The re­turn of Roger Fed­erer

On the eve of Wim­ble­don, seek­ing a re­turn to great­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHUCK CULPEP­PER

Roger Fed­erer has reached his 19th Wim­ble­don with a haunted exit from his last trip here, an ex­hil­a­rated exit from his last trip to a Grand Slam and a late­ca­reer knack for tak­ing all those aes­thetes who adore him on some nutty rides. ¶ It might sound blasé in gen­eral, the idea of a No. 3 seed near­ing 36 years old af­ter skip­ping the spring­time clay­court sea­son and miss­ing three of the past five Grand Slam tour­na­ments. Yet two wee patches of ten­nis within the vast sym­phony of his ca­reer frame this ap­proach to Wim­ble­don, which will be­gin Mon­day, and make him the most cu­ri­ous of all the male and fe­male en­tries at the All Eng­land club. ¶ The first patch lasted 11 points but, in a real sense, two. ¶ The other lasted a blurry 39 points from which no­body has re­cov­ered and, re­ally, no­body wants to. ¶ Both baf­fled other peo­ple and Fed­erer. ¶ In the first, in July 2016 at Wim­ble­don, he sud­denly served five con­sec­u­tive faults, which looked like some sense­less 5 a.m. dream with which you might bore oth­ers with de­tails. In the sec­ond, in Jan­uary this year in Aus­tralia, he sud­denly won five straight clos­ing games in a way even he never had. Of all peo­ple, this mae­stro with a his­tory of such broad dom­i­nance also has ex­em­pli­fied how sports his­tory can hinge on tiny mo­ments. A player who for so long rep­re­sented a kind of clar­ity has re­minded us that sports are mys­te­ri­ous.

When Fed­erer served trail­ing 6-5 in the fourth set of a 2016 Wim­ble­don semi­fi­nal against Mi­los Raonic, he ap­peared more likely than not to ap­pear in a fi­nal against even­tual cham­pion Andy Mur­ray. Fed­erer led two sets to one. He had won one of those two in a tiebreaker, with an­other loom­ing as he bounced out hur­riedly to a 40-love stran­gle­hold. He had held serve for 18 con­sec­u­tive games. No­vak Djokovic, win­ner of the pre­vi­ous four Grand Slams and six of the pre­vi­ous eight, was long gone, hav­ing lost in the third round. The record book of­fered hope; Fed­erer held a 5-1 record in Grand Slams against Mur­ray, his pre­sump­tive next op­po­nent. When Raonic, the sixth-seeded Cana­dian who had yet to win a Grand Slam semi­fi­nal, pulled a clean-win­ning fore­hand from the mid­dle of the court for 40-15, that shot looked swell but prob­a­bly triv­ial. From there, stuff got weird. Fed­erer shipped a first serve long. He di­rected a sec­ond one to­ward the dou­bles cor­ner, both long and wide for 40-30. He sent one up the mid­dle but wide. He sent an­other long near the mid­dle for deuce. Those had be­come his only two dou­ble faults of the set (among five for the match), and it was like watch­ing some kind of wrin­kle in the fab­ric of the known Earth. Fed­erer had lost from the lead be­fore in high­brow mo­ments — two U.S. Open semi­fi­nals against Djokovic spring to mind — but not with such a fusil­lade of faults. He ac­tu­ally sent an­other serve up the mid­dle but wide be­fore fi­nally send­ing a sec­ond serve in. Three more deuces en­sued. Eleven points af­ter trail­ing 40-love, Raonic hauled to­ward a fifth set with both the 7-5 set win and un­mis­tak­able mo­men­tum.

Soon, Fed­erer would ap­pear in the in­ter­view room as a frag­ile fig­ure and be­gan grumpily: “Just don’t re­mind me of ev­ery­thing.” At his most grop­ing, he said: “I don’t know. Some­thing went wrong. I don’t know. I can’t be­lieve I served a dou­ble fault twice. Un­ex­plain­able for me, re­ally, yeah. Very sad about that and an­gry at my­self be­cause never should I al­low him to get out of that set that eas­ily.”

While com­pli­ment­ing Raonic for hav­ing “de­served it” and “earned it at the end,” Fed­erer also said, “But I helped him so much to get back into that game.” Do­ing so helped make way for an­other scene wit­nesses might re­mem­ber years on: Fed­erer’s spill dur­ing the fifth set. “I don’t ever fall down,” he said.

By the end of July, he had ended his sea­son. With his then17 Grand Slam ti­tles but none since 2012, it looked as if it could have been a lost, last chance. “It was re­ally so, so close,” he said.

Six months later, when Fed­erer re­turned serve at 1-3 in the fifth set of the Aus­tralian Open fi­nal against Rafael Nadal, he ap­peared more likely than not to fin­ish with a run­ner-up plate. Each player had won two sets. Nadal had won the fourth and had played the early stretches of the fifth with his spring-to-life de­fense that, typ­i­cally, de­fied all sense of pro­por­tion. The record book couldn’t help out; Fed­erer would take his 2-9 Grand Slam record against Nadal and his six straight losses across 101/2 yawn­ing years to­ward the crash­ing fin­ish. Only two of his 17 pre­vi­ous Grand Slam ti­tles had re­quired five-set fi­nals, with nei­ther re­quir­ing a fifth-set come­back. When Fed­erer, a No. 17 seed who had just taken six months off, held serve at 40-15 to halve his deficit to 3-2, it looked swell but prob­a­bly triv­ial. From there, stuff got weird. Over the next four games and 34 points, the his­tory of an old sport changed. In a blur, Fed­erer up and won 26 of the fi­nal 39 points, even the 26-shot rally that thrilled the Earth.

Soon, Fed­erer ap­peared in the in­ter­view room as a ren­o­vated, in­vig­o­rated fig­ure with the fresh knowl­edge “that I can still do it at my age af­ter not hav­ing won a Slam for al­most five years.” The sprout­ing of his best ten­nis in the clos­ing mo­ments “was ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ing to me,” he said, and he also said, “I ac­tu­ally did re­ally win.”

In the elu­sive, ever­last­ing mys­tery, “I told my­self to play free,” he said, soon adding: “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be re­warded here.”

That night in Mel­bourne, the score­board of all-time Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles be­tween Fed­erer and Nadal be­gan at 17-14 in Fed­erer’s fa­vor, then tilted to­ward 17-15, then wound up at 18-14, be­fore Nadal mauled the French Open to make it 18-15. Now comes a Wim­ble­don that Fed­erer will en­ter af­ter only six tour­na­ments (with a hefty four wins) this sea­son, as com­pared with the 13 (plus two events for Switzer­land) be­fore his first Grand Slam ti­tle at Wim­ble­don in 2003. It could wind up in a quar­ter­fi­nal against Raonic and a fi­nal against Nadal, or it could wind up with none of that. It’s very hard to tell any­more.

ROBERT GHEMENT/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Roger Fed­erer won the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary by beat­ing Rafael Nadal in five mem­o­rable sets.

LEON NEAL/GETTY IMAGES

Two dou­ble faults were part of the rea­son Roger Fed­erer, above, lost to Mi­los Raonic in the semi­fi­nals at Wim­ble­don last year.

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