Simply the best

All these years later, all the changes in tennis, all the generations. All the changes in the world, really. And what do we get? Roger Federer. Wimbledon champion. Again and again. And again, and again, and again… eight times now. Not that his greatness was in any doubt. But he underlined it one more time last night.

Federer beat Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the Wimbledon final Sunday, and he was so dominant that Cilic, the 2014 US Open champ, seemed to have a panic attack in the middle of the second set — crying hopelessly while he sat on a chair as a trainer stood by him, consoling and working on his blistered foot.

It was Federer’s record eighth Wimbledon title, record 19th major title. About to turn 36, Federer just went two weeks without losing a set and without being pressured in the most prestigious tournament in the world. If this doesn’t beggar belief, what does?

People have been using the term ‘turn back the clock’ with Federer’s run. That’s not what’s happening, either. He is not finding old form. Instead, he’s creating new form. That’s what is most amazing, most exciting. At an age when most tennis players have long retired, Federer is better now than he was a few years ago. It’s not that he’s playing better in the moment but that he is better.

And that’s going to last for a while. The only person on tour who can even challenge him now — speaking of repeating history — is his rival, Rafael Nadal. One of them is going to be ranked No. 1 by the end of the year. While the rankings don’t show it, Federer, who beat Nadal in the Australian Open final, is actually the best player in the world again.

Federer is mentally fitter than he was over the past few years. That just doesn’t happen to aging superstars. Typically, younger players don’t grasp the meaning of the biggest moments in their sports. It’s mostly because they don’t fully appreciate them yet. With older players, the meaning gets bigger and bigger when they realise the number of chances they have left is getting smaller.

And so there are mental lapses. Venus Williams had one in the women’s final Saturday, nearly winning the first set and then falling apart. Federer had them for a few years until January. He lost a step, too. He isn’t Superman. He’s better because he overcame real problems that none of the greatest players in sports history have been able to overcome at that age.

Now, tennis is about to start a second decade with the greatest individual rivalry of all time: Federer vs. Nadal. They have combined to win all three of 2017’s majors. There are two halves to that story, really. Two old guys are dominating the game. On the other side, that means the young guys can’t catch up.  The younger generation has allowed Federer and Nadal to stay on top. But Federer and Nadal have both found ways to get better, too. And tennis gets to roll on with a rivalry that is compelling.

         

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