Roger Federer’s most defining career moment in Melbourne happened in the bath not on centre court.
Federer was kneeling down helping bath his kids in a hotel room during the n Open when he ripped the meniscus in his knee. He had not had serious injuries before and even though physicians don’t consider a meniscus injury the most serious of knee issues, it still required surgery and was more serious than Federer had confronted before.
It was after this surgery that Federer received the most critical piece of advice that guided what was to happen after. He took six clear months off playing. The logic was that particularly older athletes need to retrain their body to perform with a changed joint and so avoid what could otherwise become career-ending bone stress.
Federer was well advised and he took the advice, which is part of the reason, according to sports physician Gary Zimmerman, who works across a range of sports and has previously consulted to the n Open, that he finds himself in the situation he is now.
Federer agrees with him He said as much after winning his 20th career Open title on Sunday night. The rest, the management of his body, the decision to be selective in when he plays have persuaded him that age is now just a number and he can continue to play and win now he has struck on a formula that works.
According to Zimmerman, the reason Federer can do this when other athletes cannot is in some ways as inexplicable as why he can win more than others. Federer is a perfect blend of a rare and gifted physical specimen with a good musculoskeletal system that suits the lower impact style of game he has. He happens to have a body that suits playing and a game that is the model of others.
Rafael Nadal, his great contemporary has, in contrast, a muscular game that is more taxing on the body as evidenced by the constant injury complaints he has battled. Nadal plays full throttle to win. His game does not have the gears that Roger’s has to be able to win when in second.
So the question that has teased this tennis generation remains just as vexing now that Roger has slipped into the twenties of Open titles. Can Rafa catch him?
If Federer can have this flowering in the supposed autumn of his playing career and win three titles in 12 months why can’t Rafa?
Of course he could. It was unexpected when Federer did it, but that does not make it impossible for another to do so. It is all speculation but from a sports medicine perspective Zimmerman agrees that Nadal’s history of injury from the style of game he plays makes it more unlikely that he will now catch Roger.
There is also no reason he figures, that Roger should stop winning now. Roger agrees.
“I don’t think age is an issue, per se,” Federer said. “It’s just a number.”
These three titles in 12 months after not winning any title for 4 years is a stanza of dominance the equal of any stage of Federer’s career. And yet he is theoretically at the end of his career. How can it be the end of his career when it is also his peak?
“I’ve won three slams now in 12 months. I can’t believe it myself.”
Put it in context. Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are in the big five of tennis along with Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Between them these players have shared nearly all grand slam tournament wins in the past 10 years.
They are among the elite. They have each won three Open titles.
Federer has done that in a year. In his mid-30s.
With 20 titles Federer has won 10 per cent of the available Open titles played since the Open era began in 1968. Beyond that Federer has carved a more abstract place in sport in this country. He is the most loved sporting personality to compete in that is not n. The science of this is ??? I reckon it’s true.
Viv Richards was close. His aloofness and swagger made him as appealing as his game. He felt hard to know and that made him all the more appealing. Maybe Usain Bolt too. His appeal was in his cool swagger and that he could do what no one else could. But Roger is different.
Federer is appealing because of the beauty in the way he strikes a ball but that with his success he has this Boy’s Own Annual righteous sweetness in the way he does it. He doesn’t mind having a bit of a sook, he doesn’t pants around and he loves his wife and kids. He is self-deprecating and has Hugh Grant’s hair. He wins the way you would like to think you would if you could. That is his charm. Someone might get to his numbers one day, but will they ever get to the complete package?