Roger Federer must have wrapped the moment he fell in love with tennis in a fine piece of Vicuna fabric. How else could you explain the prolific champion’s imperishable affinity for the sport? Even after pursuing his puritanical quest for over 15 years, the elegant Swiss is still in as much thrall of tennis as a wonderstruck ball kid from a quiet Basel suburb might be. The 102nd Australian Open will provide another opportunity for Federer to test his new sails and make an eloquent expression of love.
Watching him play and listening in on his thoughts is an education in sport that is at once both enlightening and fascinating. Some have wondered aloud about the motivations of the great man and desire to linger on when they believe he is past his best. But it is amply clear that not many have the refined appreciation or the soulful bond that the great Swiss enjoys with the game of tennis.
At 32, it is inspiring just to savour his increasing willingness to adapt and relearn his game to suit the growing demands from a newer generation of stars that have snatched the mantle from him. Immediately after Wimbledon, where he suffered an uncharacteristically early exit, Federer even tried a new larger frame and signed up for smaller events in order to test himself.
The ploy did not work though and the Swiss never really recovered form as he stumbled to another early defeat at the US Open. Despite not making the finals of even a single major, Federer was able to set aside the disappointment and enjoy a decent run towards the end of the season. After a semi-final showing at the ATP World Tour Finals, Federer shunned the temptation for a lucrative bout of exhibition matches.
The genius knew there was work to be done and wasted barely any time before returning to the grind. A brief two week holiday later, Federer swung right into action to begin preparations for the current season. Having relieved Paul Annacone from his team through an amicable parting earlier last year, Federer sought counsel from his childhood hero Stefan Edberg.
The manner in which Federer speaks of his interactions with the legends of the game is most educating. There is a spark in his eye and gravity in the voice every time he finds an opportunity to share the stage with the legends of the game. Whether it is Pete Sampras at Wimbledon or Rod Laver at the Australian Open, Federer has always felt deeply moved and honoured by their presence and company.
Federer believes that he can draw on both inspiration and insight, in equal measure, as he begins to work with Edberg this week. Laver might be too ripe at 75, but the Swiss felt like it was a “dream come true,” to just exchange a few rallies with the great man during a recent fundraiser. It is these simple treasures that keep Federer firmly in the mix at these advanced stages of his illustrious career.
The fact that Federer felt excited about working with Edberg underlined his child like enthusiasm for the sport. And his desire to learn a few new tricks from the erstwhile maestro of serve and volley tennis is a testament of Federer’s willingness to adapt his game in the quest for continued success. Roger has even gone to the extent of stating that even the worst case scenario was just as palatable. If it meant just a few good dinners with a childhood hero, the world No.6 felt it might be time well spent with a man he so clearly admires.
The Swiss maestro’s unparalleled run of consistency has long been disrupted, first by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and then by lesser players. But then his hunger for grand slam titles has barely been affected. The 32 year old has worked extra hard during the off season to figure his game with a larger frame and reinvent a few methods that could help revive his flagging fortunes.
As he launches yet another grand slam campaign, he shall establish a new mark. His 57th consecutive appearance at a major tournament will help him sail past Wayne Ferreira’s mark of 56. While the sheer longevity of his career has been remarkable, Federer seems to be able to look beyond numbers.
During his recent interactions with the media, the Swiss has made it amply clear that his game with the new racket is a work in progress. Federer has been rather candid in admitting that he was still a couple of months away from returning to his best or thereabouts. Meanwhile, his delight at just being able to continue competing on the tour is plain for everyone to see.
The back that troubled him sporadically last year seems to have healed, helping him survive a tough regimen through late November and much of December in the moderately warm conditions in Dubai. The belief that some more good things are around the bend comes from a fine appreciation of the game he plays. Federer cherishes the opportunity to still turn up at events and the crowd seem to reciprocate with equal warmth.
The presence of the great man helped create an attendance record at Brisbane earlier this month, underlining his mythical ability to charm audiences. It is an affair that does not suffer from strain, despite his advancing age. If anything, Federer’s struggle to regain some of his past glory has endeared him to the fans even more. And he is feeding the romance by remaining deeply in love with the game, content with the many pains and pleasures of constructing a career in the restless world of professional tennis.
And that, more than the fact that he is chasing a fifth crown in Melbourne and an 18th overall, will drive Federer’s wagon to the spectacular venue of the Australian Open.Published 13 Jan 2014, 11:01 IST