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Roger@2018

Many believed after 2012 that the sun had set upon Roger Federer’s enviable empire. Not one to shy away, the greatest of all of time has come back to cling on to his legacy, writes Aditya K Halder.

From winning his 20th Grand Slam title to reaching the summit of ATP rankings – evergreen Federer is doing it all this year. Sport, of any discipline, is often considered a job better suited for youngsters. The trend has always been of a young ace entering the arena and ruthlessly dethroning the established athlete – the epitome.

Such instances can be found in abundance: a 23-year-old Fernando Alonso eclipsing World Champion Michael Schumacher in the 2005 season of Formula 1; Virat Kohli taking the mantle of Team India from Mahendra Singh Dhoni; a teenage Roger Federer toppling 'Pistol' Pete Sampras in the Wimbledon quarter-finals of 2001. Pete Sampras, then, had won seven of the last eight green-top Slams.
These ageing rulers mostly accepted their fate and rarely came back with the zeal to reclaim what was once duly theirs. And, it fazed nobody, as it was well understood that their fading fitness didn't sync with their mind anymore. Federer, however, is not one of those who belongs to the list of waning legends. Defying the norms, the 36-year-old tennis ace won three Grand Slams in the space of a year – the latest one was the Australian Open, held in Melbourne last month.
Soon after, Federer re-established himself at the summit of the ATP rankings. The feat was achieved when he defeated Robin Hasse in the quarterfinals of the World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam last week. The moment was precious for the Swiss as he returned to the numero uno spot after a gap of six years. He ended his celebrations in style by consequently winning the trophy – defeating an ailing Gregor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2. India's Davis Cup non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi believes that reaching the top, at this age, is testimony to Federer's greatness.
"I think it is probably the most amazing achievement in sports history; to be able to become World number 1 at 36, that too in tennis, which is the most physically exerting sport in the world. Normally, we have seen players at his age winning slams in doubles – but he is not just winning on a one-off instance, he is on a spree now. Playing a limited number of tournaments and still getting to the top shows how great he truly is," said Mahesh Bhupathi during a brief chat.
A clever ploy of playing handpicked tournaments during the year, coupled with multiple trainers, did the trick for the Swiss veteran, feels the former tennis icon Vijay Amritraj. "He is a very smart player. He adapts to new conditions along with various coaches to get better; and, he also takes breaks at the right time by playing on a limited schedule," says Amritraj. It was a special effort from a special player that took him back at the top from as low as 17 during the beginning of the 2017 season. Acknowledging his battle to the top, Federer tweeted: "It's been a long road, and sometimes windy, but feels surreal to be back at the top. I'm just happy to be healthy and playing tennis every day."
Truly, it has been a long road for the Swiss maestro. After spending mind-boggling 237-consecutive weeks at the top, Federer endured a decline of his Slam-winning run after the 2010 Australian Open – his 16th. Expectedly, The Swiss, known for his strong volley, had a tough time dealing with the onslaught of new and young rivals in Serb Novak Djokovic, Britton Andy Murray and his fiercest foe in Spanish armada Rafael Nadal.
Up until the 2010 summer in Melbourne, Federer featured in 18 of the 19 Slam finals, since Wimbledon 2005. However, at the subsequent Slams that year, the serve-and-volley king was ousted before he could reach the final and his ranking dropped to third for the first time in six years and eight months. Things turned worse for the Swiss giant at the beginning of the next year when he lost in straight sets to eventual champion Djoker in the Melbourne Major. He did manage to avenge the loss by defeating the Serb in the last-four of the French Open. But a Final against clay-court king Rafa meant Federer never stood a chance – and he was expectedly bashed.
Federer stressed that he hasn't lost the hunger for more success but getting repeatedly plundered by the younger compatriots seemed to have taken a toll on him as he finished the season without a Major in eight years. Federer came back strong in 2012 and eked out his 17th slam at his favourite Big W, followed by an Olympic silver in the London games. But, things only got worse as his back injury crept in and the horrendous four-year Slam drought begun.
His attempts to surge back to the top were rescinded with an array of injuries which ignited speculation that the illustrious career of probably the greatest tennis player ever might come to an abrupt end. But showing whim, Federer returned to the court by the beginning of 2017, and in some fashion—lifting two consecutive Slams in the Norman Brookes, followed by the gentlemen's trophy at SW 19. It didn't happen over a day. Experts suggest he tweaked his game to suit the competitive demands of tennis.
"I think he has become a lot more aggressive and follows a strict schedule, where he skips and features in the tournaments that are enough for him to stay fit and in-shape throughout the year," says Bhupathi. "He has been sticking to his strengths. He missed the entire clay court season because he knew it is not his best surface. Instead, he played in the Wimbledon, which he prefers – and, he played spotless tennis."
Amritraj gave a keen insight on the technical side of Roger's improvised game plan.
"First, he took a bigger racquet than he used to have, which gave him a bigger sweet spot. Second, he is playing four-feet inside the court than he used to before, which gives him the opportunity to play the backhand early. Forehand was always his strength but his one-handed backhand was mostly defensive as opposed to an attacking shot. So, taking it earlier puts him in a better position," explains Amritraj.
A question that has crossed minds of many tennis enthusiasts has been: Will Federer feature in the clay court season to keep himself at the apex of the ranking when Nadal is just around the corner – a mere 100 points away? When quizzed about it last year, Federer maintained that he doesn't play for rankings anymore and his sole focus is to play in the Majors he enjoys, and Roland Garros, clearly, wasn't one of them. Bhupathi feels Roger is smart enough to not to do that. "He doesn't want to play on clay because it hasn't been his strength. It's very difficult to beat Rafa on clay. But Federer is obviously the favourite to win the Wimbledon and should focus on that, doesn't matter if Rafa is there in Roland Garros or not. And I believe, Roger is smart enough to know what is best for him," added Bhupathi.
But the question of his stay at the top becomes vague when one realises that it won't change the fact that Federer will remain the World's oldest No 1 ever and arguably, truly, the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T).

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