Ten­nis

‘Methuse­lah’ Fed­erer has un­shake­able be­lief in his tal­ent, says Kevin Mitchell

The Guardian - - NEWS - Kevin Mitchell

Roger Fed­erer, who is age­ing with the ir­re­sistible longevity of an oak tree, is the very an­tithe­sis of Andy Mur­ray. While the Scot’s 31-year-old body screams at him ev­ery morn­ing when he puts on his socks and shoes, Fed­erer, at 37, con­tin­ues to float on his own cloud.

His younger con­tem­po­raries are suf­fer­ing to the point of res­ig­na­tion in the strug­gle to stay in a sport that has be­come cru­elly bru­tal, yet Fed­erer ap­pears to be what Àlex Cor­retja de­scribed Mur­ray as when coach­ing him at his phys­i­cal peak be­tween 2008 and 2011: “In­de­struc­tible.”

The Swiss has had his aches and pains – even late-ca­reer knee surgery – but, as he sets about chas­ing a sev­enth Aus­tralian Open cham­pi­onship and the 100th ti­tle of a ca­reer that be­gan last cen­tury, as­ton­ish­ingly he is among the fittest of the 128 con­tenders.

There has only ever been one player named Fed­erer in ten­nis, just as there was only one Brad­man in cricket. The Don was plagued by ill-health, though. Fed­erer has been blessed in ev­ery way.

“His body took the de­ci­sion, un­for­tu­nately,” Fed­erer said. “I re­mem­ber when I played with him in Glas­gow [in late 2017, as Mur­ray con­tem­plated a come­back], I couldn’t be­lieve he ac­tu­ally played. But it was for a good cause. It must have been a very long cou­ple of years for him. I was dis­ap­pointed and sad, a lit­tle bit shocked, to know now that we’re go­ing to lose him at some point. I hope that he can play a good Aus­tralian Open and can keep play­ing be­yond that, fin­ish the way he wants to at Wim­ble­don.”

Those are no­ble sen­ti­ments. The re­al­ity is Mur­ray is near break­ing point. Only more surgery could pro­long his ca­reer. There is no de­fy­ing the cal­en­dar.

Largely im­mune to the rav­ages of time him­self, the de­fend­ing cham­pion – who plays De­nis Is­tomin to­day – de­scribed yes­ter­day how play­ers slowly crum­ble as the years pass.

“Let’s say when you’re young, you have, I don’t know, a pain in the el­bow. Next day you can play with it; two days later it’s like you never had it. All of a sud­den – at maybe 30, 35, 40, de­pend­ing on who you are, what prob­lems you’ve had – you will feel it for two weeks. You can still play, but now you’re play­ing with pain. It takes longer to get rid of.

“Ev­ery­body is very dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery­body takes the pain dif­fer­ently. That’s also where you have to be very wise [about] what kind of sched­ule you’re play­ing with, what prob­lem you’re deal­ing with.”

So, how has the Methuse­lah of sport held the demons at bay for so long?

“If you look at how un­lucky things were with the in­ci­dent here a few years ago when I ran the bath, I guess the knee was ready to go. Could eas­ily have hap­pened in the match against No­vak [Djokovic], but it didn’t, maybe be­cause I was warmed up. I have no idea what hap­pened. You also need a bit of luck.

“Then, I un­der­stand my body very well. I know when some­thing hurts and I can play with it; I know when some­thing hurts and I should not play with it, but I can still play maybe a match, maybe a week, a month, what­ever. Some­times that helps. But ev­ery player has that. My team know when to push me, when they are happy that I don’t practise so much.”

The core dif­fer­ence be­tween Fed­erer and his ri­vals is his un­shake­able be­lief in his tal­ent, to trust his ge­nius.

“I’ve al­ways be­lieved I can play ten­nis when I don’t train so much,” he said. “That’s been maybe one thing, the con­fi­dence I have in my game, even if I don’t play so much, where I still feel I can come up to a good level. Maybe that takes away some pres­sure.”

He added – con­firm­ing the silent thoughts of ev­ery­one in the room – that, “maybe it’s also the way I play ten­nis, smoother than the other guys. It maybe looks that way [but] I work ex­tremely hard in the matches as well. It just doesn’t come across so much.”

Now he has to de­liver again to launch an­other as­sault on his­tory. In the last match of day one in the Rod Laver Arena, where he has cel­e­brated most of his 94 wins here in 107 matches stretch­ing back to the turn of the mil­len­nium, he plays Is­tomin for the sev­enth time. The world No 99 has taken just two sets off him, both in front of Fed­erer’s Swiss friends in Basel, in their last two meet­ings.

Two years ago, though, he put an

‘I body un­der­stand very well. my I know when some­thing hurts and I can still play’

ail­ing No­vak Djokovic out in five sets in the first round, his only suc­cess against the Serb in six at­tempts.

Fed­erer says: “I know what De­nis did to No­vak. I watched the en­tire game. I’ve had some tough ones against him in the past. He can play well on fast courts, and that’s what it’s go­ing to be here as well. But I’m play­ing good ten­nis. I’m con­fi­dent it needs a good per­for­mance by my op­po­nent to beat me.”

SCOTT BAR­BOUR/ GETTY IMAGES

Roger Fed­erer dur­ing prac­tice in Mel­bourne be­fore he be­gins his de­fence of the Aus­tralian Open ▲

▲ De­nis Is­tomin sur­prised No­vak Djokovic in the first round in 2017

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