Everyone loves an underdog. You root for the underdog. But how did the man who has achieved the most grand slams in history become that underdog? It’s why Roger Federer is the beloved figure in sport that he is, and why The 02 crowd wanted the win over Novak Djokovic in their ATP Finals clash just as much as he did.
Being considered the underdog even while remaining at the pinnacle of his sport is part of Roger Federer’s complex, fascinating mystique. Part of the captivation with Federer is the humble demeanor he comports himself with.
Does he curse? Sure he does. Does he have moments of impatience? Of course. Does he get irritated with criticism? Who doesn’t? He’s human. But it’s the gracious, empathetic manner that he has consistently demonstrated for decades now.
This is only compounded when he and Rafael Nadal get together. When these two great rivals hang out, it represents the best in sport and humanity all in one setting. This is why fans can’t enough of these two sports titans.
It’s also why their rivalry captivates in such an impactful way, two tennis statesmen who used to reflect their shared humanity in separate spheres. Since Federer visited Nadal’s academy in Majorca in 2016, while they were both sitting out of the game injured, Fedal managed to fuse their shared humility into a tennis friendship that elevates sport.
Federer’s fans got on board early, marveling at the Swiss talent’s ability to hit any shot, from any location, under any condition. To top that off, he performed all that with an effortless, graceful quality unprecedented in the sport.
Much has been written about his ballet-like qualities, but it’s the tactical mental game as well as the deep hunger for more that lie underneath that all that economy of movement. This is why this year’s Wimbledon loss to Djokovic was such a crushing blow, after sitting with two championship points.
We forget that he had just recovered from having beaten Nadal in the semis. If you looked at the stats, you would have called the match for the Swiss, who broke Djokovic more, served at a higher percentage, and committed less unforced errors.
He played the brilliant tactical offensive strategic game while the game’s greatest defender played economically sound, skillful defense. Djokovic simply bided his time, and had the patience to do so. In short, he rope-a-doped Federer and did the unforgivable, he took the victory away from the eight-time Wimbledon champ.
This is why that win was a hard one to accept for Federer and his fans. It is also why Djokovic is such a formidable foe, and why’s crawled under the 20-time champion’s skin.
“It’s just a point and shot here and there that makes a difference and he got it [at Wimbledon], so there’s nothing you can do there,” Federer said, according to The Guardian.Then there is Federer’s age. At 38, the tennis legend knows that every tournament, every match is closer to retirement.
“Move on, try harder next time around, hopefully luck goes on your side. I stayed calm, I played great until the very end and I couldn’t be more happy right now”.
His fans know that once he goes, the age factor favors Rafa and Djokovic, and with each year they play, there’s a good chance that his two great rivals will surpass the record Fed has so carefully built body and soul since 2003.
Like Jimmy Connors in his last years, Federer’s ability to remain one of the best players in the world is like an aphrodisiac for his fans. The comeback story—like Rocky Balboa coming out of retirement to fight the fight of his life—is irresistible.
Federer’s first serve winning percentage was 81% (82% on second!) and hit only five unforced errors in Thursday’s match against Djokovic. He played at a near-flawless level, reminiscent of his earlier years. The fact that he can call on that level of masterclass now, in a match most expected him to lose, is also why fans love him.
The Swiss legend managed to flip the script in the Nadal rivalry by winning seven of their last eight matchups (one of them a withdrawal). The win over Djokovic isn’t a completely new narrative, but it was a decisive break in direction, a second win in the last seven tries (since 2015).
32-year-old Novak Djokovic has dealt Federer his toughest blows in the grand slams, preventing the Basel native from achieving four more, thrice at Wimbledon and the US Open since 2014. Two of the matches were nail-biting, tightly fought contests, with this year’s being the longest final in Wimbledon history.
Federer clearly has the game, but has yet to master the mental insecurities when facing a steely-minded Nole in a GS final. But Federer is capable of playing his best tennis and continues to defy the odds with each passing tournament.
He may not be the dominating machine he was when he first ruled over all in his twenties, winning slams, but the vulnerabilities that have developed over time have only endeared him further to tennis fans worldwide. He still produces brilliance, even if it is more sporadic than it used to be.
It is savored nonetheless each and every time. Like Tiger Woods, Federer playing at the level he’s at, he has a chance to add to his legend in 2020. The Olympics are coming up. He achieved a singles Silver in London, and a doubles Gold in Beijing.
He is gunning for his seventh ATP Finals trophy, a title he hasn’t won since 2011. If he does win, he will tie Novak Djokovic in ATP ‘big titles,’ with 55 (grand slams, Masters 1000’s, and the ATP Finals).
Federer has as good a chance as ever to achieve his record ninth Wimbledon and make his GS total haul a magical 21. He’ll always be a factor in Melbourne as well, although Federer’s not participating in any warm-up tournaments prior.
Will he ever be world No. 1 again? That is probably the biggest stretch of them all, with Nadal and Djokovic pretty secure at the top of the leaderboard. Of the Big 3, however, Roger Federer is the only one left in the ATP Finals draw and moves on to the semifinals. If there’s something tennis fans keep learning is to never, ever count Roger Federer out.