"The crownless again shall be king"


I hardly ever watch tennis anymore after I "cut the cord" back in 2013, but if you had asked me three weeks ago who would win the Australian Open tennis championships in 2017, the words, "Roger Federer" would have been outside of the top 5 on my list of possibilities.

Roger Federer is 35 years old. Even in his twilight years, he has elevated the game of tennis to heights never seen before in its entire history. His skill, movement, precision, power, and incredible shot-making were beyond anything that we had ever seen before- not even the greats of eras past could compare with the sheer sublime spectacle that was Roger Federer in full flow on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Yet it was clear over the last five years that his best days were long past him. At the height of his powers, ten or eleven years ago, his opponents were usually defeated the moment that he walked onto the court- with precisely one exception, Rafael Nadal, who had the guts and the tenacity to take the fight straight to Federer and win.

Younger, fitter, faster, stronger men were closing in fast on Federer's incredible legacy. For a while there, it looked like Novak Djokovic might just eclipse Federer as the front-runner in the endless debates about which player is the true Greatest Of All Time (GOAT).

And I had just come back to the US after watching Roger Federer playing in the Hopman Cup- where I saw that, despite the clear benefits that he had reaped from the extended break, despite the clear flashes of his old brilliance, he still wasn't able to hang with young guns like Alexander Zverev. Indeed, in the doubles match between Switzerland and Germany, he pretty much blew the entire thing for his country- and it was the girl he was partnered with, Belinda Bencic, that pulled out the victory and allowed the Swiss to move to the next stage.

But somehow, somewhere, things turned in Federer's favour.

The younger modern rivals who have beaten him consistently, and often quite badly, over the past few years, flamed out in spectacular fashion in the early rounds. Novak Djokovic has recently been unable to summon up the same mental fortitude that made him nearly impossible to beat for about three years on the trot*. Andy Murray appears to be having a hard time handling the pressure that comes with being World No. 1- and the inevitable transition that one has to make from hunter to hunted.

And, after a tentative start in the first two rounds where he made meals out of matches that he should have easily won, Federer started putting on the kinds of tennis master-classes that made all of his fans realise that the king had, in fact, returned.

He utterly destroyed one of his most dangerous past opponents, Tomas Berdych, in the third round. He struggled mightily, and prevailed, against a younger, tougher, fitter Kei Nishikori in the fourth. He blitzed Sascha Zverev's brother Mischa in the quarters. And he pulled out a nail-biting victory against his old friend and rival Stan Wawrinka in the semis.

But, when I went to bed on Saturday night, knowing that he would be facing Rafael Nadal in the final, I figured that I would wake up to find the Spaniard hoisting up his 15th Grand Slam trophy. Knowing Federer's patchy record against his greatest rival, and his history of simply collapsing at critical points against him, I did not think he would win.

"O ye of little faith"- boy, was I ever wrong. (It doesn't happen that often, but when I do get things wrong, I get them spectacularly wrong.)

I woke up this morning to find that Roger Federer had taken his improbable record to even more impossible heights. He has almost certainly ensured that none of his present rivals will ever meet, never mind exceed, his achievements.

He has proven, yet again, that he is the greatest. To me, that particular debate ended that summer day in 2009 when he clinched his 15th Grand Slam title in that legendary match against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, winning the fifth set 16-14 when his opponent shanked a backhand forehand way out.

And now, I see that the king has returned.

We shall see whether he can continue his momentum into the later part of the season. I doubt very much whether the GOAT can win the French Open this year; clay courts have never been his greatest strength, and even with his resurgence and his highly precise game, he is still most vulnerable to baseline sluggers on that surface.

But if he carries on this kind of form into Wimbledon, and if fortune smiles upon him again, we might just see Roger Federer hoisting up his 19th, and then his 20th, Grand Slam crown before he hangs up his racquets for good.

The day that Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player of all time (note the deliberate omission of sex here- Serena Williams is nowhere near the player that he is), calls it quits will be the day that the entire sport of tennis will be irreversibly diminished. He has done more to elevate the sport to its current position than anyone else. His love of the sport transcends those of all of the greats of previous eras; it is what keeps this ageing lion in the hunt for yet more trophies, more glory, more achievements.

But the day will inevitably come when we will wake up and find that Roger Federer has retired. And from that day onward, the entire game will never again reach the level that Federer almost single-handedly took it to.

For now, though, he and his family, and all of his fans (like me), can celebrate with gleeful abandon.

The king has returned. Long may he reign.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost. 
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
*I have heard from at least one source close to a couple of players on the ATP World Tour that the reason behind Djokovic's rather inexplicable mental collapse of late has to do with him getting caught cheating on his wife.

At least two versions of this rumour exist: one says that he cheated on Jelena with a minor Bollywood luminary called Deepika Padukone, the other says that he made the beast with two backs with his son's nanny.

There appears to be precious little evidence for this, so I am not inclined to argue that this is what happened- but it wouldn't surprise me if this is, in fact, the reason for Djokovic's lack of staying power in 2016.

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