The many pundits in the game are generally in assent with the following view: The (medium-term) future of the game is bright: the future is Djokovic and Murray. This view is bolstered by events in the latter part of 2012 during which both players vied with one another for the main laurels, with Djokovic securing that vital edge in their head-to-head encounter at the ATP Masters Greenwich in November. This view is supported by reference to Roger Federer’s relative age and to Nadal’s problems with recurring injury. Nevertheless, pundits have often been wrong and needless to say, this script is hotly contested by both Federer and Nadal.
Nadal has shown his mettle by his recent title win in Sao Paolo (a man fired up by the desire to prove the pundits wrong), but what about Federer? With the exception of his Wimbledon victory in July, his Grand Slam record in 2012 was far from stellar and a general impression took root that we had seen the best of Federer. For a player who has become a veritable institution of the game, much liked and respected and by general acclaim, the greatest tennis player of all time, it is difficult to accept that he may at last be reaching a peak in his career.
Aged 31, he is the senior player among the top quartet: Nadal is 27, Djokovic is 25 and Murray also 25. This does not make Federer an old man by any means, but simply indicates the likely number of playing years at the top level of the game remaining to him and to his main rivals. That said, players like McEnroe, Lendl, Connors and Rosewall played at the very top well into their 30’s, suggesting that reports of Federer’s demise may be premature. Much will depend on his spirit and attitude. If his hunger for the game diminishes as someone who has already scaled the heights of the game, then we are likely to see a graceful exit. It would be a shame to see him going on long after his ‘sell-by date’ – although he is a long way from that point. What may affect his career longevity, however, is if Djokovic and Murray (and Nadal) begin to so dominate the game that the role of ‘also ran’ on the tour loses appeal to him.
However, tennis is what Roger Federer does, it is what defines him as an individual, so I would not advise people to hold their breath in the expectation that Federer will be hanging up his racquet any time soon. Professional pride is strong with Federer and he is on record as saying that reaching and holding on to the position of World No. 1 is probably his greatest ambition, even above his Grand Slam count. There are no thoughts of early retirement as evidenced by his 2012 comment that he would like to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
After the demise of Sampras in the early Noughties, Federer was quick to assume the position of World No. 1. For a long time, he held that position and now he has ceded that position to the Serb Djokovic in the inevitable swings and roundabouts of the game. Whether Federer can ever regain his crown, of course, depends not just on himself (although he certainly has the inner strength of purpose to make it possible), but also on his other main rivals. In his ascent to the top of the game 10 years ago, the field of competition was not as intense as it is now with the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Nadal to contend with. To rebound back now against the likes of that calibre of competition is a tall order.
Only a relatively small number of sports players have achieved an iconic status and recognition outside their own sport: Roger Federer is one of them. Whatever one’s level of knowledge of tennis, no one could fail to be impressed by his lithe, graceful athleticism, or by what one pundit described as ‘his being poised like a graceful panther ready to pounce’.
As Mark Twain once said: ‘ The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated ‘. Those who seek to write off Roger Federer prematurely may have an embarrassing surprise.