Can Roger Federer Reclaim His Wimbledon Fortress?


Can Roger Federer Reclaim His Wimbledon Fortress?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Two of tennis’ biggest superstars presented two very different moods at their press interactions just a day before Wimbledon, one the most hallowed Grand Slams of the year, began. One was edgy, eyes squinting as the question was being asked, almost waiting to snap if it wasn’t something he liked. There were a few smiles, but Rafael Nadal looked like someone who isn’t quite at home. The other was relaxed, comfortable, the winner’s jacket from one of many previous triumphs thrown casually over a tee. Despite a sense of nervous energy, he looked like he was back to where he belonged. And that’s how Roger Federer has always felt at Wimbledon. It is his empire, and though it might be crumbling, he is still the emperor.

Nadal’s displeasure might have stemmed from how Federer was seeded higher than him at the tournament, despite being lower placed in the ATP World Rankings. This meant Nadal would potentially have to face overwhelming odds by having to face Nick Krygios (the unpredictable Aussie), Denis Shapovalov (the giant-slayer who beat Novak Djokovic last week), Marin Cilic (who beat him days ago in an exhibition game), Dominic Thiem (another Djokovic-beater), and Federer himself if he wants a shot at the final, where he might have the unenviable task of taking on Djokovic, the reigning champion. The mental picture of having to go through these giants from the very first round does seem a little daunting; no wonder Nadal feels frustrated. 

Rewind to some months ago. The clay court season was on and there was no other place Nadal would have rather been. Though he had skipped a few tournaments at the start of the year because of injuries, Nadal was loyal to the clay courts. He had a decent run, reaching a few semi-finals before winning his first tournament of the year in Rome. That confidence shone through at the Roland Garros where he lifted a jaw-dropping 12th French Open title. That is Rafa on clay. Not only does he seem to be a completely different player on this surface, he has also grown immensely since this bond was forged in 2005, when he won this Slam for the first time. 

I think what separates the affinity Nadal has to the French Open from Federer’s will over Wimbledon, is the sheer longevity of it all. The general doggedness of his game has lent itself to many injuries over the years, yet he has never relinquished his hold over the clay courts. He has always made a choice to even skip other Grand Slam events, but never the French Open. It may have been a choice he had to make owing to the way the game ravages his body, shrewdness in planning, or just the passion he reserves for the clay courts on which he grew up playing tennis.

Federer wears his heart on his sleeve and it is his vulnerability that has his fans back him to the hilt

Federer has not enjoyed that kind of reign over the courts at All England Club over the years. He’s only won eight titles here, the last one coming after a heart-wrenching drought of over four years. He started skipping certain seasons – particularly the clay court ones – during the last few years, and in 2017 he finally claimed the Wimbledon title he had won last in 2012. Nadal inarguably planned his reign over Roland Garros much better than Federer did to ensure that his grasp on Wimbledon was ironclad. And maybe you learn from your biggest nemesis after all, as Federer in some way alluded to in a press conference recently saying, “I think we definitely became better because of one another.”

When you think of fortresses, you’d imagine them to be impenetrable. At the French Open, Nadal has been able to achieve that. You couldn’t say that with the same authority for Federer and Wimbledon. I still remember the year the floodgates were flung open. It was 2008 and I was working at a sports desk buzzing about this very showdown. And what a Wimbledon final showdown it was. Arguably one of the best encounters on any surface across Grand Slams in the last decade. It was arduous, highly skilled, and seemingly never-ending, with innumerable rain interruptions testing the patience and will of fans that were hooked onto these two generation-defining talents. After hours of breath-taking tennis between two warriors, Rafael Nadal finally broke his jinx on grass. The images of the victorious Spaniard climbing over the stands after the win are etched in my memory forever. The fortress had been breached, and that gave hope to many others who followed in their quest to claim Wimbledon thereafter. 

Federer wears his heart on his sleeve and it is his vulnerability that has his fans back him to the hilt. So he stands today at a point in time where there are more questions to answer than ask of his opponent. There are many facets of the game players can develop – stamina, tactics, diligence, sometimes even talent. The one thing that just cannot be learnt or cultivated is class. You are either born with it, or you never had it at all. Class separates the greats from the legends. Let’s face it: At 37, Federer is clearly not one of the youngest. Age is catching up and this is the last phase of his long and illustrious career. From having set the trend and blazed a trail for the rest to follow, Federer has to now preserve all that he has built. Can class be the answer yet again? With upsets already knocking on the doors of some of the top seeds at the hallowed turf, Federer has to make sure the grass is always greener on his side. At least, that’s what his fans always believed.