Roger Federer is tennis’ Grand Slam king with 17 titles, and he shows every desire and capability of adding more to his legendary total. Today is his 31st birthday, so perhaps his wish would be to one day win a 20th Slam.
The race to Pete Sampras’s 14 Grand Slam titles has been in the rear-view mirror for three years. The distance continues to widen.
In 2010, Rafael Nadal’s No. 1 dominance suggested he could make a run at Federer’s career Slams total, but it has been two years since winning a Grand Slam title outside of Roland Garros.
Injuries figure to plague Nadal’s opportunities for peak performances, and the rise of Novak Djokovic has already handed Nadal three finals losses.
Djokovic? It will take at least a couple more supreme seasons to enter the conversation. Don’t bet on 17 Grand Slam titles anytime soon—if ever.
Federer now walks alone, farther into the mists of uncharted territory, and the end is not in sight.
Will he get to 18, 19, maybe 20 Slams?
The Passion of the Swiss
Federer has so far evaded apathy, a disease common to even tennis legends.
It’s not that he is immune to cruel disappointment or career adversity. But beneath the success and beautiful tennis, he has beat back a career burnout with resilience and passion.
Federer loves to play tennis.
He brings his genius to an otherwise empty tennis canvas of geometrically ordered lines and rectangles. His passion for competing produces colorful shots, and he splashes on unpredictable variety with the delightful touch of a master.
He does not wander from his work but rather doubles-down with quiet enthusiasm. It’s an essential part of his drive and success.
For Love of the Game
Federer is similar to fictional Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel, played by Kevin Costner in "For Love of the Game."
Chapel’s gift and longevity was enhanced by his relationship to baseball. His love for playing spurred him on to greatness and a quest for perfection.
Chapel’s girlfriend even remarked: “You're perfect. You and the ball and the diamond, you're this perfectly beautiful thing. You can win or lose the game—all by yourself.”
Federer’s continued pursuit of tennis records is a happy blend of perfectionism and persistence, clear to all who watch him carry his equipment and wave to the crowd. He carries his love for tennis onto the court as he sings with his efforts and waltzes through the grind.
The drive for 20 Slams must be fueled by Federer’s desire to play tennis each time as it has never been played before. It’s how to navigate through the pitfalls of a tough, hungry ATP tour and to tee off on precious Grand Slam opportunities.
Sampras recently opined that Federer could win more Grand Slam titles, saying in SI.com: “He’s eager. He loves to play; he loves to travel. Grass is a surface that you can play a little bit as you get older. Not as hard on the body. And it’s a surface where there’s only a few that can play good on it.”
The Red Queen Theory
Lewis Carroll’s fictional and infamous Red Queen lives in a bizarre Wonderland.
She tells Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
On more than one level, it is applicable to Federer.
Look carefully at Federer and witness another phase of his career. The original Federer has transitioned from explosiveness to patience, from power to guile. Though always creative, he has become more cerebral.
He has greater understanding to the ebbs and flows of a match. He knows he must concentrate better to stay ahead of the young charging combatants who want his throne.
There are days that Federer will run with Djokovic, Nadal and other young players, but winning more Slams will take even more movement with his game. It’s an evolutionary arms race in which the master must be smarter than his assailants.
Federer has found it more difficult to get to the sidelines where Djokovic seeks to smash winners. He has countered by slicing shots and getting Djokovic to hit shots from uncomfortable places of the court. Changing the tempo has reduced Djokovic’s opportunities and control.
Murray's recent gold-medal victory also illustrated that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Federer to recover from a tough match or to replicate a great performance. His stamina and recovery will be important to maintain consistent greatness.
Against All Odds
Federer recently said he would like to play in the 2016 Olympics. Sixteen Slam opportunities to get three titles may be within reach, but it won’t be easy.
Wimbledon will eliminate most of the grinding players and matches. This should favor his 30-something body, and the grass should be kinder to any aches and pains.
Federer also has the recent confidence and aura of his reign on grass. It will be essential to pick off at least one more title here if he is to get to 20.
The US Open also suits Federer’s reflexes and all-court skills.
He can use his serve and pace to perhaps stave off Nadal and Andy Murray, among others. It will still be more difficult than Wimbledon because the field is deeper, and Djokovic, in his prime, figures to have the best game for hard courts.
Federer likely needs at least one title here for the road to 20.
The Aussie Open hard courts also afford a good opportunity, but Djokovic has dominated this venue, and Nadal has defeated him twice in his past four entries at Melbourne. The ball bounce will be higher than at the US Open, and more grinders can make an impact.
It would be a great feat for Federer to add one more Aussie title.
The French Open seems like long odds because of Nadal’s domination. However, if Nadal’s knees and body have trouble holding up any of the next four springs, Federer could be back to steal another title. The degree of difficulty is harder for older players who may have several grueling matches, but Federer still has the game to disrupt the field.
A Knight’s Tale
Federer is aware that Father Time books front-row seats to each of his matches. But with Federer's matches, time indeed seems to stand still, and the laws of nature clap to his mesmerizing tennis.
Maybe Federer will find his Gatorade comes from the fountain of youth.
Perhaps like Billy Chapel, he still has room to pitch a few more perfect Grand Slam runs.
It’s the stuff of fairy tales, except that Federer’s storybook career is still being written.