With age 34 right around the corner and English grass back under his feet, is this the last big chance for Roger Federer to win a Grand Slam tournament?
He certainly craves another Wimbledon trophy. Asked in an interview earlier this year what experience he wanted most in tennis before he called it a career, Federer said he would take another victory at the All England Club and, “in a dream world,” becoming No. 1 again “like it happened in 2012.”
Wimbledon in 2012 was Federer’s 17th Grand Slam singles title and, for now, his last. Since that victory, he has reached only one other major final, also at Wimbledon, where he lost to Novak Djokovic in five sets last year.
The United States Open, where Federer got to the semifinals last year, still feels like a real opportunity if the courts are quick enough and his form and health hold. But Wimbledon is his best opportunity, particularly after his convincing play down the stretch in his only grass-court tuneup event in Halle, where he won his eighth title.
He will be going for an eighth at Wimbledon, too. If — against the odds — he gets it, he will be the oldest men’s champion of the Open era, two years older than Arthur Ashe, who was 31 when he outplayed (and outplanned) the younger, brasher Jimmy Connors in the 1975 final.
Federer is the No. 2 seed this year and was dealt a very playable hand in Friday’s draw. Yes, he is in the same half as third-seeded Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, whose recent struggles leave him a dangerous No. 10 seed.
But Federer is not in their quarter, and his early-round path looks comfortable, if hardly cushy. It could include a second-round match with Sam Querrey, the American who is in the Nottingham final this weekend, and a third-round match with Jack Sock, a younger American with the raw power and ambition to make some dents.
“Everything started at Wimbledon for me,” Federer said. “Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg — they won a ton there when I was young, so my heroes always won there. And then junior Wimbledon in 1998 struck a chord in me as the only Grand Slam in the juniors I won. It had to be Wimbledon, of course.”
He beat Irakli Labadze of Georgia in that final. Three years later, at age 19, he beat Sampras, the seven-time Wimbledon champion, in five classic sets in the fourth round of the main tournament.
It was a clear coming-of-age moment, but he needed two more years before he won his first Grand Slam title and first Wimbledon title in 2003. He would win five straight at the All England Club before Nadal stopped him in the 2008 final in one of the most compelling matches in the game’s long history.
Federer came back the next year to beat Andy Roddick, 16-14, in the fifth set, and break Sampras’s record for Grand Slam singles titles with his 15th. He then snatched one more title, beating Murray in 2012 before losing the Olympic final to him on the same stretch of grass in the same summer.
“If I had only played Wimbledon for the last 15 years, the story alone would have been unbelievable,” Federer said. “I’ve had the toughest losses and the best wins there. That is not to diminish anything of all the other matches and tournaments I’ve played, but there’s something very special for me in the connection with Wimbledon, and I guess Wimbledon is always going to be on top of my list.”
There is also the matter of Edberg, now Federer’s co-coach, with Severin Luethi. Federer has yet to win a Slam with Edberg in his camp. What better place than Wimbledon, 25 years after Edberg won the second of his two singles titles there, beating Becker in the 1990 final?
“Exactly,” Federer said. “I’m looking forward to Stefan being with me. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Even if Federer manages to win a tournament in which Djokovic and Murray seem the rightful favorites this year, he will not be able to relive 2012 and get back to No. 1. Djokovic’s grip on the top spot remains too firm.
But Federer’s game has managed to remain close to state of the art, particularly on faster surfaces, even if he now seems more dangerous in best-of-three-set events than best-of-five. His four titles this season came in Brisbane, Dubai, Istanbul and Halle, not a Grand Slam or Masters 1000 among them. But they did come on the three major surfaces: clay, outdoor hard court and grass.
In those four tournament victories, Federer’s only wins against top-10 players were against Milos Raonic in Brisbane and Djokovic in Dubai on a fast court. But he is 6-3 against the top 10 this year and 34-6 over all, with his only losses off clay coming to Andreas Seppi in the third round of the Australian Open and Djokovic in the Indian Wells final.
“I think it’s right, he still has a shot at Wimbledon,” said Roddick, who will be doing commentary for the BBC at Wimbledon this year. “Roger was two points away at Wimbledon last year. He’s still beating the top guys. I think the only thing that is different is he is more susceptible to lose early in events now. I think guys just play so big that they just come out and fire against him. No one is going to beat him throwing jabs, right? But uppercuts are getting landed a little more often. He’s still good enough to avoid those most days.”
“I don’t know if he’s going to win in Australia or Paris again, but you show me a fast surface that he’s not in the two or three favorites,” Roddick added. “I don’t think that tournament exists right now.”
At least for one more year, Federer is still on the short list at Wimbledon, his favorite tennis place. Because of the newly expanded grass-court season, he has a chance to be fresher than usual there after getting nearly two weeks off before Halle and another week off after Halle.
“It’s really going to make things supertight between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but it is what it is, and I still believe it’s the right thing to do to give the grass an extra week,” Federer said. “It’s a very short spell, the whole grass-court season, and let’s not forget that three of the four majors used to be on grass.”