When Roger Federer won last year’s US Open in expectedly dominant fashion, the tennis world was on the cusp of unanimously declaring him the Greatest of All Time. Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam record would be smashed, perhaps, by June.
Fast forward not quite a year, and Federer’s stock had crashed with a resounding thud.
Sure, Federer had shown himself to be vulnerable this year, suffering from mononucleosis early in the season, getting thumped at the French Open, and abdicating his crown at Wimbledon. His forehand suddenly wasn’t as feared. His imperiousness had been punctured by the rise of Rafael Nadal.
How quick we are, though, to predict a star’s fall. All because the Swiss, who had reigned over men’s tennis with a velvety game and an iron hand for much of the last decade, only made it to the finals of two Grand Slams (losing one he’d won five straight years 9-7 in the fifth set) and the semi of the other.
How lackluster! How pedestrian!
Federer’s rule, it was said, was over. He’d dropped to No. 2 and was plummeting, never again to win another Slam.
Not so fast.
In thrashing Andy Murray and capturing his 5th consecutive US Open and 13th Grand Slam, Federer showed us, and perhaps even himself, that we were all much too anxious to write off a player of his ethereal caliber.
Federer is the consummate gentleman champion, seemingly impossible to root against. His artistry is unsurpassed; he does things with a racquet none of us had ever seen before. He glides around the court with a silent, superhuman quality. And he is as graceful off the court as on.
Over the past year, Federer has shown us that he is, after all, human. Instead of consistent displays of impregnable confidence, we saw him grimace and bellow in frustration.
And how lucky we were.
Nadal’s rise and gritty, muscular style of play – which unnerved Federer – was a felicitous counterpoint to Federer’s effortless game and long dominance over the field.
Yet so many of us were quick to revel in Federer’s vulnerability. Was it our want of a true rivalry? Or was it our inability to make sense of perfection? Was Federer too princely for his own good?
In the end, the New York crowd cheered Roger on as never before. His struggles made him more accessible to mere mortals in the cheap seats.
It was exciting to see Federer challenged, forced to respond to his pursuers and search for answers. And it has been thrilling to bear witness – again – to his greatness.
Federer, in staking his continuing claim to the throne, has shown he can turn things around as fast as his forehand can go from defense to offense. Yes, he now shares the pedestal with Nadal. And the challengers are mounting, with Murray and Novak Djokovic demonstrating that they are capable of winning majors on any surface.
As always, Federer has everything in perspective. “I really believe tennis is at a great place right now, with a lot of incredible athletes.”
All is right again, in Roger’s Court.