Fairy Tales DO Come True When You Are Roger Federer

Federer

Photo courtesy of twitter.com

Roger Federer’s run to the Australian Open 2017 trophy was such a fairy tale finish to the 17th seed’s quest for slam No.18 Hans Christian Anderson would have torn up the manuscript and said “Get real”. Once you told Anderson, however, that Roger Federer composed the tale, he would have put the papers back together for as we learned at the Australian Open, Fairy tales, DO happen when you are Roger Federer.

Fairy tales have their share of muddy swamps and monsters, and in the past five years, since he won Slam No. 17 at Wimbledon, Federer has had plenty of swamps to wade through and monsters to outrun- a back injury in 2013 which saw him drop from No.2 to No. 8 in the rankings,  the subsequent overhaul of his game and adjustment to a more suitable racket, his younger rival Novak Djokovic and all time great entering his prime when the Swiss’ revamped game was hitting its stride, (the Serbian defeating him in three slam finals at venues at which Federer’s game seemed destined to win), a first career surgery at the age of 34 (on his knee, the injury caused in Melbourne in 2016) and frustrating comeback from that surgery, (letting chances at another Wimbledon final slip from his grasp), a six month lay off, and then, if the tale needed any more obstacles for its hero to overcome, a leg injury picked up in his second round match versus Noah Rubin  in Melbourne this season.

So many swamps and monsters may seem above and beyond the call of duty for a fairy tale hero to overcome, but Federer is no everyday fairy tale hero. After all, few would have shed tears if Federer had not won another slam with the Swiss being far from an impoverished sporting Cinderella, but a rather wealthy one with his record 17 slams.

All those swamps and monsters have been effective narrative devices, though, for if any tennis legend can arouse spectator’s sympathies and lay claim to deserving another slam on the back of talent, hard work, and what he gives back to the sport, it is Federer, the Swiss coming back  again and again for the love of the game, and the fans, suffering in failure over and over, only to catch his breath,  get back up once again, only to fail to find the feet that used to dance so elegantly to slam trophies once more, scrambling over his obstacles instead, blistered feet, bloody hands, broken fingernails, and all, still coming up short in his quest for slam No. 18, still getting back up to try all over again.

This chapter, the Australian Open 2017, Federer’s first professional event back since the Wimbledon ’16 semis, was the climax to Roger Federer and The Quest for that 18th slam and we did not even know it, such was Federer’s monster ridden, swamp filled draw, the 17th seed scheduled to face, from the third round on, Tomas Berdych (10), Kei Nishikori (5), Andy Murray (1), Stan Wawrinka (4) and Novak Djokovic (2).

Lacking in match practice, at the slam at which he had not reached the final since 2010, with some of the game’s best hard court players in his path, the 35 year old looked anything but a champion in the wings, more likely to play a cameo role instead, departing the stage in the first ten days to bittersweet applause.

The Swiss justified doubts concerning his 18th slam winning potential early on, too, looking shaky in the early rounds versus 296th ranked Jurgen Melzer, to whom he dropped a set, and qualifier Noah Rubin, who gave him a tough work out, and against whom the 17th seed picked up a leg injury.

Not that anyone would know from his next performance, his three set defeat of Tomas Berdych, the match that gave us the first sign Federer had it in him to make a comeback few imagined, a clinical and inspired execution against an opponent ripe and ready to be picked off by Federer’s pitch perfect attack.

Defeating Berdych in straights was encouraging,  but the Czech does not hit as cleanly as he used to, and while he could have defeated a rusty Federer, he was no threat to a Federer feeling the ball with such feathery fingers. The feeling something special might be about to happen really got underway, however, with Federer’s topsy turvy five set defeat of Kei Nishikori, the Swiss showing he did not just have the head to beat the best the draw could put in his way, but he had the heart to fight when things got tough, and after a straight sets last eight win over Andy Murray’s conqueror Mischa Zverev, Federer was put to the test again by Stan Wawrinka in the semis, winning in five sets, once again showcasing how much he wanted to get that elusive 18th slam, and that he had it in him to do so.

