Had 2020 been a usual year, 8th August would have marked the closing day of the Tokyo Olympics. And had it been a usual year, Roger Federer, too, would have played the Games after missing the previous edition in Rio de Janeiro, in 2016.
But since nothing about 2020 is usual, not only were the Olympics pushed to 2021, but Federer’s knee problems also forced him out until 2021. This slight parallel between the Swiss’ last two Olympic years is a little more nuanced when seen from the perspective of his Olympic years of 2008 and 2012.
These were the two years that marked Federer’s medal-winning efforts at the quadrennial event. Looking back, Federer’s laurels in each of those two years came in amid different circumstances vis-à-vis the positioning of his career.
And yet, these redefined him as a player who had gotten a first-of-sorts, notwithstanding his other successful results.
Throwback to Roger Federer's 2008 and 2012 Olympic Journey
In the case of 2008, success was as much of a miss as it was a hit for the Basel native.
The dominance he had held over the game was perceived to be on the wane. Among his other defeats, his losses in the French Open and Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal added substantial heft to this belief. Where, today, these matches are thought of the Spaniard’s coming-of-age milestones; these two finals also reflected the slackening foothold of Federer atop tennis’ pinnacle.
This loosening of grip overcame its symbolism and became a reality when Federer had to concede his world no. 1 ranking to Nadal after 237 straight weeks. Federer won his gold medal in men’s doubles – partnering Stan Wawrinka – at the 2008 Beijing Games while buffeted by this wave of uncertainty.
There were also a couple of Olympic precedents that had brought him to his third Olympics. At the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympics, in what were his first two Olympic appearances, the 20-time Slam champion had to do without a podium finish.
In 2008, on the back of these reasons and also because he was Switzerland’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony – which was on his birthday, 8th August – Federer’s keenness to win a medal in the four-yearly tournament was prominent from the outset.
In hindsight, his defeat in singles also served as the impetus for him winning his first medal at the Games. In the singles quarter-final, James Blake won his first – and only – match against the Swiss in straight sets.
Knowing he had no more chances in singles, Federer and Wawrinka’s determined focus in doubles saw them upset the Bryans in the semi-finals – in straight sets – and win a four-setter over the Swedish team of Thomas Johansson and Simon Aspelin in the final.
The Swiss duo made it to the centre spot on the podium and in them doing so, Federer had recovered his morale. A few weeks later, the Swiss carried on this burst of confidence – despite some jitters – all the way to his fifth US Open title.
Four years on, in 2012, Federer’s professional map had taken different courses before heading towards London for the Games that year. Unlike in 2008, Federer did not have much pressure on him regarding an Olympic medal.
Although he was conscious of not having been able to win a medal in the singles discipline, for once he did not let it become a distraction. His playing at Wimbledon, where he had scaled some of the highs of his career, also helped in easing him into the tournament.
One of these had come that very year at the same venue, a few days earlier, when he equalled Pete Sampras’ record of seven Championships. That one win had helped mitigate Federer’s other disappointing results on the tour up to that moment.
Solely concerning the Olympics though, it also seemed as if it were the talisman that would not let him remain empty-handed for long. His stutter against Colombian Alejandro Falla in his singles first round almost made Federer Wimbledon successes an irony with the Olympics’ construct.
But all of his next rounds right up to the semi-finals were straight-setters, leading up to the showing that was to be the final before the final to determine the gold-medal awardee. The last time Federer had made it to the semi-finals of the Olympics – in 2000 – he had ended on the losing side of the net, to German Tommy Haas.
Later, in the bronze medal play-off, Federer came fourth against France’s Arnaud di Pascuale who took the bronze after a hard-played three-setter. It had taken Federer only a dozen years to make it to another semi-final at the Olympics.
And this time, Federer played like he had everything to lose against Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in that penultimate round. Not wanting to leave anything open-ended this time, Federer channelled all his previous years’ misses and frustrations and let the grass absorb them through each hit of the ball.
Del Potro’s intractable play meant that in the final stages of the match Federer was functioning on fumes, but it was one of those matches where the latter's willpower substituted for his body. Federer's willpower carried him through to the final, too, where he assuredly would win a medal, victor or otherwise.
The eventuality of him winning the silver medal, then, completed Federer’s Olympic circle, fittingly at the All England Club. Eight years on, thinking back to these matches of Roger Federer’s seems quite unusual.
But in an upheaving year, there is something so usual about reliving his coups as though living freely within an impenetrable bubble. Photo Credit: Australian Open