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Column Copyright 2017 by Paul Fein

How Roger Federer Regained
His Greatness at 35

After Roger Federer outclassed Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the Wimbledon final, he candidly said, "I am really proud of myself for everything I did in these two weeks over here. I played, I would say, probably the best tennis of my life."

Considering Federer captured 18 other Grand Slam titles, and No. 19 was achieved just 23 days short of his 36th birthday, that claim is doubly amazing. Some experts agree with Federer. "I think this is the best he's played in his career," asserted Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and another superstar, Pete Sampras. Before the Wimbledon final, John McEnroe offered, "Federer is arguably better now than 10 years ago."

Exactly 10 years ago, The Mighty Fed won his fourth straight Wimbledon for his 11th major title in his last 17 Grand Slam events. That was about as peak or as prime Federer as you can get - until now.

This year, after not hoisting a major trophy since the 2012 Wimbledon - a hiatus he called "rocky years" - Federer grabbed two majors, the Australian Open and Wimbledon. This feat, which he last achieved in 2009, extended his career men's record to 19. He once joked about winning 20 and playing until he's 40. Suddenly, these two scenarios, which appeared implausible just a year ago, now seem rather doable, especially the magical milestone of 20. Only three players, Margaret Court with 24, Serena Williams, 23, and Steffi Graf, 22, have surpassed 20. Barring injury, Federer will likely be favored to win the season's last major at the US Open starting August 28.

How did this ageless legend return to the top of a sport that requires supreme athleticism - especially hand-eye coordination, speed, strength, stamina, and agility - and has featured champions predominantly in their late teens and 20s? Here are some answers to this intriguing question.

Love of Tennis - "I'm having a great time. A fantastic time really," Federer recently told ESPN magazine. "I can just play the tournaments I want to play and enjoy the process. If I do show up and play, I love it. When I'm in training, I enjoy being in training. When I'm not in training, if I'm on vacation, I can enjoy that." What's not to love about life if you're Roger Federer - especially when, astoundingly for a pro athlete, you're still in the prime of your career at nearly 36.

"He loves the game more than anyone I've ever seen," says Darren Cahill, a 1980s Australian Davis Cupper who later coached Federer and Andre Agassi, and currently guides Simona Halep.

Family Support - Roger Federer has shed plenty of tears of joy on Centre Court, but his crying after winning this Wimbledon caught him by surprise. "That was really the first moment I had to myself out there," he explained. "And I guess that's when it sunk in that, man, I was able to win Wimbledon again, and I broke a record, and my family is there to share it with me. I was hoping the boys [twins Leo and Lenny, 3] were going to be there, too, not just the girls [twins Myla and Charlene, 8]. And so I just felt so happy, and I guess I also realized how much I had put into it to be there. It was all those things together."

Federer, a devoted family man, was asked at Wimbledon how long he planned "to carry on" as a globetrotting pro. He pointed out that besides weighing his health and success, "It's discussions with my wife [Mirka] about the family, about my kids. Is everybody happy on tour? For the time being, it seems like absolutely no problem, which is wonderful."

That said, Mirka holds the power of veto should she have enough of life on the road. "Without her, I couldn't do it," acknowledged Federer. "If she said, you know, I don't want to travel anymore, I'll say, Okay, my career is over. It's as simple as that. So she's the key to a lot of this. But she's happy to be doing it, not on a weekly basis just because the traveling gets too much with the four. But, you know, I went to Stuttgart and Halle on my own. Now here we're together. We're having a great time. So she's been amazing support for me. She's the best."

Fan Support - "If you don't think a crowd can be the difference between winning and losing, you haven't watched enough tennis," pointed out 1980s superstar John McEnroe. Imagine having a huge home court advantage everywhere you play, except in Davis Cup on foreign soil. That's the case for the one and only Federer, the icon voted the Fans' Favorite on ATPWorldTour.com for a record 14 consecutive years.

In a sport where utter silence alternates with spectator cheering, Federer feeds off the roar of the crowd. At many tournaments, it seems like 99% of the fans are rooting for Federer. The boisterous energy of his enraptured fans is heightened, even magnified, by his wow-did-you-see-that! shot-making.

No wonder one of the most common and reverential signs displayed during his matches, and even practice sessions, is QUIET: GENIUS AT WORK.

Excellent Health - At Wimbledon, Federer was scampering around like a 20-year-old tour rookie. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic was forced to retire with a sore elbow, Andy Murray was limping with a bad hip, and Rafael Nadal, though relatively injury-free, revealed he's never pain-free. Whether Federer is blessed genetically or his lightness of movement reduces stress on his body, he has rarely suffered major injuries since he won his first tour match in 1998.

Federer's good fortune ended on Feb. 3, 2016, when he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, the first surgery of his charmed career. It snapped his Open Era-record streak of 65 straight Grand Slam appearances (73, including qualifying and junior events). When he fell during his 2016 Wimbledon semifinal loss to Milos Raonic, he aggravated his surgically repaired knee and injured his back. Both mended during his six-month layoff.

