Sometime during a heavy trade of groundstrokes on the ad-court side -– Federer planted firmly at the edge of the doubles tramline and converting all his backhands into inside-out forehands — Marin Cilic decided to give up on his at, double-handed replies and to change things up with a single-fisted slice. The ball, instead of going deep to Federer, barely crossed the tape, fell into the service box and angled away from him, drawing the Swiss towards the net and well away from the face of the singles court. Federer got to the rapidly dropping ball with a lunge on his backhand side and flicked it back with desperation to Cilic, who, now, was presented with an open court to put away his winner.

Cilic, standing 1.98 m from the ground, has the wingspan of an adult albatross. With Federer nowhere in his peripheral vision, the 29-year old Croat pummelled the tennis ball straight down the middle of the court, a stroke focussed more on placement than power, and the first bounce of the ball was within an inch of the opposite baseline. Against any other player not named Roger Federer, this shot was destined to bounce a second time before coming into contact with a tennis racquet. But because this was Federer, he had already made up his mind to find a way to return a sure-shot winner.

FEDERER’S GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT THIS EVENING WAS TO LAUGH AT US FOR EVER HAVING A FULLY FORMED IDEA OF ROGER FEDERER

When he first heard the thump of Cilic’s racquet, Federer’s forward momentum was carrying him away from the direction of the returning ball. But in Federer’s world, the laws of motion are for losers; so, like a sidewinder, he snapped his run and back-pedalled towards the falling ball with zero body-weight behind him, and when he got there, it was still a little too late. But in Federer’s world, energy and time are overrated as well; so, he stuck out the face of his racquet (one of the smallest on tour) away from his body and well behind his backside like a spade, and scooped up his return inches from its second bounce. The fuzzy sphere, suspended mid-air perhaps in disbelief, obeyed its new master and screeched
over the net, wide of Cilic’s backhand. Now, Cilic, as you already know, has
the wingspan of an albatross. But this albatross was dumbfounded, transfixed at a sight as spectacular as a solar eclipse.

In celebration, Federer, 36 now and soon to turn 37 in August, rose to him, Federer said: “It’s nice to be sitting next to Norman. He’s a friend now. It feels like we have gotten to know each other rather well, given the time we have spent together.” Sure. Federer has hung out with Norman (the Australian Open) since winning it back last year and a total of six times now, taking his overall Grand Slam count to 20 – the first ever male player to do so.

But Federer’s greatest achievement
 this evening is not in the numbers and 
his many firsts. Not even in the fact that he has now won three out of the last five Grand Slams (three out of four, if you discount last year’s French Open for his lack of participation), or that he could very well win three out of four Grand Slams this year. Nope. Federer’s greatest accomplishment this evening was to laugh at us for ever having a fully formed idea 
of Roger Federer. For, in reality, he is an ever-evolving essence in human form, whose future carries more potential than his past. And not too long ago (three years, to be precise), Federer was all about his past.

***

Sunk into his courtside chair at the end of the US Open 2015 final at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Federer is grooming his hair and shaking a knee. For this, he is receiving a warm round of applause from the 23,000 supporters (including yours truly) standing around the many tiers and terraces that bracket the biggest tennis arena in the world, but Federer doesn’t care. He wants what he can’t have – the trophy that is currently being cradled in the bosom of his rival and victor, Novak Djokovic. To get to the final, Federer had stitched together a most impressive run, unleashing for the first time on the way a stroke that will forever bear his initials – SABR, or Sneak Attack By Roger. But when Federer employed his new weapon against Djokovic in the nal, the SABR came across looking cheap and desperate. For Djokovic, resorting to little more than textbook clutch-play, had Federer’s number – this win at the US Open was the Serb’s third straight Slam nal win over the Swiss, having already beaten him at the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon deciders. This was a sad new rst for Federer, to end three back-to-back Slam nals without registering a win, and he knew that more than three years had passed since a sad old last: his last Slam win (Wimbledon 2012).

In 2016, two more unwanted firsts attached themselves to Federer’s fading career. When he pulled out of the French Open with an injury, it was the first time he hadn’t participated in a Grand Slam event since 1999. And when he pulled out of all tournaments following Wimbledon (a tournament he lost in the semi-finals for the first time) and took six months
o after having twisted his knee while bathing his children, the end seemed nigh for Federer, and his title of Greatest Of All Time. In his absence, Djokovic had gone on to become the first player since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, and had already reached a career Slam total of 12. He was just 5 away from Federer’s 17, a number that hadn’t changed in so long that it seemed to be etched in stone.

