Roger Federer The Old Tennis Player and the No.1 Ranking.

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By beating Robin Haase in the quarter-finals of the Rotterdam Open, Roger Federer, at the age of 36, became the oldest male player to be ranked No.1 in the world. The Tennis Review reviews how the Swiss got back to the pinnacle of the sport and wonders how long he could end up staying there.

Roger Federer has already been there and done that when it comes to getting back to the ATP world No.1 ranking- since first hitting the top spot on February 2nd 2004, the Swiss, before this most recent return to No.1, had already been knocked off the pinnacle and climbed his way back there twice.

But this comeback is not just “any old” comeback, the status all previous comebacks are now demoted to in light of this one. This comeback is arguably the greatest in any of Federer’s career, the Swiss, in the four years and 17 day gap between his third and fourth No.1 stints, falling to his lowest ranking, 17, (Jan 9th 2017) since no. 18 on the 28th March 2001 (he never fell out of the top four in his other periods away from No.1) and, remarkably in a near two decade career undergoing his first ever career surgery, two career setbacks which for any player would require serious work to bounce back from, but which for a player in their mid 30s could be setbacks too grave to dig themselves out of.

Federer’s stints at No.1:

Period Weeks Took Over From Replaced by
Feb 2 2004- August 17 2008 237 Andy Roddick Rafa Nadal
July 6 2009-June 06 2010 48 Rafa Nadal Rafa Nadal
July 09 2012-November 4 2012 17 Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic
Feb 19th 2018- ? 1 and counting Rafa Nadal ?

That effort to get back to the top was on Federer’s mind, when, after sealing the No.1 ranking again in the Rotterdam quarters, an emotional Federer said:

I think reaching No.1 is one of the, if not the, ultimate achievement in our sport so sometimes at the beginning you just all of a sudden get there just because you are playing so well. Later,  you sometimes try and fight it back, you wrestle it back from somebody else who deserved to be there, and when you’re older, you know, you feel like you have to put maybe sometimes double the work in , so this one maybe means the most to me throughout my career, getting to No.1 and enjoying it right here, at 36, almost 37 years old, is an absolute dream come true, I can’t believe it.

If it was not Roger Federer who was achieving this feat, then it would be pretty unbelievable. After falling from the top ranking in November 2012, and just seven months later crashing out of the Wimbledon second round, getting back to the top was going to take some serious work for the then close to 32 year old Swiss suffering with back problems. A little later in the season, in the North American Summer Swing, struggling to adjust to a larger racket frame, a return to the good old days of just 13 months before looked even more far reaching when Federer was beaten in the Cincy quarters and US Open last 16, that latter loss marking the first year he had not reached a slam final since 2002.

Federer faced up to the challenge, as champions tend to do, and went about pursuing his dream in both a brave and a pragmatic fashion, making changes to his team in hiring Stefan Edberg and going ahead with and adapting to a larger racket head of 97 square inches.

The larger racket head helped make up for the loss in foot speed all mortal tennis players suffer as they age, even Federer, and the hiring of the Swede, Federer’s childhood hero, helped Federer commit to an aggressive game maximizing his strengths: the serve, forehand, playing mid court and at the net, footwork and shot-making.

Those strengths were what propelled Federer to the No.1 spot in the first place on February 4th 2004 and, ten years later, in 2014, hitting his mid 30s, Federer was executing them as well as he ever had and was back to where he was so often seen in the mid to late 2000s, in the Wimbledon final, though this time not winning the title as he did in six of seven finals in that period, but losing to Novak Djokovic in five sets, when his service percentage dropped late in the fifth set.

That return to slam finals really got the ball rolling for the Swiss who went on to challenge the Serbian for the No.1 ranking that season. Had Marin Cilic not peaked in his US Open semi-final versus Federer, the Swiss may have reached No.1 for a fourth stint even sooner.

In 2015, Federer was looking as close to his best on occasions as he reached both the Wimbledon and the US Open finals, losing to Djokovic, the epitome of the modern game, each time, in four sets. Djokovic, having one of the greatest peak periods of any player in the Open era, was playing pitch perfect baseline tennis, and with the Serbian’s key weapon his return, Federer’s serve had to be at its best- any dip and Djokovic took advantage, and unfortunately for Federer, Djokovic has the stamina and consistency to extend matches so that inevitably there would be a lull and the Serbian would be ready to pounce.