Conventional wisdom says an athlete's legs and eyes go first in his twilight years. But Roger is no conventional athlete. "Federer's movement at 35, almost 36, is unbelievable," raved McEnroe, during his 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 Wimbledon quarterfinal victory over Raonic. Not only are Federer's eyes as sharp as ever - based on how precisely he times the ball and how rarely he mis-hits it - but he keeps his eyes on the ball more intently and longer than anyone ever.

Smart Scheduling - Last year Federer wisely decided to take the last six months off to heal his knee and back. This year he prudently skipped the entire clay season. Critics be damned! He knew that he couldn't deter rampaging Rafa at the Masters Series events and the French Open. He also knew that grueling rallies on clay would exhaust him and risk injury. The only possible downside to the two-month clay-circuit layoff might be rustiness, but that was clearly outweighed by his masterly grass court skills and vast experience.

Smart interval scheduling is nothing new for Federer. More than any other champion - except for Serena and Venus Williams who play exceptionally light schedules - he has created three- and four-week rest periods during the season to recharge his batteries. This "periodization," or systematic planning of athletic training, has enabled Federer to peak at Grand Slam events. It also reduces the wear and tear on his body and prolongs his career.

 As Cahill noted, "Federer has made a career of making good decisions."

New Customized Racket - At the 2014 Australian Open, Federer switched from his small, antiquated Wilson 90-square-inch frame to his current Pro Staff RF97 Autograph racket. It took time, however, to maximize all its advantages.

"I used to shank backhands often with my old racket," revealed Federer during the 2017 Indian Wells. With a bigger sweet spot and more power, Federer could return swerving and high-bouncing serves more solidly and stroke backhands more boldly without a fear of erring.

"I am convinced wholeheartedly Roger would not have won the [2017] Australian Open without that racket," said former world No. 1 Jim Courier.

Never-ending Quest to Improve - Way back in 2005, Federer said, "I definitely feel there's room for improvement." Reflecting clarity rather than complacency, this honest self-critique came when he won his third straight Wimbledon for his fifth Grand Slam crown, his 21st consecutive victory in a final, and his 32nd match without defeat on grass.

"I just love his evolution as a better tactical player," observed ESPN analyst Pam Shriver during Wimbledon. "I mean he was so gifted early in his career, I don't feel like tactics were all that necessary. And then more in the last few years, he's realized he needed to be a tactician as well as that great athlete - one of the greatest athletes ever - and I think Ljubicic has been the perfect coach for him."

The Ljubicic Effect - Former world No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic replaced Stefan Edberg as Federer's coach in January 2016. "It was frustrating for them with that six months Federer was sidelined, but they were able to work on things," recalled Cahill, after Federer beat Nadal in the 2017 Miami Open final. "Federer came back a different type of player [in 2017] with a great backhand and a more efficient serve. He's playing with a confidence we haven't seen in a long time."

Under Ljubicic's astute tutelage, Federer dramatically improved his backhand. It proved most crucial against Nadal, Federer's kryptonite until this year, when he defeated Nadal in their three matches. This season Federer has seldom sliced his backhand, except on return of serve and against huge servers like Raonic, or as a change of pace to confound opponents.

The new backhand aggressiveness was heightened by hitting the ball an average of 18" farther into the court in 2017 than in 2013 on hard courts. Even more tactically striking is Federer's positional aggressiveness on return of serve. When he won Indian Wells in March, he stood 3 feet inside the baseline, a stunning 6 feet further forward than during his 2012 Indian Wells title run.

Self-Belief - "Roger Federer's best trait is the same exact best trait of Rafa Nadal - with two totally different personalities," Paul Annacone, who coached both Federer and superstar Pete Sampras, told Sports Illustrated. "He doesn't let the emotion of the moment, pro or con, sway him. He has this incredibly short memory. Whatever just happened doesn't matter. Roger hits an incredible shot - or he makes a mistake. Doesn't matter. He just moves on without a huge amount of emotion and just plays the next point."

This same short-term memory and ability to just move on also applies to bad losses to inferior players and heartbreaking losses in historic matches. You never hear Fed lament the 2010 and 2011 US Open semifinal setbacks against Novak Djokovic that he suffered after holding two match points in each.

Federer's reservoir of confidence is so deep that he seems to think losses - perhaps aside from losing to Nadal on clay - are mere aberrations. Heartbreaking defeats, such as to Djokovic at the US Open and to Nadal in their epic 2008 Wimbledon final, don't devastate him but rather inspire him to improve.

"I'm a very positive thinker, and I think that is what helps me the most in difficult moments," said Federer.

His Nonpareil Team - "You would have laughed if I told you I was going to win two Slams this year. I also didn't believe that I was going to win two this year," Federer confided. "I did ask everybody on my team sincerely if they thought I could win majors again. It was important that my team believed it. It wasn't just me trying to carry the team; I need the team to carry me most of the time. When you're doubting yourself, they reassure you. If you're feeling too good, they make sure you come back to planet earth and put you in your place. The answer from them was always the same: if you're 100% healthy, you're well-prepared, and you're eager to play, anything's possible."

