Next Sunday will be more about Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of them all, at the Super Bowl. But this Sunday was about Roger Federer, and one more night in an extraordinary career when he looked like the heavyweight champion of sports, here and everywhere else.
In the same era in tennis, we have had Federer playing 30 major singles finals and winning 20 of them, his first in 2003, and Serena Williams playing 29 major singles finals and winning 23, her first in 1999. Serena is scheduled to return to competition at the Federation Cup in February, after giving birth to her first child last year. Federer? He hasn’t gone anywhere. And whether you care a lot about tennis or not, sports is luckier because of that. We come to sports looking for giants like him.
He won another Australian Open on Sunday, in five sets over Marin Cilic, who got Federer once in a US Open semifinal and who played Federer in the Wimbledon final last July. It was Federer’s sixth Australian title, in seven finals. A year after winning the last five games of the last set of an Australian final against Rafa Nadal, being a finisher like that, this year he wins the fifth set 6-1 and wins 12 of the last 13 points of the match. He is 36 years old, going on 37.
A year ago, when he did beat Nadal, it was his 18th major in his sport, tying him with Jack Nicklaus’ 18 in golf. Nicklaus happens to be a huge tennis fan, even has a grass tennis court at his home north of Palm Beach, one on which Serena has even practiced.
I was talking to Nicklaus about Federer the other day, and how Federer getting to 18 at the age of 35 last January felt a little bit like the tennis equivalent of Jack winning his last major, the ’86 Masters, at the age of 46.
“Turned out 18 weren’t enough for him, though, were they?” Jack said.
Were not. Federer then won another Wimbledon last summer. After going more than four years without a major before winning No. 18, he had then won two of the last three. Now he has made it three out of the last four he has played. Again, think about what we have been fortunate enough to witness from Federer and Serena, on their own sides of the sport, 43 majors between them, a record of 43-16 in those finals. Both still here.
If you are looking for comparisons in men’s tennis, there really are none, despite Rafa’s greatness, despite that there was a point when Novak Djokovic looked as if he had passed both Federer and Nadal, and in their primes. We know that Rod Laver, who looked like a kid taking cellphone video of Federer as Federer held the championship trophy in Melbourne, won the Grand Slam in 1962, lost years of his prime in majors because he turned pro before tennis became truly open 50 years ago, and then came back in ’69 and won the Grand Slam again.
But there is no one like Federer, no men’s player who has ever matched his skill and champion’s heart and longevity. And his immense grace. Did win that first major, at Wimbledon, 15 years ago. Still here. Took off the second half of 2016 because of a knee injury, and not only came back to win Australia, but beat Nadal, his greatest adversary, to do it. If Nadal had held on in that final, he would have had 15 majors at the time and Federer would have stayed at 17, and game on, especially since you knew Nadal would win his 10th French Open in a few months and make the scoreboard read 17-16. But so much tennis history changed over those last five games, in about 30 minutes of real time. Mostly Federer’s. Nadal wasn’t going to catch him in major titles because no one ever will.
Think about this: Federer has won those 20 majors. Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe won 26 combined. McEnroe never won another major after the age of 25. Federer is still playing at such a high place – his own – in men’s tennis at the age of 36. You think he can’t get to 21 at Wimbledon if he is blessed with good health? Tell me why not. Djokovic has a sore elbow. Nadal limped away from this Australian, no one knows when Andy Murray will play again.
Here was Roger Federer raising his game again when he had to in Melbourne with another major on the line. He had a chance to go ahead 3-0 in fourth set, ahead two sets to one. He let the set get away from him, stopped serving well. Cilic, a very tough out, came back and won six of the last seven games of the set and pushed the thing to the fifth.
Then came two break points for Cilic in the first game of the fifth set, and who knows what would have happened if Federer had broken there. But Cilic hit a second serve into the net on the first breaker. Federer found a big first serve and Cilic hit a wild forehand on the second one. He was still Federer. Cilic, game as he was, was not.
I reminded Nicklaus the other day of the ’78 British Open, and being there, and how excited I was to think I could see Nicklaus win at St. Andrews.
“And then you were going to lose to this guy Simon Owen with three holes to play,” I said.
Nicklaus quietly said, “I wasn’t going to lose to Simon Owen.”
Did not. Federer did not lose to Marin Cilic. Heavyweight champion of sports. It will be something if Brady wins his sixth Super Bowl in Minneapolis. Won’t make him Fed. In sports right now, nobody is.