Once again, those who have been chomping at the bit, ready to declare the end of the Roger Federer era in tennis, have to pack up those votive candles and set aside the black lapel ribbons. For the first time in about 10 months, Federer won a tournament, earning a three-set victory on Sunday at Halle.
Whenever Roger Federer needs a lift, you can count on the man he beat in the final, Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny. Ranked No. 29 and just days from joining Federer as a 31-year-old, Youzhny has won a grand total of four sets (and no matches) against Federer in 15 meetings over the course of a decade-plus.
Youzhny was nothing less than tonic for a man in sore need of relief. Take Federer’s win at Wimbledon last year out of the calculation, and Federer has clearly been hard-pressed to remain relevant at Grand Slam events. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have mastered the hard courts; Rafael Nadal owns the clay. After he won the Australian Open in 2010 (d. Murray), Federer went 0-6 against Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray at the four majors. He did win Wimbledon last year, with back-to-back conquests of Djokovic and Murray. But in the three Grand Slam events since, he’s lost to Tomas Berdych, Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That’s 13 majors with one title -- and just one win against his big-four rivals.
Those statistics tend to blur in the shadow of all that Federer, the all-time Grand Slam singles champ, has achieved. That too, he’s only been losing at late stages of tournaments and only to his rivals. Most top-10 pros of any era would give their eye teeth to experience a similar decline. The obit writers won’t dip their pens in the poisoned ink and sway anyone until Federer loses in the second round to a Jeremy Chardy or Martin Klizan at, say, the US Open.
Even so, Federer did himself a lot of good with his win at Halle. Federer has played a greatly reduced schedule this year, and that’s put him under a lot of pressure to win in order to maintain his sky-high ranking (he’s been in the top three since the fall of 2011 and is presently No. 3). To borrow a favorite expression of his, Federer is “collecting information” on just how little match play he needs in order to feel like he’s still competitive at majors. He skipped almost the entire European clay-court season, and when he lost to Tsonga in the French Open quarterfinals two weeks ago, it sent a shiver of alarm through Federer partisans.
Because Federer was defending finalist points at Halle and is defending winner’s points at Wimbledon, it theoretically makes this four-week stretch the toughest month of his year. This period, ending in early July, could be a harbinger of his future. You don’t stay in the top three in this era without winning tournaments, even if you do have 17 Grand Slam titles to your name.
The first and easiest part of Federer’s mission is complete, and it again confirms that you have to be an idiot to write off Federer until he’s good and ready to go. Halle is an ATP 250, so Federer picked up just 100 points more than he collected when he lost to resurgent Tommy Haas in last year’s final (by contrast, he’s got 2000 ranking points at stake at Wimbledon). But don’t get too hung up on the numbers. It’s no coincidence that Federer’s only Grand Slam victory in his last 13 tries was at Wimbledon. After all, he’s a seven-time champion. He showed last year that he’s still the best grass-court player of his time, and the win at Halle probably gave him a lot more confidence than it did rankings points.
“These are exactly the kind of wins I need at this part of the season,” Federer said of his wins over Haas and Youzhny last week. “I've been preparing well for this part of the season and I'm happy it's paying off. It's obviously important for my confidence looking forward to Wimbledon now."
And if that’s not enough to zip the lips of naysayers, consider this: Two Sundays from now will mark the 10th anniversary of Federer’s first triumph at Wimbledon. A decade ago, Federer kicked off his drive to the title with a win at Halle. One of his victims there?