By David Zakhodin
When Roger Federer steps out onto Centre Court today for his first round match at Wimbledon, all eyes will be on the seven-time champion and his quest to win once more at the tournament where his legend was born. The last time Roger set foot on the grounds of the All England Club, he was reeling. A match that he was seemingly in control of against Mr. New Balance Raonic slipped away and exposed the knee injury that would sideline Roger for the remainder of 2016. But ironically enough, this time around, the Swiss Maestro returns to Wimbledon as a true favorite to win the title. Indeed, a lot will depend on the draw and how it unfolds for his chief rivals, but let’s examine why this is indubitably Roger’s tournament to win.
Since returning to the tour in January, Roger has won all but three of his matches: a meaningless Hopman Cup loss to Alexander Zverev and two fluke early round losses to Evgeny Donskoy and Tommy Haas in Dubai and Stuttgart. That’s it. When the stakes have been the highest, Roger has more than risen to the occasion. Whether it was the three five set matches he won to win the Australian, the dominance of Indian Wells without dropping a set, or the clutch play in Miami that won him two matches in third-set tiebreakers, Roger’s unprecedented success at the age of 35 has been the highlight of the 2017 tennis season. The only blemish on his resume? A three-month hiatus that saw Rafa bypass him in the Race to London and once again ascend to the pantheon of clay. While it can be argued that Rafa would have accomplished these feats even with Roger playing the clay court season, it is important to note that Roger has gained a certain mental advantage over Rafa that he may not have previously had after beating him three times on the hard courts earlier this season.
Having taken three months off and lost in his first match in Stuttgart, Roger quieted those skeptical of his form by winning his ninth title in Halle. He now cruises into Wimbledon with a ton of confidence from his play at a tune-up event he owns and looks to continue his magical 2017 run at SW19. Following his loss to Raonic last year, I wrote about how Roger was capable of winning a Major even at such a late stage of his career (http://www.thefanscountryclub.com/tennis-1/2016/7/27/perseverant-and-poised-rogers-pursuit-of-eighteen). While this was not a radical prediction, Roger proved en route to his eighteenth Grand Slam victory in Australia that both his poise and historically positive mentality under pressure were the necessary ingredients for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Even though I do not anticipate him having to dig out of a 1-3 in the fifth hole at The Championships this fortnight, that supreme state of confidence is Roger’s primary catalyst for playing the sort of tennis that will allow him to etch his name onto the champions’ wall inside Centre Court once more.
In addition to the mental edge that comes with having won Wimbledon eight times and being the best grass court player in tennis history, Roger’s masterful evolution of his game positions him well to win the title. In past years, especially in the finals he lost to Novak, it has always seemed like Roger had to do something extraordinary to pull off the upset. No matter how many big forehands he hit or how many backhands he delicately chipped, every ball from Novak was coming back with equal pace and landing just a foot inside the baseline. For someone whose elite movement throughout the course of his career has largely prevented him from losing control of the baseline, Roger was often left in uncomfortable positions that made him go for more and caused uncharacteristic numbers of unforced errors.
So what changed between the 2015 final and today? One could argue that Novak Djokovic is still in the draw and remains the biggest threat to Roger in the bottom half of the draw. For one, Novak has not proven that he can play at such a high level at any point this season. On the other hand, Roger has made one tremendous adjustment in his game that arguably won him the Australian Open: the one-handed backhand. For years it was the shot that the likes of Rafa and Novak exposed because of its inconsistency. At best, Roger was hitting rally balls back cross court and waiting to get an opportunity to hit a forehand. This year, however, that one-hander has been unleashed at will as a point-ending weapon. Whether it be the new frame or simply an increased emphasis on the necessity of the shot, Roger has been hitting over his backhand at a much higher rate this season and using the shot to deftly open up the court. With this wing no longer being a liability, he has more opportunities to be aggressive and thus can better position himself to hit the next ball inside the court or sneak in for an almost sure put-away volley. Therefore, the conversation now revolves around what his fellow rivals have to do to beat Roger as opposed to what he has to do to beat them.
The final, and arguably most important, component in Roger’s quest for another Wimbledon title is his health. Some have criticized him for taking such a large chunk of the season off his calendar, but the man has smartly positioned himself to peak physically in the latter half of 2017. With the grass being the best platform to display his gliding movement across the court, Roger should be able to hang in as many physical rallies as he needs to throughout his next seven matches. While that is most definitely not the brand of tennis he wants to play, we all witnessed what he was capable of doing in the long exchanges through which he prevailed against Nishikori, Wawrinka, and Rafa in Australia. When he lost to Raonic last year, it was evident that Roger was hampered in his movement. The come-from-behind battle against Cilic took too much energy out of his sails, and I bet he would have come up short against Murray in the final even if he had taken care of business against New Balance. But alas, we’re not here to play the what-if game. Instead, we’re here to tell you that Roger Federer will be raising the Wimbledon trophy for an eighth time next Sunday.
In recent years, we’ve seen instances and spurts of time where Roger has been at his best. The evolution of his game to incorporate more net approaches, take time away, and always surprise opponents has allowed him to use longevity as an argument for cementing his career legacy. But between 2012 and 2016, we also saw certain matches where this evolution was simply not enough against the likes of Rafa, Novak, or even Cilic. Not until 2017 when he was incredulously labeled as a “dark horse” did the greatest of all time finally break through and achieve his goal of winning another Major. At Wimbledon, no one will be referring to him as a dark horse. Stan Wawrinka already tanked his way out of the tournament. Novak is on a mental walkabout and has only won in Doha and Eastbourne this year. Andy has never advanced past the quarterfinal when defending a Major title, isn’t playing his best tennis, and is rumored to have a hip injury. Rafa, while playing well in his opening match, has already gone on record building in excuses for being rusty on the grass due to the uncertain state of his knees. In essence, Roger is primed to win this tournament. He may not play his best tennis throughout all seven matches, and he may even end up facing a very dangerous dark horse in Marin Cilic in the final. But nonetheless, he is the best grass court player in the draw and enters the tournament in optimal mental and physical form. Exactly five years have passed since he claimed ownership of Centre Court and fell to the ground in tears following a missed passing shot from Andy Murray. At the end of this fortnight, Roger shall own it again.