The first time that John McEnroe questioned Roger Federer’s dominance was days after the Swiss great had conceded his 237-week reign at the top to Rafael Nadal. “Twenty-seven is an age when your body starts talking back to you,” warned McEnroe. That was in 2008, and Federer has won eight Grand Slam titles since. So when McEnroe labels Federer’s loss to 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas at the ongoing Australian Open as “the changing of the guard”, Federer isn’t exaggerating when he hits back: “I’ve heard that story the last 10 years.”
But never in the last 10 years had tennis seen four straight Grand Slams without Federer in the quarterfinals, or seen the player squander 12 break points in a match. While he was hardly a star on the wane against Tsitsipas, Federer paid the price for 55 unforced errors. At a cursory glance, the performance mirrors that of fellow 37-year-old GOAT Serena Williams, who wasted four match points to lose on Wednesday.
But unlike Federer, whose wins look as flawless as ever, a lumbering Serena has had to grit it out lately. The guard has changed many times over for women, while Federer kept entire generations at bay with the help of his partners in crime. But with Andy Murray nearly done and Nadal and Novak Djokovic glued together at the knees and elbows, breakthroughs seem imminent.
Then again, there is something to Federer’s claim. Various pretenders have chipped away at the Grand Slam hegemony, more often than not at Melbourne Park, where players are still finding their stride days removed from the month-long break. Before Tsitsipas became the first Greek semifinalist at a Major, there was Hyeon Chung, the first Korean to do so last year. Before Chung, it was Canada’s Milos Raonic. Tsitsipas could be the flavour of the month, or the real deal. Similarly, Federer, who hasn’t played the French Open in three years, may be planning a return to clay as a top act on the farewell tour, or as a veteran inspired to prove the critics wrong.