Roger Federer joined the rest of the world in feeling surprised at how, at 36, he continues to win the Slams against younger, faster and stronger men. That Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fell by the wayside, and Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray are nursing battered bodies, makes this feat all the more incredible. But really, Federer is elevating tennis into the realm of the improbable. And he’s doing it with all the gloriously human self-doubt and excitement of a first-timer, even though this was his 20th major.
Tennis will remain eternally grateful to this man, not only for summoning greatness from a wearying body but also a commensurately doubting mind. Just as well that he’s kept it real and engagingly vulnerable. He looks imminently beatable at any point in a match — the second and fourth sets were the beginnings of the groaning sigh — but the fun is in how he pulls himself out of those corners, braving the big serve, deep hit Cilic rampage, and then turns it around like a fighter on the edge. Sure, the roof got closed at 37 degrees benefitting Federer. But the tennis pro circuit is no place where young, driven men make concessions for the vulnerabilities of the relative seniors.That he can make you forget his vintage, the surface, what year it is — 2003 or 2018 — and play that fifth set the way he did, pouncing on the two breaks, inciting a second serve meltdown from Cilic, makes him a brilliant tennis player — nothing less, nothing more. Berdych, Cilic and Nadal of course have been forced to bow down to his tennis prowess, his ingenuity, his stroke selection, even his guts in taking long breaks and fetching up for the majors.
There is little doubt that you cannot be Federer and play like him. But it is that sneaking feeling that you can beat Federer — though he calls his challengers’ bluff year after year — that makes him tennis’ greatest ambassador. Roger Federer hasn’t smothered competition, he just silkenly sways past it each time.