Ranjona Banerji: No, the old man did not tire

Updated: Jan 31, 2018, 07:17 IST | Ranjona Banerji | Mumbai

Federer swept back into the Australian Open in immaculate style after losing to Goffin in a semi-final match in the ATP year-ender

Switzerland's Roger Federer taking a selfie of himself with the trophy at Government House in Melbourne the day after beating Croatia’s Marin Cilic in their men’s singles final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament. Pic/AFP
Switzerland's Roger Federer taking a selfie of himself with the trophy at Government House in Melbourne the day after beating Croatia's Marin Cilic in their men’s singles final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament. Pic/AFP

Ranjona BanerjiLast year, even as Roger Federer played some sublime, spectacular and superlative tennis, diehard fans were elated and apprehensive. Was this going to last? Would the old man tire? Were all those hungry young players waiting impatiently going to break through at last? Would Rafael Nadal take revenge for last year's loss to Federer? And would Novak Djokovic return with the same magnificent elan as Federer and Nadal did last year?

How many cliches can I come up with now? Glorious uncertainties? Renaissance Man? Sport Triumphs? Legendary? Iconic? Inspirational? How can one blame the writers who have run out of words to describe Roger Federer after he won his 20th Grand Slam title in Australia on the last Sunday in January? Here I am quoting them, after all.

Well, yes Federer has lasted and how! He swept back into the Australian Open after losing to David Goffin in a semi-final match in the ATP year-ender in 2017, in immaculate style, losing not one set en route to the final. No, the old man did not tire; at 36, he made players much younger than him look enervated and ragged. The hungry young players the tour has placed so much hope in — Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin — this moment was not theirs. Nadal fell to Marin Cilic, the eventual runner-up. Djokovic was ousted by the young Hyeon Chung, who turned out to be the surprise of the tournament.

When all the men, challengers, pretenders, champions, had fallen or been felled, that left Federer and Cilic. The questions began again. Would Cilic take revenge for Wimbledon 2017? Would he sweep Federer off the court as he did in the US Open semi-final in 2014? And yet. Yes, it was a five-set match. But how many had a look at the head to head between Federer and Cilic? That one match at the US Open was the only one Federer had ever lost to Cilic? Yes, fear, apprehension and humility are important. But lack of faith? Tut tut!

I say this now, but my nails were bitten to the quick, almost. Plus, I had already committed the biggest travesty that any Federer fan could — I was in transit for most of the match. I watched some on my phone at an airport, much to the amusement and horror of waiting travellers. I tracked some on social media. And as Federer reached championship point and Cilic challenged, I was trying to buy a cup of coffee as well as translate the euphoria of a fellow fan on the phone. Last year, I wrote for this newspaper that Federer won his 18th Grand Slam for my Mother, who had passed away just a few weeks before the final. Since then, Federer went on to win several tournaments as well as his eighth Wimbledon title, standing alone in the men's game and ahead of his rivals. Nadal won the US Open, taking his haul to 16.

Federer won the arithmetic game once again. He has 20 Grand Slams, six in Australia, one in France, eight at Wimbledon and five in the US. The women, to be fair, are ahead, with Margaret Court holding court with 24, followed by Serena Williams with 23 and Steffi Graf with 22. Few thought that Court's record would ever be broken but that's what records are for.

At the end of it all though, it comes back to Federer's style of play. The heat finished off many of his peers. The gruelling tour and the change of courts affected others. The travails of travel upset some. The constant hammering from the back of the court took its own toll. (It must be pointed out that women usually complain less than men, and the five-set versus three-set argument must be dusted and re-put on the table when men are challenged in any way.) However, this is about Federer. It is about the impossible and how nothing is impossible when you are talented, unique, graceful, courageous, stylish, elegant, intelligent, intuitive, instinctive and knowledgeable. What Federer has proved at 36 is that if you understand your game and your body, the courts and your opponents, on any given day, the match is yours to win. You have to be prepared to lose but you don't have to give in to loss. And then, you win. And when Federer wins, sport wins, we win!

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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