Rumors of Roger Federer’s demise in tennis have peppered the media since the early days of 2008. For that was when he failed to reach his first Grand Slam final in almost three years.
It was the Australian Open, and he fell short—in the semifinals. He would go on to win just four games in the French Open final, would lose his Wimbledon crown, and would not win a Masters title throughout the entire year.
It mattered not that he was recovering from the debilitating effects of glandular fever during the early months of that year, nor that he struggled with a back injury in the latter stages. Nor, indeed, that he had made the finals of three out of the year’s four Slams.
There was, for a brief moment, a little back-tracking when Federer won the title at Flushing Meadows for a record fifth consecutive time, before the muttering started up at his failure to pass the Round Robin phase of the World Tour Finals.
Just a month into 2009, and the clouds settled over the Federer story again. It was not so much his failure to win the first Slam of the year but that he lost it, in a long, tough final, to Rafael Nadal.
If the clay-court supremo could take the Australian title, on the surface always considered to favor the Swiss, this really did mark the handing over of the baton to the younger man, a transition to a new order.
Federer left the tour to rehabilitate his niggling back while Nadal soared away from the field in the rankings, taking title after title.
With the Australian Open in the bag, and the French on the horizon, it was even possible that Nadal could do what Federer had failed to: win the Grand Slam.
As if to add grist to the media mill, Federer announced that he was to become a father, and then married his childhood sweetheart. If ever there was sign that he had entered a different phase of his life, this was it.
How many fathers had won Grand Slams? Of the eight since 1980, four were one-Slam wonders. Multiple champions like Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, and John McEnroe never won another Slam.
Then there were Federer’s advancing years to consider. He’d soon be 28.
Federer constantly asserted that such developments would make little difference. As far back as August 2007, he said that he planned to play the 2012 Olympics, and added for good measure that he would play for a few years beyond that, too, depending on how his body felt.
And he does like to plan ahead, as that 2007 interview showed. “We decide together what tournaments I want to play…I know my schedule all the way until the end of 2008 already. That’s a good thing for me mentally knowing what's coming ahead…I really take it very, very serious.”
So it became etched in stone. Olympic gold had eluded him twice, so one last attempt to gain the medal would finish off his career very neatly.
In the meantime, however, the Press were soon having to rewrite the Federer story.
In the spring of 2009, with Nadal thousands of points ahead in the rankings, Federer came within a gnat’s whisker of sliding to No. 3. But if the watching world thought this could be the beginning of the end, they were soon disabused.
Hot on the heels of his wedding, Federer made the semifinals of four out of the five spring-time Masters tournaments, winning the last of them: Madrid. And he beat Nadal, on clay, in the final.
Then came Roland Garros, where Federer won the French title for the first time.
That was swiftly followed by his reclamation of the Wimbledon title and the No. 1 ranking.
Nadal was struggling with injury, and that gave Federer the window of opportunity to take the one trophy missing from his cabinet, and not just to equal the Sampras record but to overtake it.
Well, that was the angle of many in the media. And now that he also had twin daughters along with the big record, his desire for the game must, at last, be dimmed. He could rest on his laurels.
But no: Again he flouted expectations. He not only turned up, family in tow, to reach the quarterfinals in Montreal, he bustled on to Cincinnati and knocked off another Masters title. That wasn’t in the script.
The naysayers had not paid close enough attention when he said, loud and clear, to CNN ahead of Wimbledon: “I love the game too much to walk away from it…My wife wants me to play on for many more years so our child can see me play… Definitely until the 2012 Olympics in London.”
Federer lost his title at the U.S. Open—his fourth Slam final of the year—and withdrew from the Asian swing. He even lost his much-loved Basel title in November. Although London 2012 remained the Holy Grail, perhaps his foot was finally off the pedal.
Ahead of the London WTFs, however, Federer gave an in-depth interview to The Times , and was asked directly, “Where do you see yourself now in terms of your career? Have you reached the downward curve?”
Once again, he talked about the long game. “It feels like the second part of my career…You can definitely play your greatest tennis until 32 or 33. It’s not about, ‘What will we do tomorrow?’ It’s about ‘How will my life and tennis look in the next five years?’ And I still have the same vision.”
Perhaps it goes with the Swiss temperament. Things need to be planned out, accurate, and organised. He plays, and has always played, fewer tournaments in a year than the others. It's mapped out with clockwork precision.
He added a little more substance to that vision. “Many people were asking me ‘When are you going to retire?’ And I said ‘Well, I’m definitely going to play until the 2012 Olympics’ but that was to shut them up, really…I would like to play beyond that, and Mirka has said that she would like our two daughters to see me play. So they need to grow a little bit and I need to play a little bit.”
Fast forward, through a semifinal finish in London and a 16th Grand Slam title in Australia, and Federer has been riding out another lean period.
Until Madrid, he had played only nine matches and won just five of them. Players ranked well below him began to score wins, and Nadal swept all before him on the clay once more.
But Federer has been ill and his family has been sick. Little wonder, perhaps, that his game has looked a little off-color, too.
So all the talk is again of Nadal, and of his regaining his French crown—and it would take a brave man to bet against it.
But who is the most likely candidate to make it all the way through six gruelling, best-of-five matches to that final?
Who is the only man who has maintained the fitness and consistency to play in every Grand Slam this decade, reaching the finals of 22 of them?
Who has a head-to-head, since 2005, of 30-0 at Roland Garros against all-comers except for Nadal?
It’s the Swiss time-keeper, whose scheduling, preparation, and meticulous planning always seem to ensure he’s in the right place at the right time: the Grand Slam final.
And that’s why the rest of the tour needs to be very afraid of the latest statement on how Federer sees the future of his tennis career. In an exclusive BBC radio interview, given at the Magic Box this week, he talked of playing well beyond the 2012 Olympics.
He was asked whether retirement even entered his mind: “No it doesn’t,” he answered. “And I don’t think it should. For me, it’s not something I’m willing to, or in the mood to, think about…it’s a lot of fun right now, and I obviously want to do it as long as possible.”
His take on the 2012 target was particularly interesting. “I don’t want to talk for years about when I’m going to retire. Several years ago, to give the Press a time-line, I said I’d go beyond the Olympics so they wouldn’t bug me with questions…It depends on your body, but I would like to play beyond that, so we’ll see how it goes.”
For a men’s tour as stricken with injury as it currently is, a fit and, judging from the tone of his voice, an effervescent Federer might be the last thing that many of the men want to contemplate between now and the next Olympics. After all, out of the last 20 Grand Slams, he and Nadal have won all but two.
In fact, with the latest reiteration from Federer that he is eager to play into his mid-30s, and with Nadal back to full strength, there will some who can see any chance of winning a Slam of their own evaporating clean away.