Douglas Perry of “Oregon Live” is one of my favorite tennis writers. Here is one of his most recent posts. To see all of his postings – CLICK HERE.
Roger Federer has had a lot of turning points in his career, from his 2001 win over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon to his 2008 loss to Rafael Nadal at the All-England Club to his 2010 thumping of Andy Murray at the Australian Open. Indeed, more than most, his career has been a thrilling series of highs and lows (the lows landing quite high up on the register in the overall scheme of things; RoFed, after all, never lost to George Bastl in the second round at Wimby like Sampras did or spiraled into meth abuse like Andre Agassi.)
The final turn, however, might have just been completed: the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal. A two-set lead against Novak Djokovic, two match points on his own serve in the fifth set — and the 30-year-old legend ends up shaking hands at the net with downcast eyes as the young Serb beams his megawatt smile. That’s going to be a tough one to get past, even for someone seemingly as well grounded as Federer.
So where do Federer fans go from here?
When he won the 2010 Australian Open for his all-time-best 16th major singles title, Federer set his sights on getting to 20. That’s not going to happen. The question now is: Can he get to 17?
The answer should be yes. After all, he’s very close, reaching a final and two semifinals at the majors this year. The problem is, those results don’t really mean that much. For the average professional tennis player, reaching the Final Four at a major is a huge triumph, a career moment. Think Robby Ginepri (U.S. Open 2005) or Sjeng Schalken (U.S. Open 2002). For a great player, however, it’s business as usual. Meaning: getting deep into the second week of a major is not an indicator that an aging great player is championship-ready.
Case in point: John McEnroe reached the semifinals at Wimbledon at age 30 and at the U.S. Open at 31, yet he never really had a serious shot at winning those tournaments. He was still better than most players on tour, sure, but the best of the best were now beyond him. Thirty was the Rubicon for professional tennis players then, and it remains so today.
The most recent outlier is, of course, Agassi, who won two Australian Open championships and a Rome Masters after turning 30 and spent some time at number one in the rankings. Andre is an all-time great, no doubt about it, but the closer we look at his post-30 productivity, the less it stands out. The reason for this has nothing to do with him. The guy worked hard to come back from career oblivion, to adapt to a rapidly changing game and to stay in top physical condition. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was aided by his competition. The generation between the Sampras Era (to which Agassi belonged) and the Federer Era didn’t really show up. I’m talking about Marcelo Rios and Mark Philippoussis and Tim Henman and so on. Tennis generations come in five-year intervals, and this Intergreat Era produced a lot of very good players but no great ones.* This made it much easier for Agassi to hang around at the top of the game in his 30s than it will be for Federer.
Because the generation behind Federer very much has shown up. In fact, it might prove to be the best generation ever (if Murray can step up and join the ring of champions, and if Juan Martin del Potro can prove he’s not a one-hit wonder, and if Robin Soderling can …).
So getting to No. 17 will be tough for Federer. But it’s certainly do-able — he’s Roger Federer, after all. And if he does do it, if he does get fifth-set match points against Djokovic again, the win will be one to tell the grandkids about, a glorious tale to be retold every Thanksgiving — those majestic two weeks when the lion in winter somehow roused himself one last time to take out the hungry, strapping hunter. Like Old Man Unitas leading the Colts to the Super Bowl title in 1970. Like Kirk Gibson limping around the bases in the 1988 World Series. Except better than those classic American examples, because this is tennis, and Roger Federer will have done it all by himself.
I would pay to see that movie. In my mind, I just did.