Federer’s reward was both a blessing and a curse- the blessing, another slam final, and not so long after his last, the 2015 US Open, the curse, coming up against the biggest monster of them all- Rafa Nadal. Nadal, his nemesis, who had made him cry on the Rod Laver Arena in 2009, the asterisk to his Goat status in the eyes of tennis legends such as John McEnroe, the monster who had claws sharp enough to tear through that champion’s thick skin.

Just as fairy tales have swamps and monsters, they have fairy godmothers, too, and in this tale, if Federer had ever needed one, it was now, and she kindly obliged, waving her wand and magicing up lighter balls bouncing lower, just where Federer likes them, a faster surface (laid early and playing like it would in the final in the first round), the kind of conditions in which Federer had beaten Nadal in some of his 11 wins.

Federer deserved the flick of a fairy godmother’s wand for if you do not ask, you do not get, and Federer had not been afraid to ask for what he wanted, calling for ATP tournaments to be speeded up in previous years, and though the tournament has denied speeding up conditions to favor him, the ball certainly flew faster through the courts at this year’s Australian Open, and just as Federer’s shots were finding their marks, everything else fell into place, too, with Murray and Djokovic, the reigning duo of the Big Four, upset by Istomin and Zverev, two journey men feasting in the faster conditions, setting the stage for the two sidelined members of the Big Four, a pair strong enough to have their very own name -Fedal-  to dance once more in the spotlight that is a Grand Slam final, and before an audience in their hearts looking forward to a classic such as the 2009 final, in their heads, dreading a drubbing like the 2014 semis, the kind Federer fans watch through their fingers.

For Federer fans, in the first set, the only place their fingers belonged was in the air where Federer, himself, was dancing, playing the tennis called for to avoid a repeat of 2014- aggressive, big serving, risk taking, believing, the tennis of the Federer who had marched to three slam finals in the last two seasons while Nadal had been struggling to get through the opening rounds.

Fingers dropped down to faces in set two though, the Federer who had lost those three finals making an appearance, falling behind 0-4. Just as Federer had done versus Wawrinka and Nishikori, the Swiss fell back down onto the plexi-cushion with a thud while Nadal picked up his game, the Spaniard’s power and will reminding the Swiss just what kind of tennis monster he was facing for the title, sending the Swiss’ demons swirling and the Swiss backing down, his feet stuck in the swamp, his mind, too, thinking twice about coming forward, moving back into the past, a time when losing to Nadal in slam finals was the downside to being Roger Federer.

The clouds have never been too far away from Federer’s lowest moments this Australian Open, though, and Federer soon soared back up, to the upside of being him, racing through the third set 6-1, going all the way back to 2007 when the Rod Laver Arena was his very own practice stage, and then, the clouds thickened into swamp, and we were back in mid 2016, the the demons swirling,  descending upon him in a flurry of  shanks and misfired attacks, the pressure of Nadal never-ending, and the Swiss falling 1-3 behind, the 2009 defeat, the tears in the trophy ceremony, the 2-6 deficit in slam finals to Nadal, those moments, despite Federer’s words they would not, seeming to dictate the now, the dark side shutting out the light Federer had looked so ready to step into.

The 18th slam trophy, his name upon it, lit up, waiting at the end of the player’s tunnel into Rod Laver, the light Federer had been running to all this time, no way, not today, was the Swiss going to let it flicker out before him after coming this far, his fingers so close to feeling its warm glow. There was no running away this time, Federer was ready, the swamps and monsters of the past strengthening him for the now as he embraced the dark side, taking another strategic medical time out (he took his first ever in his semi versus Wawrinka), his quad and groin troubling him, at the start of the fifth set, giving himself some time to pull his body, and most crucially, his mind back together with that elusive 18th slam seeming to pull away from him.

