Watching Roger Federer dismantle Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the round of sixteen in this year’s Australian Open was like watching Roger Federer dismantling Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2014 Australian Open in the fourth round. What that devastatingly poor sentence means is that Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player to play the game, is well into the middle age of his twilight years. Having not followed the rankings as closely as I could have, sixth in the world isn’t all that befitting for Roger Federer, the Master, the Gentleman Winner, The GOAT (Greatest of all Time). It was an unpleasant little number for Federer to be attached to. For a professional athlete, 32 is old, and nobody could reasonably expect Federer to remain imperiously unbeatable, elegant and effortless, right up until the day he hangs up his monogrammed Nikes and walks away from the competitive side of the sport.
To be fair, he hasn’t been a contender for a while. But that doesn’t mean you can’t want it. It makes it even more bittersweet when he plays like he did against Tsonga, of all people. Tsonga has been responsible for some of Federer’s less than triumphant Grand Slam moments; not least the epic comeback victory from two sets down at Wimbledon in 2011. The kind of high-intensity, physical and aggressive tennis that Tsonga plays has been the brand that has troubled Federer more than any other since he began this more understated tail-end of his career. But in this latest encounter with the buoyant Frenchman, Federer’s accuracy, the power and reliability of his serve, his willingness to come aggressively to the net, and his ever present (and unrivalled) mastery over the cerebral aspects of a match completely suppressed Tsonga’s game, stopping him from gaining any momentum in the rally. The power hitting that Tsonga relies on requires him to get a firm foothold in a rally, usually provided by his monster serve. But Federer was eager to display his topspin backhanded return, often favouring it over his mainstay, the chipped slice backhand return. Federer’s returning in general was excellent, the shots that so often creep over into unforced errors these days were hitting the lines flush and with venom.
He was playing so well, as dominantly as he has in the last five or more years. In so many matches in that period there have only been glimpses of that vintage Federer, the odd miraculous passing shot, the trigger-pull forehand down the line, but it wouldn’t be sustained brilliance, until tonight against Tsonga. Consequently, all this brief return to form has done is make you question why it isn’t the standard for Federer, and to long for him to storm to another Grand Slam title, only then to realise the futility of such a hope, that these great matches are anomalous for the him these days. Federer has won just one of the last 12 or so Grand Slams he has played in. He is the sixth best player in the world. It’s selfish, I know, but I don’t want to see the slow, dignified decline of The GOAT, to watch him drop out of the top ten and get to the point where there really, truly is no hope of him even getting to another Grand Slam final. We all want our sporting heroes to retire at the top, if they can, triumphant to the end. It’s not realistic, but neither were any of the dozen or so astonishing shots that either player hit tonight. It’s not a realm of reality; it’s an arena of physical freaks of nature, thoroughbreds possessing once in a lifetime talent. It was surprising how much pleasure it gave me to watch Federer play so well. And despite the fact that it starkly exposed the rarity of such performances generally, it did bolster the hope that Federer’s sublime brilliance can appear in a match for longer than just a glimpse and that he can win like that again. Hope can be a silly thing.