Pink was the colour of this year’s Australian Open, from Nike’s monopolistic colour palette to Kyle Edmund’s skin in the 40 degree sun. But it was Roger Federer, once again, who left everyone else looking red-faced, no matter how much Factor 50 they slathered on before stepping out of the shade and into his shadow.
To enter the court with Federer is to face trial by genius, yet, at 36, even the Swiss could be forgiven for blushing at the intractability of his own dominance. In the past year, discourse in the tennis world has moved markedly towards the question of when the inevitable, but still somewhat inconceivable, transition from the Big Four to the New Core will finally occur. In retrospect, fate seemed to have penciled in this tournament for the passing of the torch. Andy Murray didn’t make it. Novak Djokovic limped meekly out in the round of 16. Rafa Nadal, whose career is one brutal, uninterrupted meditation on combativity, was forced to surrender to the physical limitations of his body in the quarters. One by one, round by round, the old was giving way. The new was sweeping in. The era of the Big Four was winding down before our very eyes. This was it. Finally. At long last.
But Federer is his own era. Federer is an aeon. If destiny had it written in that he too would wilt before the looming imminence of history, Federer simply screwed up the page and nonchalantly swatted it aside like a passive mid-court return. In the semis it was Djokovic’s 21 year old conqueror Hyeon Chung who was forced into retirement after being, almost literally, run off his feet. On Sunday, as the final entered its fifth set, it was Marin Cilic, 29, who was unable to find the requisite reserves of fitness and form as he was blown away by an opponent closer to 40. Federer was the man who set the standard to which all others had to elevate themselves in order to win grand slams and it is still he who reaches that level while they falter. It’s like watching a procession of hyper-toned elite marathon runners melting in sight of the finish line before a fun running middle-aged Dad comes trotting past to break the tape while trying to suppress his impish grin at the ridiculousness of it all.
In truth though, this was a final which underpinned just how fine the margins at this level can be. Had a couple of points in the second set tiebreak gone differently, Federer most likely would have finished the job in a manner not dissimilar to his destruction of a hobbled Cilic at Wimbledon last year. If the beaten man that day had started the first set with the same raw aggression and bludgeoning power off the forehand wing that defined him by the end of the fourth he may well not have suffered the same fate on this occasion.
Ultimately, the match boiled down to the opening two games of the final set as a nervy looking Federer somehow gritted out his most unconvincing hold of the match before immediately breaking both the serve and the will of his opponent. From that moment on Federer never looked back while Cilic increasingly appeared like a man who could do nothing but. By the time the Croat’s mind was done analysing precisely how those pair of games had slipped through his racket, Federer was commiserating him at the net, waving to the crowds and thanking all the people that made it possible.
We’re now one tournament closer to the end of the Federer age, yet the agelessness of his performances means we’re further away than ever before from knowing when that day will come. If the idea of a 36 year old winning three of the last five majors seems remarkable, consider the fact that, since the start of the open era in 1968, Federer has won over 10% of all the grand slams contested. If that’s not enough, consider also the fact that, given the intricacies of the points system, Federer will probably be world number one once again by the start of the clay court season. In so doing, he’ll become the oldest man ever to hold the position by a full three years.
The big question that remains is whether he will choose to replicate last year’s enforced but highly profitable strategy of sitting out the French Open so as to be primed for a more realistic run at Wimbledon. 12 months ago such a decision was taken due to combination of niggling injuries and the humble acceptance that he couldn’t overcome Nadal on clay. Given this year it is the Spaniard who is carrying the niggles, the prospect will certainly appear more enticing. However, such a plan may be foolhardy and could prove detrimental to his longer-term ambitions in terms of career longevity and on-court success. Notice the use of the words ‘may’ and ‘could’, though. When you’re talking about Roger Federer and potential victory, the most foolhardy thing one could do is rule anything out.