While the MTO did not seem to pay off for Federer as Nadal rode his momentum to lead 3-1, at 3-2 Nadal serving, Federer found a hole in the Spaniard’s well rehearsed game plan, earning a break point with a cross court backhand winner. This time, Federer did  not blink, his eyes widened instead, taking in, in all its glory, the chance to get back into contention for the trophy before him, his ground-strokes refusing to break down under pressure, standing up to Nadal on break point, the pressure causing the Spaniard’s forehand to give out on him, missing the lines he needed to paint against a Federer at his most Picassoesque.

Back in the match, and freed from his fears his attack and his rally balls would be gobbled up by the tennis monster facing him, heartened by the conditions the fairy godmother had magicked up for him, the Swiss dispelled the demons of all those missed break points of slam finals past to break again for 5-3 before serving out for the title with the confidence displayed in his No.1 days, his belief wading him through the swamp, past the monster, all the way to the fairy tale ending, a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory, punctuated with a celebration worthy of one, one which many in the tennis world had been asking for but few dared to imagine would happen at the 2017 Australian Open, even Federer, who, by his admission, lacked the vision back in mid 2016, vision he had in abundance in that fifth set.

The last time Federer’s vision in a slam final had been so 20/20 was  five years ago, in the Wimbledon 2012 final. Five years is a long time when in the prime of your career, you won 12 slams (2003-2007), and Federer’s tears of joy at winning big again were shared by many in that special moment bursting with tennis history- a record 18th slam, beating four top ten players on his way to the trophy, (the first player since Mats Wilander at Roland Garros ’82 to do so in a slam), becoming the first man to win five titles at three majors. That one moment and all that history cemented Federer’s status as the Greatest of all time, beating his principal rival for that status to do so, the rival who has the best chance of tearing that status up from the foundations and building it for himself, the rival cast as a monster in the fairy tale but a respected and fondly admired friend in the real world.

In his runner-up speech, Nadal said Federer deserved the trophy more, and we take his word for it. Nadal, after all, should know. The ninth seed has been working as hard as anyone to secure his own fairy tale ending to an already legendary career and that day, while he was the villain in Federer’s Quest, he was a hero in his own, and just as he plays the hero with passion and charm so he does the villain, proving the equal to Federer in that respect, the only draw the two can call in a game which does not award them, a status Federer said he would have happily called on the match, one which would, perhaps, be the real fairy tale ending to this bromantic rivaly, an ending no tennis fairy godmother would refuse.

Fairy godmothers were not thanked by Federer in his speech, however, for as much as Federer made it look like a fairy tale just as he makes his game look like such effortless magic, there is no fairy godmother in this tale because this is no tale, this story is real, and Federer made it so with his wizardlike concoction of talent, hard work, and when it mattered most, self-belief.

Just how many more years Federer will be around to summon up his own unique spells only a crystal ball could tell us, though Federer did give us a clue with his final words to the crowd that he would see them next year and if not, thanks for the ride.

If not.

Federer fans had, at times, clung to if only when it came to the prospect of Federer winning another slam, and there is always a chance of If only, a glimmer of light in the darkest of sporting fandom times, with a champion like Roger Federer, and while if not may be a much darker place, when it comes to the Federer career, his fans will be happy with not ending up somewhere in the middle – the semi final defeats to Thiem and Zverev on grass, the quarter-final losses to Tsonga in Monte Carlo- where Federer, to those who did not believe, was starting to look like he might slip to mid 2016, the swamp to his green and blooming gardens, gardens which, he confirmed after the match, if he suffers another injury, he will not strive to grow again.

So we will take if not and thank Federer for putting pen to paper once more, talented story teller that he is, and taking us on the ride with him, a ride of defeating swamps and monsters, of finding Federer’s dancing feet again, of healing broken bones and hearts, of stepping out of the dark and back into the light.

Fairy tales do not write themselves, we have to write them ourselves, and while the magic in Federer’s game may have been a gift from the tennis Gods, the fairy tale story that was the Australian Open 2017, that was all Federer.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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