When a legendary athlete who has set the bar unfathomably high for the rest of his sport looks pedestrian, it is easy for observers to freak out. While plenty of Roger Federer fans took Sunday’s Cincinnati final in stride, some surely gulped inwardly and got the sneaking suspicion that the window of opportunity might be closing quickly for the Swiss in his bid to win more significant titles.
Novak Djokovic made Federer look ordinary in a routine straight-set victory in Ohio. Djokovic’s quality defined the match. Djokovic planted his flag on defense, established control of the whole court, and punished Federer from start to finish whenever Federer couldn’t hit an unreturnable serve or win the point in four strokes or fewer. Djokovic’s defense squeezed Federer, who pressed, and whose groundstrokes had not been consistent enough over the course of the full week to give him the confidence needed to stay with Nole from the baseline. The result was predictable as soon as Djokovic finally broke Federer’s serve in the first set — finally not in relationship to Federer’s streak of 100 straight service holds in Cincinnati (dating back to 2014), but to something else. I use the word “finally” in the sense that Djokovic hadn’t broken Federer’s serve in the 2015 Cincinnati final or their 2012 Cincinnati final. The last time Djokovic had broken
Federer in Cincinnati was in game two of the second set of the 2009 final.
The 2009 final involved 10 Federer service games. The 2012 final involved 9 Federer service games, the 2015 final 11, for a total of 30. Federer then held in the first three games on Sunday in 2018, meaning that in three Cincinnati finals plus the first half of Sunday’s opening set, Djokovic — quite possibly the best returner in men’s tennis history — had broken Federer’s serve just once in 33 service games.
As soon as Djokovic put his foot down in the seventh game of the first set — Federer’s fourth service game of the match — the Swiss’s lack of a strong return game or durable groundstrokes made the match feel over. When Djokovic double faulted to give Federer a break lead early in the second, there was a brief sense that the flow of the match could change. Yet, a lot like the 2009 final in which Djokovic lost the first set and got a *2-0 lead in the second stanza, Federer couldn’t hold his break very long on Sunday, nine years later. Djokovic reasserted himself, confirming the notion that his first-set surge felt like a decisive moment in the match. Nole’s early lapse at the start of the second set was more aberration than hinge point.
As everyone knows, this was the first Fedole match since the 2016 Australian Open semifinals. That night in Melbourne, Djokovic was simply unplayable in the first two sets. The version of Djokovic seen on Sunday was not as overwhelming as the January 2016 iteration, if only because NO version of Djokovic was as dominant as that one in Australia. Yet, this midsummer form of Djokovic, in August of 2018, was still very locked in. Federer had to have a vintage serving day to have a realistic chance. Roger didn’t come particularly close to that needed standard. He got kicked around.
It is easy to regard this as a shattering, devastating moment if you’re a Federer fan. If the ATP Tour is now recalling early 2016 or late 2015, when Djokovic would steal Federer’s thunder in a lot of big-tournament finals, it is a natural reaction for Fed fans to be depressed. Yet, when seen in a fuller perspective, there is very little for Federer himself to be discouraged about. What Federer fans need to realize is not that the ground has shifted (though in a very real sense it has, with Djokovic back on top of the mountain). The bigger epiphany is how little the earth has moved in relationship to Federer himself.
Djokovic has drastically altered the balance of power on tour within the course of the 2018 season, going from hopeless wanderer in late March in Miami to familiar tour juggernaut at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati. Federer, though, has been conspicuously consistent in so many ways and on so many levels. Far from seeing this loss as an alarming moment or a time to speculate if a nosedive is imminent, this is precisely an occasion in which Federer’s ridiculously relentless consistency should be marveled at.
Before I wrote at either Patreon (my personal, independent blog site) or here at Tennis With An Accent, I had written at multiple media companies from 2014 through the early summer of 2017. Some of you followed my work at those outlets, but for those who didn’t yet know me or didn’t yet follow my work at the time, let me briefly share my condensed version of how I viewed Roger.
Very simply, I said in those years — particularly after the 2015 losses to Djokovic in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals — that Federer, in his mid-30s, remained a top-three men’s tennis player who simply wasn’t quite as good as Djokovic. Federer was exceeding so many expectations of what people thought he would achieve at age 33 and 34, especially in light of his annus horribilis in 2013, when a lot of people (many who considered themselves Federer fans) thought he should retire to preserve his legacy and reputation. Losing those big-event finals to Djokovic stung, but the fact that Federer was MAKING those finals was very special and impressive.
