For quite some time, it seemed Roger Federer’s distinguished tennis career was fading; and that he’d never again lift a trophy at a Grand Slam tournament.
Entering this season, the 35-year-old father of four was coming off a six-month injury layoff. He had last won a major title in 2012, at age 30. Although he still played elegantly before his knee injury, and brilliantly at times, it appeared he could no longer survive two weeks against the world’s elite players.
Federer himself even doubted his chances, he said in a recent interview with the Miami Herald.
Then came the 2017 Australian Open.
Federer not only won his 18th major, he beat four top-10 players to do it and knocked off longtime rival Rafael Nadal in an epic five-set final during which he displayed age-defying brilliance.
With the victory, Federer became the oldest man to win a major since Ken Rosewall won the 1972 Australian Open at 37. Andre Agassi was 32 when he won his last Grand Slam. Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors were 31.
Federer’s renaissance continued last week at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., where he was a favorite heading into Saturday’s semifinals. As the Miami Open gets started Tuesday in Key Biscayne, the Swiss maestro is once again in the thick of the conversation, along with a resurgent Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who has struggled of late. Murray pulled out of the tournament Saturday with an elbow injury, and Djokovic also might not be able to play.
“I never thought winning this Australian Open was a possibility,” Federer told the Herald. “So, that’s maybe why I played as free as I did, until the very end. The joy was as big as you saw. It was just an incredible feeling. I’m still so happy today talking about it, still on Cloud 9.”
The trophy meant so much to him that he named it Norman (short for its full name Norman Brookes Challenge Cup), took it with him to restaurants back in Switzerland, and even took it on a chairlift to the top of the Swiss Alps to pose for photos with it – an idea he got when Swiss sailor Ernesto Bertarelli won the Americas Cup and vowed to take the trophy to the top of the Matterhorn.
“I told myself going into the Australian Open that quarters would be absolutely amazing, because that meant I probably had to beat one or two Top 10 players on the way, which I thought was going to be extremely hard to do. Playing in the Australian Open at all was going to be a success, even if it meant losing in the first round. I would have been ok with that. It would have meant I was healthy again.”
Instead, he kick-started his career, and took some pressure off his shoulders.
“I feel young and fresh. I am taking chances on the court, and hope that risks pay off. I hope I never lose that because that’s how I came on tour playing. Definitely takes some pressure away from this year. I’m not running after anything. Whatever happens, it’s been an incredibly good year for me already so hopefully I can play with less pressure, more freedom.”
ESPN analysts Chris Evert and Brad Gilbert said they were as surprised as anyone to see Federer win in Australia.
“He got better every match,” Gilbert said. “It started with the first couple of matches, and then amazingly he pulled a rabbit out of his hat, and I was sitting courtside, from 3-1 down in the fifth set, I think that was the best five games of his entire career, and I think it was the most important win of his career. It was just so great for the men’s game to have that final.”
Gilbert said there’s no reason to think Federer won’t do it again.
“He’s a young 35,” Gilbert said. “Look at Tom Brady is 39. I mean, I think the one thing that we’re seeing is that athletes are figuring out what they can do in their training and technology and diet and they’re pushing the envelope. I think that obviously the story lines now are massively changed for 2017 because, obviously, Murray and Djoker haven’t played like they’ve done, and Fed fans and Rafa fans are starting to get excited that their guys — who knows, maybe they’ll push the envelope back to the top spot.”
Federer has not won on Key Biscayne since 2006, and pulled out at the last minute with a stomach flu last year, so he is eager to make better memories this time. His wife and two sets of twins will be with him – the kids love the beach, he said.
“I was excited for Miami last year, was going to test my knee, and then I got there and I got a stomach bug,” he said. “All four kids were sick back home, I probably carried it over to Miami. I was sitting there in the morning of my first match, went to warmups and I felt so bad. I said, `I didn’t come all this way to play sick and maybe hurt.’ The idea was to test the knee, not fight through sickness. It was warm and I very quickly took decision the not to play, It hurt, but it makes me even more excited to play this year.”
Questions of retirement have been squashed for now. Federer is back, and he’s not planning to quit anytime soon.
“There are a lot of stories still to be written this year,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
2017 Miami Open
When: Tuesday-April 2.
Where: Tennis Center of Crandon Park, Key Biscayne.