|Sports on Earth|
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not by now, at least. Here was Richard Gasquet, 27 years old and in his athletic prime, ranked in the ATP Tour's top 10, a former teen prodigy once tabbed as a future great. Across the net was Roger Federer, long considered an all-time great, probably the best ever, but also 32, long in the tooth by tennis standards and coming off a 2013 season that prompted (yet another) round of career obituaries.
The old guy never had a chance.
Correction: The old-looking guy never had a chance. That would be Gasquet. Appearing closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he fell to Federer 6-1, 6-2 in the fourth round of the Sony Open Tennis tournament, two steps slow and utterly flummoxed, at one point stepping into a second serve return and framing a pop-up into the stands. When I saw Gasquet in a hotel elevator the night before the match -- total coincidence -- he brought to mind a middle-aged touring musician: thinning hair, sun-weathered skin, crow's feet nesting around weary eyes. Didn't look a day under 40. Federer, by contrast, mostly resembled Federer: not as balletic as his 25-year-old self, but still graceful and vibrant, moving with ease and hitting with power, downright spry for a man who has 4-year-old twin daughters, is reportedly expecting another set this year and played his first pro match in Miami during the Clinton administration.
Does anyone else realize how incredible this is?
Let's get something out of the way: Federer isn't the best player in the world anymore. Hasn't been for years. He can't solve Rafael Nadal -- and won't, because his pretty-but-fragile one-handed backhand doesn't hold up against Nadal's buggy-whip topspin forehands of doom. He remains competitive against cyborg-fit Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but will never again outclass either. Federer is going to have more and more days where he loses to the likes of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka and even Sergiy Stakhovsky, and more and more days where he looks aggressively mediocre doing so.
If he ever wins another major, it's probably going to take a favorable draw and injury luck, both for Federer and his potential opponents. (When a 32-year-old Andre Agassi captured the 2003 Australian Open to become the oldest Slam winner in the modern era, he didn't face a single opponent ranked in the top 10). Peak Roger -- the man who won eight of 10 majors between 2005 and 2007, inspiring the late David Foster Wallace to wax metaphysical about "a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light" -- is long gone.
And that's totally okay.
Every piece written about Federer's End - and there have been so, so, so many in the last two years alone, coming from every continent save Antarctica -- carries a whiff of elegy. They're ghost stories, really, and the apparition haunting every anguished word is the player that made Foster Wallace gush. Like most tennis fans, I have my own favorite Federer Moment: the 2003 Wimbledon semifinal, Federer overwhelming Andy Roddick, about to capture his first major title, poised to deliver tennis from the power baseline tedium of serve, forehand, rinse, repeat. (I was at Centre Court for that match; I will never forget the astonished looks on the faces of the assembled tennis writers. Federer hadn't even won the tournament yet, but his virtuosity that day was so unbelievable, so undeniable that it didn't seem entirely crazy to think holy s--t, this guy going to end up as the best player ever.)
Only here's the thing: Roddick retired last year, spent and satisfied after a long, successful career. Most of Federer's age-group peers -- Marat Safin, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tommy Robredo, James Blake, Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian and the like -- are either out of tennis or greatly diminished. Meanwhile, Federer is still playing. More to the point, he's still kicking butt. In fact, he's kicking butt at a rate and in a manner that's largely unprecedented for a men's tennis player his age, which means that the best and most appropriate way to both measure and appreciate him is not by comparing Current Roger to Peak Roger, but rather by comparing Current Roger to Every Other 30-Something Tennis Champ Who Tried to Hold On.
Go back in time. Way back. Ken Rosewall won four majors after turning 30. Three of those came after age 35. Both feats are remarkable, particularly the latter. In all likelihood, they will never be duplicated, let alone surpassed. Why? Rosewall played during the wooden racket era. The game was slower, less athletic; the talent pool smaller, more shallow; the year-round grind of the tour less physically punishing and mentally draining. As such, comparing him to Federer makes little historical sense. Both men played tennis, but the tennis they played was wholly different. Ditto for Federer versus other old school, 30-and-up major winners Rod Laver (four titles), Arthur Ashe (one title) and Andres Gimeno (one title).
In the modern era of tennis -- say, 1980 until now -- six men have won at least one major title following their 30th birthday, a group that includes Federer. A quick look at the other five:
Peter Korda: Won the 1998 Australian Open just nine days after turning 30, defeating the non-immortal Marcelo Rios in the final. Tested positive for the steroid nandrolone at Wimbledon that year and retired in 1999.
Andres Gomez: Then-30-year-old reached his only career Grand Slam final -- and won his only major -- at Roland Garros in 1990, when he defeated a 19-year-old Andre Agassi. Won his last ATP singles title the next year and retired in 1995.
Jimmy Connors: Won the 1982 and 1983 US Open at ages 30 and 31, respectively; ended the 1987 season ranked No. 4 at age 35; made a memorable run to the 1991 US Open semifinals at age 39, defeating Aaron Krickstein in a five-set fourth round match that remains an Open rain delay broadcast staple.
Pete Sampras: Won his 14th and final major at the 2002 US Open at age 31. Suffering from back pain and burnout, he never played on the Tour again and formally retired the next year.
Andre Agassi: Won the 2003 Australian Open at age 33 and was briefly ranked No. 1 that year, becoming the oldest top-ranked player in Tour history. Reached two more major semifinals and the final of the 2005 US Open -- where he lost to Federer -- before retiring in 2006.
How does Federer measure up? Favorably. He was a month shy of 31 when he won his most recent major, Wimbledon in 2012, which puts him in the company of Gomez, Korda, Sampras and Connors, and a bit behind Agassi's late-career renaissance. By age 32, only Connors and Agassi remained top players -- and given Federer's unsurpassed consistency, he has an excellent chance to surpass both men in terms of advancing age accomplishment.
Since his 30th birthday -- the traditional performance cliff for men's players -- Federer has reached six major semifinals or finals. In 2013, he had his worst season in a decade, hampered by a balky back and a visible lack of confidence... and still went 45-17, lost to Murray in the Australian Open semifinals and finished the year ranked No. 6, results that most players a decade younger would be overjoyed to achieve. Armed with a larger, more powerful modern racket and a new coach in six-time major champion Stefan Edberg, Federer has enjoyed a mini-resurgence this year: an ATP-leading 19 match victories this season, with a title in Dubai and losses in the Australian Open semifinal (to Nadal) and the Indian Wells final (to Djokovic).
Impressively, Federer beat Djokovic in Dubai, and nearly beat him again in Indian Wells. He defeated Tsonga and Murray at the Australian Open. On Wednesday night, he lost to up-and-coming Kei Nishikori -- who was 13 years old when Federer won his first Grand Slam -- in the Sony Open Tennis quarterfinals, missing the opportunity for a Friday semifinal meeting with Djokovic.
Nevertheless, Djokovic has been impressed with Federer's recent play. "Doesn't matter how old he is," he said of Federer last week. "It's just a number. As he was saying, he feels good on the court. He's definitely one of the best players in the world now."
Watching Federer dismiss Gasquet, that much seemed obvious. Ripping backhand winners down the line, spinning serves out wide and forehands at geometry-defying angles, he resembled nothing so much as the Tim Duncan of tennis: different with age but hardly diminished, not as dominant but still competitive, less remarkable for what he once was than for what he continues to be.
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