Part of the joy of watching Roger Federer – which novelist David Foster Wallace once called a religious experience – is that he humanizes the inconceivable. You don’t sit out for six months and jump right back on tour to win two majors and every other big tournament you play. But he did it.
Federer won the Australian Open, the spring’s biggest hard court tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, and on Sunday he clinched his record eighth Wimbledon title with a straightforward victory in the final against Marin Cilic.
Before Roger Federer announced last July that he would skip the rest of the 2016 season to fully recover from a knee surgery he underwent in February, he was already the greatest male player ever. That wasn’t likely to change because of a six-month layoff after Wimbledon that Federer used to fully heal.
Federer’s ranking inevitably dropped because of the time off, to the point that he was the 17th seed at this year’s Australian Open, his first tournament back. Even the 35-year-old did not think he had much of a chance to challenge for big titles right away. He hadn’t won a major since 2012. But tennis’ resident genius proved himself wrong.
“It’s just too much, really,” Federer said after the match.
The greatest ever still can’t believe it. At 35, Federer is playing his best year of tennis when nobody, including himself, expected it. And in a career full of accolades and records, this year will outshine them all.
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi asked Federer after his win whether he thought at the beginning of the season that there was a chance he could possibly win two Slams in 2017.
“None,” Federer said. “Maybe one. Maybe if things were like, if like everybody thought, ‘You know what, Roger deserves one.’ And the players were just like, ‘OK we’ll give him a free pass for one.’ Then maybe. But two, no chance.”
It’s funny, because all of a sudden, Federer is the heavy favorite to win three this year, with the U.S. Open still to come. Remember, he sat out for six months before going on this dream run.
“If anything it just makes what he’s done and what he’s doing even more remarkable,” world Number 21 John Isner tells Rolling Stone. “In my opinion, he’s the greatest player of all time, and the fact that he’s taken so much time off and maybe arguably is playing his best tennis of all time – very, very impressive.”
What is craziest about Federer’s comeback year has been his mindset – having fun and letting go. After injury layoffs you’d expect a player to be anxious and perhaps nervous.
“Just relax, man,” Federer told himself during the fifth set of his Australian Open semifinal against three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka after blowing a two-set-lead. “The comeback is so great already. Let it fly off your racquet and just see what happens.”
Just relax, man. Federer has said time and time again this year that he is just happy to be healthy and playing. Maybe club players around the world will actually start relaxing when they tell themselves that, because it worked for the “Swiss Maestro,” who advanced to the final.
And it worked when Federer faced off against Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final.
Nadal – probably the second best player ever – had beaten Federer 23 of 34 times. The Spaniard was up a break, 3-1, in the fifth set of their titanic clash. Nobody could win five games in a row against Nadal at that point in such a huge match. Inconceivable.
But Federer did it.
And then he beat Nadal twice more in Indian Wells and Miami, where he won both titles.
“I told Severin, my coach, when I was warming up if I would you’ve just played the Miami finals, no Indian Wells, no Australian Open, we would still be very happy right now,” Federer said after the Miami win. “But I have way more, so that’s why I was trying to remind myself just to play without pressure.”
The pressure was back on Federer at Wimbledon – not that he showed it. The Swiss was the favorite after taking the clay season off to rest. Again, Federer is tennis’ genius. While he didn’t give himself a chance to compete at the French Open this year, Federer came back rested and more than anything, healthy.
“That refreshed him. It gave him I think a different perspective and that’s helped so much,” Isner said. “The other guys at the top of the game have not really taken that time off and that’s maybe showing a little bit.”
World Number One Andy Murray and 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic both struggled at Wimbledon with injuries, while Nadal, who won a record 10th French Open this year, fell in a long five-setter in the fourth round.
Who was still around when the dust settled? Federer, again, becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1976 to win Wimbledon without dropping a set.
“Roger is like someone from a film,” Cilic’s former coach and Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic wrote for The Times of London during the tournament. “Kill him and he gets up, so you have to kill him again. You have to kill him about 77 times to win.”
Nobody killed Federer at Wimbledon. Nobody even punched him in the face. Four Top 15 players and a capable grass court specialist up. Five players knocked right back down.
“Let’s not lose sight that he’s doing something truly extraordinary,” former world Number One John McEnroe said on ESPN’s telecast Sunday.
What Federer is doing is not extraordinary for any player, though. It is impossible. Federer is doing something extraordinary in Roger Federer’s world. And that is something everyone should keep watching, because while it may not last forever, Federer’s dream revival is something nobody will see again.