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In 2016, stopped for the first time by a knee operation, his nose in the grass of Wimbledon, he had taken six months to recharge the batteries and make further progress in reverse. Result: a comeback as thunderous as it was unexpected and sublime at the 2017 Australian Open. a canonical age where most athletes have bowed out. And this thanks to the advice of an Ivan Ljubicic – barely older than him and who became his coach – whom he had faced on the courts for a long time before. This is to say if he has succeeded in extending his “lifespan” at the highest level.
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Technique, physique and relaxation: the secrets of longevity
So what was his secret? From 2004 and his accession to world number one, Federer had put all the ingredients in place with his physical trainer Pierre Paganini in order to stay on top as long as possible. To do this, he had three major assets: a little high-precision footwork, an almost perfect racket technique in hand and a relaxation that avoided any superfluous effort.
When he had the margin – and this happened to him quite often -, he therefore contrived to save as much energy as possible by stunning his opponents. We no longer count the number of games folded in three dry sets and 1h30 in Grand Slam, two sets and less than an hour everywhere else. It was the famous “FedExpress”, the one whose speed of movement, sequence between points and early ball taking amazed. At the time of the reign of power, ever larger sizes and percentage tennis, the game of the Swiss maestro was inevitably something anachronistic.
A classicism in homage to past champions
Through the purity of his strikes, the excellence of his placement and adjustments, the brilliance of his touch, he seemed to pay homage to the champions of the past. And what better setting to demonstrate this than Center Court at Wimbledon? He had made it his garden and we now remember with a certain nostalgia his “vintage” entries in a blazer and white pants and/or a sweater. A nod to the tradition and nobility of his sport.
Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2007.
His playing with a thousand facets constituted a kind of synthesis of all that had been done before. A classicism with formidable efficiency: from his Ken Rosewall backhand passing to his forehand slice defense like a squash player – a move now democratized – his palette was unrivaled and delighted the spectators . Some anthology sequences commented on by our colleagues from the BBC still resonate to this day in our ears as the memories rise. Small anthology:
- In the final in 2012 against Andy Murray, on a fake drop that turns into a winning forehand slice: “Pretty old-fashioned shot, Fred Perry would have liked it“, had exclaimed the commentator. Which gives roughly in French: “It’s a shot from another era, Fred Perry (winner at Wimbledon in 1934, 1935, 1936, Ed) wouldn’t have denied him.”
- During the same match, on a drop shot hit while stepping back to escape the ball, Tim Henman could not hold back a “This is delicious” which does without translation.
- In the semi-final in 2017 against Tomas Berdych, invited to comment on the future direction of Federer’s services, Tim Henman, again him, and Boris Becker are wrong each time, mystified by the illegible ball throw of the Swiss. There follow the bursts of laughter of ex-champions subjugated by the mastery deployed before their eyes.
Anachronistic, Federer was therefore above all by his tennis, of a prodigious elegance and which he knew how to adapt to the times: from server-volleyball assumed against Pete Sampras in 2001 to attacker from baseline capable of holding the dragee high to Novak Djokovic for more than five hours 18 years later. But he was also out of time in his relationship to others and to the media.
Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2019
Credit: Getty Images
As respected by Laver as by Alcaraz: a bridge between generations
His status gave him a special aura. Many have thus said that the silence was when he entered the locker room. The Swiss naturally commanded respect like all the great champions who preceded him, from Rod Laver to Andre Agassi, via Björn Borg and John McEnroe. But he didn’t use it to create a character. Willing to lodge, accessible for young wolves in search of advice, he never felt special while being aware of what he represented. As such, his press conferences were often a delight for journalists: listening, he gave many enlightening details on the game and did not hesitate to develop.
This volubility showed a deep love for his sport and its history. A quality increasingly rare these days among athletes who too often tend to lose interest in what happened before them. From this point of view, Federer embodied a relay between generations and it is also for this reason – beyond assumed marketing objectives – that he created the Laver Cup in homage to Rod Laver and the legends who made them dream. A special bond has developed between the Swiss and the Australian over the years, which also helps to give ‘Rodgeur’ a certain authority on the circuit and beyond.
We no longer count the players of the following generations who were inspired by him. Carlos Alcaraz, who paid him a strong tribute to which he responded, is also the last blatant example. Out of time and universal, Federer will have spoken to everyone. Now remains a legacy to cultivate.
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