Looking back at Roger Federer’s 17 grand slam victories in this week, where he celebrated his 35th year of existence, the 2005 US Open final is certainly one of the most memorable. Playing at his absolute apex, the Swiss faced off against one of the most decorated superstars in modern tennis – eight-time major champion Andre Agassi. With six titles to his name already, the 24-year-old Federer was a considerable favourite against Agassi, who – 19 years after his first appearance at Flushing Meadows – had clawed his way through the draw to reach the last final of his storied career. At a disadvantage for if not skill, then certainly mileage, Agassi was able to shock the crowd through the first three sets, stealing the second (and very nearly taking the third) with a mix of sublime counter-punching and dogged defence from the baseline. It was incredible to watch, as for only a few hours Agassi was Agassi again, and despite his age you truly felt he could pull the improbable off. Then the fourth set happened, and the American came crashing back to Earth as his body gave out and Federer steamrolled him. Even though he would play for one more year, it marked the last time Agassi was truly at his best. A perfect coda to his career, when that match took place, Agassi was 35.
And so as Federer now celebrates the same milestone, I wonder if he’s thinking about that match, and the man who starred across from him. Just as Agassi was, now Federer is the veteran presence, and just like Agassi was in ’05, finds himself staring down the barrel of retirement, while simultaneously clinging to the hope for one final slam.
It’s been four years since he last won, at Wimbledon, but what kept him going – and tennis fans hoping – was that he almost certainly had those four years to get number 18, after professing his goal of competing at the Rio Olympics right after London 2012. With the recurrence of the knee injury that sidelined him after Melbourne, that’s now officially dead in the water, so how much longer can we hope to keep him for? After all, his real fight isn’t to regain that glory of old, but to hang onto what he has left – namely his perch in the top four.
If his latest Wimbledon sojourn showed us anything of Federer, it’s that he can still be just as captivating and competitive, yet equally frustrating as the consistency of his game continues to fray. Particularly against Cilic and Raonic, his game was less instant-offence and more easy bake oven – never out-hitting but doing juuust enough out-manoeuvring to keep his head above water until finally in the fifth set against the latter, he lost it completely. It was an exhilarating two weeks for Federer fans, but just as Agassi realised in 2006, that run may very well have been the Swiss’ last hurrah.
Up till this point, Federer’s entire career has been an anomaly. No man has won as many slams, nor dominated the rankings, nor displayed the artistry that he has, and only the great Jimmy Connors can match him for longevity – albeit not at quite the same level of success. If anyone can come back at 35 and win another major title it’s Federer, but my head says it’s a bridge too far. In the end it shouldn’t matter, he’s already the greatest, everything past #15 was a bonus, including a post-30 journey that gave us his undoubtedly best Wimbledon title, and a run at the top that has seen him not only continue to better his contemporaries – Roddick, Hewitt, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Gonzalez – but decisively outlive them. Unfortunately, as his body starts to fail him, this year’s run at Wimbledon might end up being his ’05 US Open, and that’s a reality tennis fans will have to come to terms with. As of right now, Federer intends to return for 2017, all we can do is enjoy whatever he has left, whatever that turns out to be.