***

For the first time since he began defining an era and a sport, Federer arrived at a Grand Slam, the 2017 Australian Open, seeded outside the top 10; 17th, to be accurate. No one, not even Roger Federer, gave him a chance. “To be honest, I thought I’d do really well to make the quarter finals,” he told Jim Courier during an interview. “You know, after the break and not having played competitive tennis in so long, I really wasn’t expecting to get very far.”

FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE HIS TEENS, AS HE WOULD REVEAL LATER, FEDERER WAS PLAYING TENNIS FOR THE FUN OF IT; NOT TO WIN TROPHIES. AND HENCE HE DID – WIN THE TROPHY, THAT IS

Then, out of nowhere, the planets aligned. And then conspired. In the second round, Djokovic, two-time defending champion and six-time Aussie Open winner, lost – and following Djokovic out of the tournament in the third round was Andy Murray, the new number one. Still, to expect Federer to progress
all the way to the nal, especially with countryman Stan Wawrinka — a three- time Slam champ by now -– in his side of the draw, would’ve been foolish. But Stan was met, in the semi-final, and Stan was defeated, in five gruelling sets. Waiting for him in the nal was a most familiar face, Rafael Nadal, also written off pre-tournament by the pundits, following the latest set of career-threatening injuries that have plagued him.

When Federer cannot believe an occurrence on a tennis court, it must be truly special. “I went to open Rafa’s
academy in Mallorca a few months back. I was on one leg and he had the wrist injury, and we were playing mini-tennis with some juniors and we were like ‘That’s the best we could do right now’,” he said. “Few months later, we are in the final of a Grand Slam. So it’s already special for both of us.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS LAISNÉ/©ROLEX

Nadal and Federer hadn’t met in a Grand Slam final in six years. But in
 the last three major finals that they had locked horns in, across three surfaces including in Melbourne, the Mallorcan had triumphed. The script, hence, seemed boringly familiar at the Rod Laver Arena when Nadal broke Federer’s serve in the fifth set to go up 3-1. But for the first time since his teens, as he would reveal later, Federer was playing tennis for the fun of it; not to win trophies. And hence he did
- win the trophy, that is. He broke Nadal back and returned from the point of no return, and the wait for Slam No.18 had finally ended.

“It cannot get better than this,” he
said at the presentation ceremony, making acquaintance with ‘Norman’
for the first time since 2010. But it did
get better, ‘betterer’ than even Federer expected. Just five months after No.18, No.19 had been claimed at Wimbledon.
It was a record eighth title for him in London, but what made it most special was that he had won it for the first time without dropping a set. “Jeez, all I wanted was one more (Grand Slam) in this part of my career,” Federer sighed then. “Now I have two.”

WHAT’S SCARIER THAN FEDERER’S PROSPECTS IN 2018 IS HIS DESCRIPTION OF THE ONE IN THE BAG ALREADY

Half a year shy of his 37th birthday, Federer is currently the fittest among the best players in the world, by a whole, able body length. Murray is out nursing a bad hip, Nadal a bad leg, Djokovic a bad elbow and Wawrinka a bad knee. The next rung of contenders isn’t doing too well, either. Milos Raonic is still suffering pain in his left wrist and Kei Nishikori is yet to recover from surgery on his right wrist. This leaves Federer in an open eld full of kids such as Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev Jr and Denis Shapovalov – who
held their first racquets because
(and after) Federer starting winning Grand Slams – and Cilic. And Federer knows how to deal with Cilic, having won his last two majors against the Croat.

What’s scarier than Federer’s prospects in 2018 is his description of the one in 
the bag already. When asked about the nerves he felt going into the final against Cilic, Federer said “You know, it reminded me a lot of the time I played (Marcos) Baghdatis in the final here. I was the favourite coming in and had felt the nerves and felt very similar here to get it done. Not dropping too many sets coming in to the final, I had a lot of emotions left. And I spent a long time thinking about how cool it would be to win…”

When a player as great as Federer remembers past brilliance for present situations, it bodes mightily well for his future. Federer played Baghdatis in the Aussie Open final in 2006, and after beating the Cypriot in Melbourne, he went on a run of reaching seven more Grand Slam finals in a row, winning five of them. Now, making seven more finals (he will be pushing 40 were it to happen) could well be beyond even him. But here’s the thing about betting against it; Federer has scripted the greatest ever career in sports by finding a way out of positions he was never meant to and himself in.

