There has never been a champion in tennis like Roger Federer. A decade ago, his exploits kicked aside a stale era of tennis, and he spawned new rivalries with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Federer brought more cachet and athleticism to tennis as it spread through global technology and media. He banished the stereotype that some fans saw in the sport—that it was an exclusive club sport played by privileged youth and old men in tight white shorts and wooden rackets.
The Swiss star played with classic intelligence and new imagination, which is why every tennis fan watches each twilight moment of his career with fascination. Win or lose, he is always an essential story. Even at 32 years old, he is still a powerful force who can alter the landscape with a week or two of great tennis.
After all, if white-bearded King Arthur suddenly emerged through the fog-enshrouded battlefield with Excalibur, he would find supporters and believers ready to die for him. Whether he battles for victory or suffers injuries or defeat, Federer is still a legendary player with the talent to win big matches.
He will be the biggest X-factor for championship tennis in 2014.
Tennis in 2013
In 2013, Nadal and Djokovic soared beyond the rest of the ATP tour. Besides Andy Murray’s glorious intrusion at Wimbledon, no other player altered the tennis landscape more than them.
There were nice stories like Stanislas Wawrinka’s warrior match at the Australian Open. David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga teased as contenders at the French Open. And Juan Martin del Potro poured out a gut-wrenching effort in the Wimbledon semifinals.
But ultimately these players tasted glory only through defeat. They earned their accolades by losing with style and didn't experience the storybook endings that would have changed tennis.
And nothing suggests that Tomas Berdych or Richard Gasquet is going to hold a big Grand Slam trophy and talk to post-tournament spectators about belief and perseverance. The chances of that are slim, and thinking otherwise is an exercise in wishful thinking, not reality.
But Federer can change the currents of the Nadal-Djokovic-Murray theme that most tennis fans believe will be the tenor for 2014.
Friend to Nadal, Enemy to Djokovic
Nadal fans might want to root for a healthy, more youthful Federer. This could be the key to extending the Spanish player’s reign at No. 1.
Consider that Federer can attack Djokovic on hard courts and grass with a variety of trouble as sure as a low-skidding slice. These days, it’s more difficult, but the Swiss maestro can still dictate the match with a superior serve and forehand. Aging aside, his footwork and intelligence are still sharp. On his vigorous days, he can be the best player on the planet.
And Federer knows how to win big matches. He does not suffer from fear of losing and understands how to play to win. Victory or defeat, he will control his own fate and not crumble because the moment is too daunting.
He’s already framed every kind of triumph and defeat along his career wall. He’s merely in search of one more masterpiece.
Maybe it will be Federer who duels Djokovic on some magical day, knocking him from the quarterfinals at Melbourne or Paris. Maybe he is healthy and fresh at Wimbledon or New York and is able to blast through the great Serbian.
On faster courts, who is better than Federer to remove Djokovic?
Nadal historically does not have as much difficulty in figuring out how to play Federer as he does Djokovic. He would likely welcome opposing his longtime rival in a Grand Slam final than going to war against the implacable Djokovic.
So a healthy Federer could assist Nadal in not having to go through Djokovic for every Grand Slam title. It’s not to say that Federer cannot beat Nadal; the Spaniard may want to avoid Federer at Wimbledon, where the older lion would have home-field conditions and a world of support.
Federer could also pose a problem for Murray’s Wimbledon defense. They’ve had some good head-to-head battles in the past, but when Federer is at his best, he wins. Does the Swiss master have enough youthfulness to ward back his younger, feisty Scot rival?
One day, younger players than Djokovic and Murray will emerge and win Grand Slam titles. (For now, consider Del Potro’s 2009 U.S. Open title an aberration.) Maybe a player like Jerzy Janowicz, Grigor Dimitrov or Bernard Tomic can break through in 2014.
But a rejuvenated Federer could keep these kids in the cradle and hinder their development. He has relished playing these future stars.
At the 2013 Australian Open, he crushed Tomic in straight sets after the young player made brash comments about the legendary champion. Federer has won all four of their career meetings and 11 of 12 sets.
Two months ago in the quarterfinals at Basel, Switzerland, Federer took out Dimitrov, who has been unfairly dubbed “Baby Federer.” Perhaps the moniker is not Dimitrov’s fault, but it motivated Federer, who was trying to find his form after back problems in the summer.
Federer defeated Janowicz on Rome’s clay in 2013. He is also 4-0 against big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic.
Federer and his rivals are proud warriors who are unwilling to concede their glory to potential heirs. Expect his best efforts when the tennis draws pit him against the next generation.
What to Expect from Federer in 2014
There will be times in 2014 when Federer will lose matches to lesser players. Age and fatigue are not to be ignored, and even he will not elude their grasp every time.
Other legendary players rarely win Slams once they have passed their 32nd birthday. Even ageless wonder Jimmy Connors won his last Grand Slam title at 31.
It’s been more than a decade since the last aging legend, Andre Agassi, captured his final Grand Slam title at age 32. However, he faced a watered-down field of competitors, which is a luxury that Federer does not have these days.
Nobody else has won a Grand Slam title after age 32 since the early Open era days when Ken Rosewall and Andres Gimeno both did so in 1972.
There will be times when Federer turns back the clock and waves his magical racket for the kind of throwback tennis that has changed his sport. He will remind us of what it is to play beautiful, dominant tennis. He is still the only player capable of playing like a young Federer.
And just maybe he will have the energy and strength to push past the semifinals and win an amazing weekend against the other three rivals. Time and age are his only enemies despite his more youthful competitors.
Regardless of a fan’s rooting interest, he or she will watch Federer. He has at least one more great story to weave before he hangs up the sword and takes off his armor.
He might not be the biggest winner in 2014, but he could be the biggest factor in changing the scenery.