I noted the steady, forward-moving consistency of Federer’s career, a linear journey in which the Swiss kept himself in the top three, kept giving himself chances at important tournaments — as he has always been fond of saying — and kept maintaining a high standard relative to his age and level of longevity in tennis. I said that as long as Federer remained a semifinal or final-level player at the top tier of the ATP Tour, he just needed a bit of good fortune to win another major and add to his legend.
It wasn’t good luck that Federer himself got injured, but Federer — like Djokovic and Nadal — knows how to turn the bad aspects of a negative development into helpful and restorative details. He turned his injury rehabilitation period in the latter half of 2016 into a rest period which enabled him to be both physically and mentally fresh for the 2017 Australian Open. Federer got anything but an easy draw — the path through the bracket was as tough as he could have hoped for, save for a breather against Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals after the older Zverev brother knocked off World No. 1 Andy Murray. Yet, within that cutthroat draw, Federer had the legs and the mental reset he needed to make his way to the finals and, once there, play with a new degree of inner freedom against Nadal, his old nemesis.
We can debate this until the end of recorded time: What if Federer never took several months off? Would he have done as well as he did at the 2017 Australian Open? We will never be able to know. I know I will go to my grave convinced that stepping away from the tour gave Federer the refreshment he needed to turn the page in his rivalry with Nadal. He turned an injury into a gateway for one of the foremost highlights of his career, quite possibly the moment he will cherish more than the 2009 Roland Garros title when he hangs up the sneakers and racquets.
So much about the 2017 Australian Open was anything BUT lucky for Federer, but the rest break was an unexpected benefit. What also helped Federer was that Djokovic, injured and not in form, bowed out early. The two never crossed paths. A final detail which did matter: The combination of Nadal playing a five-hour semifinal against Grigor Dimitrov plus Federer getting two days off due to playing the Thursday men’s semifinal in Melbourne (Rafa played Friday) enabled Fed to go the distance in the final. Nadal surely would have had more verve and vigor had he played in the Thursday semifinal, but the bigger point of emphasis is that Federer — who took a medical timeout during his highly physical semifinal against Stan Wawrinka — had more time to recover. Had Federer played in the Friday semifinal and not the Thursday semi, he probably would have been toast against a fresher Nadal.
Federer got a little bit lucky, but he was good enough at that Australian Open to put himself in position to benefit from that luck. In a much larger context, Federer was skilled enough, competent enough, hungry enough, and resilient enough to be what he has been throughout this decade — save for that dark patch at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2013: one of the three best male tennis players on the planet. 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, now 2018: Federer has been a top-three player in all those years. Whether age 28 at the start of this calendar decade or age 37 as he is now, Federer is still there. He is simply always there. He is that steady line which just keeps moving forward with uncommon consistency.
At the 2017 Australian Open, and then later that year at Wimbledon — followed by this past January at Melbourne Park — Federer was rewarded for that mind-blowing consistency at the top of men’s tennis. That was the payoff in exchange for losing Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals to Djokovic, tournaments in which Federer played at a very high level. Federer was bitterly unlucky to play great six-match tournaments and then encounter a better player in the final. Many men Federer had beaten in his prime — Andy Roddick at Wimbledon comes to mind — knew the exquisite pain of playing an A-grade tournament and still not lifting the championship trophy because that one damn guy from Switzerland stood in the way. In 2014 and 2015, Federer stepped in Roddick’s shoes while Djokovic became the big daddy.
2017 as a whole, and 2018 at the Australian Open, paid Federer back with confluences of circumstances which rewarded Roger’s uncanny ability to keep humming along on that straight and smooth highway as a top-three player in the world. As soon as Djokovic fell from the picture, Federer was there to capitalize.
This forms the proper background and subtext in which to appreciate Sunday’s Cincinnati final: This was not regression on the part of Federer — not in any meaningful sense. First of all, Federer didn’t play worse than he did against David Goffin on Saturday, or in set one of Friday’s quarterfinal against Wawrinka. Federer’s groundstrokes and return game weren’t particularly crisp in those situations. Sunday merely failed to IMPROVE the equation — it didn’t represent a noticeable DECLINE in quality. His level was never that high to begin with, which makes it hard to regress on a large scale.