When Federer was serving well, he was able to beat Djokovic, beating him six times in 2014 and 2015, the only player able to impose his game on a fairly regular basis on the Serbian in that time period, and it seemed only a matter of time as Federer grew more confident with his commitment to an aggressive game and playing with a larger racket head that he would finally put all the pieces together in a slam final.

That was until, following his split from Edberg and hiring Ivan Ljubicic, one of the harshest realities of sport, injury, one Federer had mostly managed to avoid, bit Federer hard when in early 2016, after a four set loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open semis, Federer was bathing his children and slipped, injuring his knee. He did come back to the tour shortly after, but it was a very different Federer, one whose movement was hampered and who was unable to repeat his 2014-2015 feats, losing to Thiem and Zverev on grass in Germany and coming second best in the Wimbledon semis in a tough five setter to Milos Raonic.

Faced with another setback, Federer had his first ever career surgery and took six months out of the game, that rest and recovery from the injury paying dividends for Federer, as did a career changing adjustment to the Federer game encouraged by Ivan Ljubicic, the coach slotting in the missing piece of the puzzle, the backhand as a weapon not a flaw to be attacked, by having Federer attack more with it, taking advantage of the higher margin for error his larger racket head allowed him, and resulting in the Swiss avoiding the rallies baseline maestros like Djokovic were entangling him in their bid to draw errors.

The backhand now employed as a weapon to rival his forehand, the Swiss’ rivals now went less to that side and the Swiss himself became more likely to hit a stunning winner off that wing, often on big points, a shot to turn matches around, showing an opponent who might be feeling on top of him that the Swiss is not afraid to go down swinging, and reminding them his game is even more complete than it has been at anytime of his career, a scary little memo when you are facing the greatest player the game has ever known.

When Federer returned to Grand Slam tennis at the Australian Open 2017, Djokovic was not such a big factor anymore, the Serbian having lost his No.1 ranking to Andy Murray and losing in the second round of the Australian Open. Still, Federer had a tough draw to his first slam since Wimbledon 2012, most notably Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal, all of whom had wins over him, some of them pretty big ones, and all capable of beating Federer if he was struggling physically or mentally. At times, Federer did both- he had a foot issue, and he fell 1-3 behind in the fifth set versus Rafa Nadal in the final- but a low bouncing fast surface and a great will to win meant Federer won his 18th slam title and with the dream of another slam realized, the prospect of  Federer getting back the No.1 ranking also became a serious talking point.

Federer made that talk somewhat weightier when he went on to win Indian Wells, Miami, skipped Roland Garros in another smart scheduling move, won Halle, and then took slam No. 19 at Wimbledon, amassing 4,500 points, and the No.1 ranking really came into view on the horizon.

However, there was one rival chasing him for that spot, Rafa Nadal, and with Nadal also picking up his career, and winning Monte Carlo, Madrid and Roland Garros, on top of reaching the Australian Open and the Miami final, the Spaniard was making his own challenge for No.1, and Federer was going to have to keep winning big if he wanted to get there first.

Unfortunately, the Swiss got injured in Montreal, and went on to contest the final, which he lost and in which he was visibly hampered and which with hindsight he might have been better off not playing. That decision to step on the court and compete, one reminding us how human Federer is, meant the Swiss pulled out of Cincy, where a confident and healthy Federer would have been expected to win the title, and the second seed at the US Open then lost in the quarters to del Potro, a tough draw as the Argentine is one of the few players on the tour who has the natural instincts to exploit the top players on an off day.

Federer bounced back though to keep himself in the race for No.1. winning Shanghai and Basel and reaching the ATP Finals semis, but those runs were not enough and the race to No.1 was sealed by Nadal in Paris when he reached the last eight and withdrew with injury. Nevertheless, with Nadal only winning 1280 points, and Federer 2100, from the US Open to the end of the season, Federer had caught up on some valuable points.

But while Federer may have been gaining valuable points, he also had some pretty big ones to defend, and with his 2017 ending on a flat note, and his not having defended a slam since the US Open 2008, the chances of Federer defending all 2000 AO points seemed, at the age of 36, a little, to those who had not learned just how normal rules of science and probability do not apply to the Swiss (his having two sets of twins and winning 19 slams not being enough to teach us), far-fetched.

Federer, though, getting used to being the game’s trend setter when it comes to what you can achieve at an age most former greats were long retired, strode to slam #RF20 in dominating fashion, and with Nadal going out in the quarters, and dropping 840 points after failing to defend his finalist ranking points (1200), and Federer defending his 2000 points, the gap was just 155 points.