THREE GENERATIONS OF FEDERER DOMINANCE

In the course of his 20 Grand Slam titles, Roger Federer has reigned supreme across multiple generations of tennis players. He first signalled the turning of the tide by defeating then World No 1 Pete Sampras in the fourth round of the 2001 Wimbledon Championships. Though the Swiss was ousted in the quarter finals that year, he grabbed his first major at the same venue in 2003, against Australia’s Mark Philippoussis, who had turned pro four years prior to him. The next three seasons saw him dominate the likes of former World No 1 Lleyton Hewitt, the gigantic Russian Marat Safin, the suave Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero and the fiery American server Andy Roddick, who is two years his junior (the marathon 2009 Wimbledon final remains the duo’s most memorable encounter). 

It was around 2006 that the players from the next generation, most significantly a certain left-handed Spaniard called Rafael Nadal (five years his junior), the Serb Novak Djokovic (six years younger) and Britain’s biggest prospect Andy Murray (six years younger), broke onto the scene to form the Open era’s ‘Big 4’. In a rivalry spanning 38 matches across 14 years, Federer and Nadal have faced off in nine major finals. Federer’s inferior 3-6 record might hand Rafa the edge, but longevity means that the former still leads the all-time tally by four titles. Even Djokovic, during Fed-Ex’s lean patch, emerged victorious in three consecutive slam finals between 2014 and 2015. With a dozen majors to his name, Djoker looked to threaten Fed-Ex’s tally of 18 at the end of 2016, but a terrible slump in form and the comeback of the Federer-Nadal combination in 2017 has all but buried those estimates. As for three-time Grand Slam winner Murray, his biggest win against Federer came in the final of the London Olympics. Enough said.

The Swiss Maestro’s last two Grand Slam wins have come against the 29-year old Croat Marin Cilic. He precedes the batch of players often referred to as the ‘lost generation.’ Alexander Zverev (#5, born 1997), Grigor Dimitrov (#4, born 1991), Dominic Thiem (#6, born 1993), David Goffin (#7, born 1990), Jack Sock (#8, born 1992) and Pablo Carreno Busta (#10, born 1991) have been unable to collect even a single major title between them. With Federer and Nadal sweeping the last five, and the 2018 Australian Open winner promising to return at the Rod Laver Arena next year, that number doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

FOREVER FIT

Given the ease with which he goes about his business on the court, Roger Federer’s playing style
often hides all the hard work that has gone into making him the G.O.A.T. The man who ensures that the six-time Australian Open winner operates like a Rolls-Royce on the court is Pierre Paganini, a strength and conditioning coach he met while playing as a teen. He has been Federer’s trainer for more than a decade now, and he thinks that the 36-year-old still has many years left in the tank.

“Roger does have the biological age of 36 but for me, he has an athletic age that is younger than that
and yet he has the maturity of someone well over 40. So it’s quite a balance. And because of that, it’s very difficult to say or predict,” he once said in an interview to the New York Times. So what exactly is
this regime?

* SKIPPING ROPE AND JOGGING STEPS Federer is a fan of skipping ropes, according to various websites. That’s how he likes to begin his warm-up. The jump rope helps enhance cardiovascular fitness and agility,
especially when teamed up with core exercises. Different variations of jogging steps and shuffles across the court complete his lower body preparation.

* UPPER BODY DRILLS
The next circuit involves exercises like the medicine ball toss, to engage the upper body muscles. One of the drills will require a partner to stand across about halfway back, in the service box on the singles sideline. He then throws the medicine ball back and forth at chest level while shuffling between sidelines.

* BALL AND RACKET DRILLS
It’s over to simulating real-life on-court scenarios with the ball and racket thereafter. One of the exercises has three balls thrown at him, and he’s supposed to hit all of them before they bounce for the second time.
Another one has him hitting balls while balancing on one foot on a trampoline, in order to enhance stability.

* CONE DRILLS AND EXERCISE BANDS
Federer is known to be a fan of bands as well. They are essential for every tennis player to strengthen their lower bodies and improve footwork; so are cone drills.

* WEIGHT TRAINING
During the off-season, the current World No 2 trains for around 10 hours a week with weights. The routine includes leg presses, bench presses, the fly, leg squats and bicep and tricep curls, among others. Of course,
he can’t stop jumping ropes and doing core exercises alternately even then.

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