deficit to defeat a familiar foe in Marin Cilic, Roger was bound to take down the inexperienced Raonic and set up a marquee final matchup against the one man the All England Club loves more than him. Instead, Roger tumbled. Both figuratively and literally as he lost a two set to one lead over Raonic and fell on the grass where he hardly ever slips. While no one wanted to hear all the negativity spewing out of the mouths of Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill when they discussed Roger’s recently questionable health, it would be naïve to think that Roger’s window to win another Major is wide open. Now, with Roger announcing that he will miss the remainder of the 2016 season, more doubt surrounds the great champion’s ability to attain his final goal: being on top one last time.
Surely many will now proclaim that Roger is done. For how could a hobbled soon-to-be 35-year-old challenge the likes of Murray and Djokovic, ones who we’ve called machines because of their durability? Perhaps the most essential facet of Roger’s game, his movement, is not where it used to be. He compensates by gliding to the net and finishing off points where his opponents can hurt him less frequently. As successful as these tactics have been in navigating the dodgy path toward older age, they weren’t immune to disappointing losses and now long-term injuries. With uncertainty surrounding Roger’s knee, back, and drive to keep pushing at such an age, it’s natural to rule out the improbable. As Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill aptly proclaimed on the broadcast, the best chance at an eighteenth Grand Slam title had been squandered. With Roger now missing the upcoming Rio Olympics, an event that was a benchmark for the final stage of his career, the motivation of winning a Singles Gold Medal will have faded. Moreover, the loss of ranking points from not playing in the US Open will likely force him out of the top ten for the first time since 2003.
Hence, the case against Roger is undeniable. His rivals are as strong as ever, and for the first time we may have to wonder how much Roger’s immense love for tennis can help him bounce back into contention following such an injury. For years he has been able to shake off the most debilitating losses and bounce back because of his hard work and constant commitment to being the best. The question, now, is how strong Roger’s resolve will be when the number of doubters increases and penetrates his own mind. For years we’ve seen Roger stave off questions from reporters at press conferences regarding his future with a mix of the mild cockiness and quiet confidence that make up his ego. Ultimately, Roger’s ability to channel the experience gained from his past achievements will decide whether or not he can come back from this physical setback and win elusive number eighteen. In the recent past, Roger has faltered against his top rivals because of his struggles in crucial junctions of the match such as break point opportunities. However, the aforementioned ability to harness the clutch play on big points that has defined his career can produce the sort of greatness that makes up for what Roger lacks physically compared to Djokovic and Murray.
In the Wimbledon loss to Raonic, it was not the serve or the forehand that let Roger down. Instead, it was an uncharacteristic dip in focus when serving at 5-6, 40-0 in the fourth set that reversed the match in the Canadian’s favor. Or it was a poor choice of shot when going for an errant chip and charge down break point early in the fifth set. In essence, Roger cannot afford to make these sorts of mistakes if he wants to be atop men’s tennis once more. If he no longer had a great serve or killer forehand, then it would be unreasonable to expect him to return from this injury and have a chance at another title. But because he can draw from the confidence derived from being the most successful tennis player ever, Roger has the ability to elevate himself to a level where he can accomplish the feat set by the man he surpassed in the Grand Slam standings.
In 2002, no one would have predicted that Pete Sampras would have won the U.S. Open as a double digit seed who was clearly trending downward. But just like Roger still has huge weapons in his serve and forehand today, Sampras was still the best serve-and-volleyer. And while he used those strengths to win his fourteenth and final Major, it was his poise under pressure that allowed him to once again best rival Andre Agassi. For all those who have crossed Roger off the list of contenders for Major titles, I ask you to keep in mind the idea of poise. And even if Roger has failed to exhibit it in past encounters late in Majors, the opportunity to step back from the game for several months will give him a better perspective on what an eighteenth Major title will truly mean to him. We picked Roger to have a good showing at this year’s Wimbledon, and despite his loss, he still showed the swagger and high level of tennis that proves why he, at this point, is the greatest of all time. With time to rest, refuel, and find his way back into form, Roger will find a way to overcome the greatest adversity he has ever faced. And anytime you think of counting him out, just think about that finger wag and remember that Roger is not done yet.