With Nadal recovering and not competing in any tournaments after the AO, Roger Federer, who had always said one day he hoped to return to world No.1 and now seeing that day not so far away, saw his opportunity and accepted an invitation from tournament director Richard Krajicek to compete in Rotterdam, the ATP 500 event luring Federer with its fast indoor low bouncing conditions, and a tournament at which Federer had a 23-6 record at, had won two trophies at, and had never lost before the quarter-finals, the stage he would have to reach once again and advance from if he was to earn the 165 plus points needed to return to No.1.

The player most likely to stand between top seed Federer and No.1 was fifth seed Stan Wawrinka, who had reached the semis in Sofia the week before, but the Swiss lost in his opener to 259th ranked wildcard Tallon Griekspoor, and Federer, after beating Rubens Bemelmans and Philipp Kohlschreiber in rounds 1 and 2, faced home player Robin Haase at the pivotal last eight stage and came back from a set down to defeat the Dutchman 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 to reclaim the No.1 ranking and break 2 records in the process- the oldest man to win, aged 36, beating Andre Agassi’s 33, and the longest gap between No.1 stints, 4 years and 17 days, also beating Agassi.

Federer then went on to defeat lucky loser Andreas Seppi in straight sets and then defeated Grigor Dimitrov in the final 6-2, 6-2 to win his 97th career title.

That Rotterdam title means Federer’s lead over Nadal at the top of the rankings is currently 345 points, a small margin, and the ranking is likely to change hands between the two quite a few times between now and the end of the year.

In the coming weeks, Nadal is expected to play Acapulco and Federer may play Dubai, both ATP 500 events, with Nadal defending finalist points (300), and Federer last 16 points (45).  Federer then has 2000 points to defend in Indian Wells and Miami (Nadal has 690), and then comes the clay season, in which Nadal has 4680 points to defend and Federer has none. If Nadal is injured, that defence is unlikely, but if he gets back to full health, he could even exceed those points.

Federer, if he is No.1 going into the clay season, has nothing to lose and would be expected, considering his status as the game’s official leader, to enter at least Madrid and Roland Garros, two events at which he has achieved great success and which would greatly benefit from his presence. At those events, if Federer plays his game and sees what happens, he is likely to collect at least Madrid semis points and RG last sixteen, if not more, depending on the draw where he will be more vulnerable than in his preferred conditions.

After that, with Wimbledon, Cincy and the US Open coming up, Federer could, if healthy, be reasonably expected to hang on to the top ranking and even end the year as Year end No.1 for the sixth time, tieing and holding the record with Pete Sampras.

Who would be surprised if Federer went on to make that end of year No.1 record his own at some point, considering how he continues to defy expectations of what is possible for a player heading into his late 30s, and also taking into account the conditions that have enabled Federer to be the first man of this age to achieve success which used to be common among players in their prime of 24-28?

Greats who came up in the game from the late 90s through to the early and mid 2000s can have a second or third prime now, as Federer is doing, thanks to advances in nutrition, sports science, technology, and increases in prize money (Federer won A$4,000,000 at this year’s Australian Open compared to A$915, 960 when he first won it in 2004). Another factor keeping these second winds blowing is an increasingly demanding tour, media wise and travel wise with the tour expanding into Asia in the post US Open stretch, one played on slower surfaces, contributing to younger players failing to break through at an age the game’s next big things used to, 20-23, leaving older players, wealthier ones who can afford the very best in coaching teams and experts, and who have much greater experience in big pressure matches, to extend their careers into their mid 30s and meaning that the next big things stay that way until their mid to late 30s when they finally reach their first primes, and those that do will have to keep playing into their late 30s if they want to experiences the very different highs that come with a second.

Right now, the likes of Dimitrov, Zverev, Thiem and Goffin still seem a couple of years away from winning their first slams and with the Australian Open increasing the court speed, and grass favoring first class serves and attacking tennis played at its optimum, and enough big tournaments on favorable surfaces for the Swiss, there is no reason why, barring injury, Federer cannot hold on to the No.1 ranking, or trade it with Rafa Nadal until Tokyo 2020 when many people feel Federer may, if he wins Gold, hang up his racket.

Still, many people felt Federer should have retired in 2009 or 2013, and with the Swiss one of the reasons there is so much interest in tennis from the public and such great prize money on offer and seeming to love the game even more than he ever has, where better to celebrate that love for tennis than Paris in the Summer of 2024?

 

 

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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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