This also was not regression for Federer in a broader sense: He has made 6 finals in 8 tournaments played this year. At so many tournaments in 2017 and 2018, Federer has made finals by playing B- or B-plus tennis. 2017 Montreal was an example. 2017 Shanghai was an example. 2017 Miami was an example in relationship to the middle rounds of that tournament, though not to the spectacular Miami semifinal against Nick Kyrgios, the best three-set men’s match anywhere on the ATP Tour in 2017. Federer was scratchy in Basel last year before finding his way to the final in that tournament. In 2018, the same song has been playing. Federer was elite as a junkyard-dog fighter in Indian Wells this past March, rarely looking elegant but steering through landmines en route to a final. He did not play unworldly tennis when he defended his Australian Open crown, but he owned the key moments such as the break point at the start of the fifth set against Marin Cilic.
Halle and Cincinnati merely continued in 2018 what Federer has been doing for most of the past 1.5 years: making finals on tour without his best fastball. The consistency with which Federer has reached the finals of tournaments is matched only by the consistency with which he has played a notch below his absolute best self, his JesusFed or “Federer’s Funhouse” God-Mode settings.
In Australia and Indian Wells in 2017, God-Mode Federer entered the building. Even though Federer struggled in the middle rounds of Miami in 2017, he was his best self in the semis and the final against Kyrgios and Nadal. Other than those occasions, however, Federer has been winning without needing to be overwhelming. Some will see that as a criticism or perhaps a backhanded compliment, and if you do, I can’t prevent you from feeling that way. I can, however, try to emphasize and impress upon you the idea that I am giving Federer a lavish form of praise.
Stop and think: How ridiculously impressive is it that a 35, 36, and now 37-year-old tennis player keeps reaching a very high bar — finals made in a MAJORITY of his tournament appearances in a tennis season — despite the withering toll modern tennis takes on the human body, especially in an era when the tour is disproportionately weighted toward hardcourts, the surface which punishes the body more than any other? Even with Federer not playing clay, his fat stack of hardcourt finals is impossible to ignore.
This is not normal. This is not to be taken for granted. This is not what regression looks like.
Roger Federer is not declining — not in the way he plays tennis. His 2017 results were better than 2018, and in the early months of 2017, it is true that he attained a higher level than the one he currently possesses. Yet, since July of 2017, it can very reasonably be said that Federer has been playing at or close to the same level — very solid, occasionally spectacular, hardly ever poor — and maintaining that standard at nearly every tournament. Whereas so many WTA stars are way up in one tournament and then way down the next (Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, among others), Federer is that steady, reliable presence one can still count on, two weeks after his 37th birthday. Only once has Federer failed to play into the quarterfinals of a tournament this year (Miami). Only twice has he failed to make a final. Even if he didn’t play clay, it’s not as though this is a sample of two or three tournaments; it’s a sample of eight tournaments on two surfaces over the course of five months of playing activity. That’s not a drop in the bucket.
The bottom line: Federer isn’t regressing — not in the quality of his tennis. The main thing which was different about Sunday’s Cincinnati final is that Novak Djokovic improved when compared to previous Cincy finals against Fed, and also when compared to the early months of the 2018 season, when he was lost and had not yet realized that he needed Marian Vajda back in his life.
Roger Federer isn’t going anywhere. Moreover, he hasn’t gone anywhere. He has been a top-3 player for an insanely long period of time. He still owns that elevated status. He is still making finals. He is still beating younger foes even when he is not playing at his best. Federer is still doing the kinds of things which should elicit awe and amazement.
Djokovic beating him in a final once again means that Federer is No. 2 in a tournament. It’s not as good as being No. 1, but at age 37, being a consistent No. 2 at the most important tennis tournaments in the world is an extraordinary feat of human engineering and Swiss precision.
The steadiness of Federer, like a Swiss watch, just keeps on ticking. As was the case in 2013, and as has been the case for so much of this decade, rumors of a Federer decline have been greatly exaggerated. Cincinnati did nothing to change that notion; on the contrary, this latest ATP Masters final only affirmed it.