Why Federer’s 20th Grand Slam win borders on the miraculous

Roger Federer kisses the Australian Open trophy in Melbourne last month. photo | AFP
Roger Federer kisses the Australian Open trophy in Melbourne last month. photo | AFP  

It is every journalist’s desire to provide readers with accurate information that stands the test of time. To predict something, from a set of parameters provided, that eventually turns out as stated is often a clear sign of insight coupled with a wealth of experience.

Charlie Eccleshare, a writer and digital producer for Telegraph Sport, believed he was in the zone on May 19th, 2016, when he wrote an article titled, “Why Roger Federer will never win another grand slam”.

He gave six reasons why Federer would find it difficult to win another Grand Slam, among them being injuries, the rise of Novak Djokovic and the return of Federer’s formidable foe and friend, Rafael Nadal.

He concluded by saying that Federer’s “age, failure in recent years to win a major, and the staggering improvement of Djokovic mean the most likely outcome before Federer retires is that he will end his career with 17 slams.”

Fast forward to 30th January, 2018, and Eccleshare put out another article, this time in the form of a letter titled, “Dear Roger Federer: An apology for ever writing you off”, the great about-turn stemming from Federer’s triumph at the 2018 Australian Open.

Tennis fans the world over were treated to something special at the Aussie Open, a man claiming his 20th Grand Slam title. So what makes that milestone a monumental achievement in tennis and sport?

In 2001 at Wimbledon, the legendary Pete Sampras, then the world number one, encountered a 19-year-old teenager from Switzerland in the fourth round. Sampras was bidding to become the first man to be crowned champion at Wimbledon 8 times.

The teenager, Roger Federer, had previously won the juniors’ tournament at Wimbledon, and like Sampras, had a firm one-handed backhand coupled with an affinity for grass.

Sampras’ dream came crashing when Federer was able to grab a famous win in a match that went to the fifth set and had only three breaks of serve. Federer went on to lose the next match to home favourite, Tim Henman, but his win over Sampras was the symbolic change of guard in the sport.

Eight years later on Centre Court, Sampras was courtside to watch Federer surpass his Grand Slam record of 14 titles, when the Swiss beat American Andy Roddick in five sets, with the final set involving a record 30 games.

Federer went on to win eight Wimbledon titles, eclipsing Sampras’ joint record with William Renshaw of seven. The latest of his accomplishments at Wimbledon came last year, at the age of 35.

Lawn tennis is a particularly punishing sport to the body, which explains why soldiering on beyond 30 years is considered out of the ordinary rather than the norm. It is little wonder then that Eccleshare had written off Federer’s chances back in 2016 when he was 34.

Federer, however, has managed to do what many never thought possible, and in the process, surprise himself as well.

There are those who think that 20 Grand Slams is too high a target to be matched given the entry of more players into the sport, as well as the failure to get a runaway favourite to approach the round figure.

At 16, Spain’s Rafael Nadal has a chance of matching the Swiss, if his body can withstand a few more years of the ultimate test. That is a big “if” given the experience he had at the Australian Open where he was forced to retire in the fifth set of his semifinal against Croatia’s Marin Cilic.

What makes Federer’s achievement of 20 Grand Slams even more astonishing is his longevity in the sport. He won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, and his latest one, not his last, in 2018, experiencing a drought between 2013 and 2016 occasioned by tough losses and injury.

Since the beginning of 2017, Federer has won three out of five Grand Slams by carefully selecting when to exert himself, at a time when younger players were expected to edge him and Nadal off the centre stage.

Through the years, Federer has amassed a massive following globally for the man he is on the court, as well as his humble personality off it.

One may struggle to reconcile the Federer at press events who is all jovial and soft spoken against the athletic man on the court whose graceful movement, all-round arsenal, precision and tenacity often elegantly combine to pound his opponents into submission.

I’ll leave you to choose whether you prefer the Federer of old, or the ‘old’ Federer. Whatever your take, consider it a privilege to be on this side of history to watch the greatest tennis player perform his artistry on court to the bewilderment of his opponents.