Besides Ljubicic, Federer was paying tribute to Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi, Federer's coach since 2008, physical trainer Pierre Paganini, and therapist Daniel Troxler. "A lot of credit has to go to Severin Luthi," says Cahill. "For years he's been rock solid and a great influence on Roger."

The Big Points - As tennis legend Martina Navratilova said, "Tennis is about playing big points well." No one is playing big points better than Federer this year. In the ATP's Under Pressure Standings, Federer ranks No. 1 with a 258.9 rating. This statistical category is based on four criteria: break points converted percentage, break points saved percentage, tiebreakers won percentage, and deciding sets won percentage. Federer is 16-5 in tiebreakers and 6-1 in tiebreakers at majors. In the deciding set of 5-set matches at the majors and of 3-set matches at Masters 1000 events, Federer boasts a 5-0 record. A surprisingly low break point conversion percentage hurt Federer throughout his career, but this extremely important area improved markedly to 40.9% in 2017.

The Admiration of Other Champions - Don't underestimate the pride Federer derives from the towering and ego-boosting tributes he regularly receives from the greats, past and present.

Who wouldn't love to hear longtime rival Djokovic's high praise: "I don't think, that you can always - you can ever - get your game to perfection, you know. Only if you're Federer." Or Serena Williams rave, "The guy is the greatest male athlete of all time." Or 14-time major titlist Sampras assert, "The greatest? I have to give it to him. The critics say Laver, and Nadal's beaten him a few times. But in my book he is." Or a dreamy, seven-time major winner Mats Wilander muse, "I'd like to be in his shoes for one day to know what it feels like to play that way."

These four accolades just skim the surface of the scores that have been showered on Federer by the media, coaches, fellow players, and admiring athletes from other sports.

The Luck Factor - Even superstars need a little bit of luck on occasion. Federer's good fortune started at the 2017 Australian Open. The consensus among players there was that the Plexicushion acrylic courts were fast and the balls were light. Both factors made Federer's attacking style even more effective. In addition, he was lucky to have one more day of rest than Nadal before their five-set final.

ut the most fortuitous development for Federer has been the dramatic, even precipitous, declines of Murray and Djokovic. They finished 2016 far ahead of No. 3 Raonic in the rankings with Nadal and Federer, who both missed much of the season, way back at No. 9 and No. 16, respectively.

Now Murray is barely clinging to the No. 1 ranking, just 285 points ahead of Nadal. Too often playing passively, the 30-year-old Brit has beaten no top-8 opponents this year and won just one tournament, Dubai, five months ago. Djokovic has won only minor (250) tournaments at Doha and Eastbourne, and a chronic sore right elbow forced him to retire in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Sounding pessimistic then, he said, "The more I play, the worse it gets." On July 26, Djokovic, a 12-time major winner, announced he will not play for the rest of 2017 because of his injured elbow.

Work Ethic - After the Wimbledon final, Federer said, "Yes, I was blessed with a lot of talent. But I also had to work for it. Talent only gets you that far." This philosophy echoes the sentiments of past champions such as Rod Laver, Margaret Court, and Navratilova, contemporary rivals Nadal and Djokovic, and superstars in other sports like Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Muhammad Ali.

Federer is renowned for his rigorous training in brutally hot Dubai, which he calls "my second home." The inventor Thomas Edison's famous adage, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," while an overstatement for the preternaturally talented Federer, still applies because of the work ethic he's embraced for years.

The Joy of Winning - Federer is now 9-0 against top 10 foes this year. He whipped Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal at Melbourne, Nadal and Wawrinka at Indian Wells, Nadal at Miami, Raonic and Cilic at Wimbledon. His outstanding 31-2 record gives him an incredible .939 winning percentage. He's won five of seven tournaments and the four most prestigious events he's entered - the Australian Open, Wimbledon, Indian Wells, and Miami.

Federer once said, "When you do something best in life, you don't really want to give that up - and for me, it's tennis."

The renaissance of Roger resumes in August as the American hard court circuit climaxes with the US Open. He's won the season's last Grand Slam event five times, but his last triumph came in 2008. If repeating the feat at 36 sounds daunting even for Federer, consider that he hadn't captured the Australian Open, the other major on hard courts, since 2010 before he pulled it off again in January.

A sixth US Open title would shatter or equal more records. For starters, he would break his Open Era tie with Sampras and Jimmy Connors at five. He would also clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking for the sixth time, matching Sampras's record and supplanting Andre Agassi as the oldest player ever to finish No. 1. Finally, he would amass three major titles for the first season since 2007.

Can Federer produce still more empyrean masterpieces in this improbably brilliant year?

"That would be a joke, if I won three slams this year out of nowhere," Federer told CNN. "I know if I stay in shape, there are chances for me to do well at the US Open, but to win it? Yeah, at some stage I almost feel like I have to be realistic. I am not 25 anymore. I'm not sure I can win three Slams in one year. Winning two is already pretty crazy and plenty good enough for me."

Don't believe him. Great champions are never satisfied. They are always hungry for more. And Federer is the greatest tennis champion of them all.

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