Halting time in its tracks on the grass where his fame began, Federer snapped a potentially terminal drought at majors and extended his most famous record while adding another of almost equal note.
At first glance, Federer may seem a strange if not perverse fit for this category. After all, the greatest player of all time set standards of excellence for himself at his prime that towered so high as to virtually prevent the possibility of overachievement and transform anything much less than perfection (away from clay, at least) into underachievement.
Those expectations probably did not lower much for the man himself this year, a key reason why he continues to compete with his legend assured. For those with more realistic vision, however, expectations should have dropped substantially as he crossed into his fourth decade and fell progressively further behind younger rivals Nadal and Djokovic. After a season in which they repeatedly stopped him at majors and Masters 1000 tournaments, his two-year drought without a major title and protracted estrangement from the #1 ranking looked destined to continue. Despite all of his grace and flair, Federer lacked the raw physicality of the two men ranked above him or any way to compensate for that lack on increasingly slow surfaces. In many of their matches, he started in brilliant form or reeled off a sequence of games that recalled his prime, only to find the task of sustaining that level beyond the capacity of his waning consistency.
That pattern of fast starts and uninspired finishes persisted at the outset of 2012 with a four-set semifinal defeat to Nadal at the Australian Open. When the top two men collided in one of the most staggeringly brutal battles in the Open era two days later, their third straight meeting in a major final, Federer resembled ever more a relic from a vanishing past. Although he swept through February tournaments in Dubai and Rotterdam, those minor prizes seemed scant solace for his frustration on more significant stages. In 2011, he had dominated the fall indoor season with similar panache, but his satisfaction from those triumphs must have been a little tempered by the recognition that no part of the season matters less to his elite opponents. To genuinely reassert himself, Federer needed to deliver at an event when they too fully invested their energies. The first glimmer of hope arrived at Indian Wells, a tournament that the Swiss star had not won since 2006, partly because of its extremely gritty, sluggish hard courts. A semifinal against Nadal on this surface should have favored the Spaniard, the much superior slow-court player and a comfortable victor over Federer on a similarly slow hard court in Miami last year. This time, nevertheless, Federer sustained the momentum from a strong start in each set before punctuating the match emphatically with an ace. Not since 2005 had he defeated Nadal on an outdoor hard court, and never so comfortably in his career.
While it led to a title in the California desert, the victory did not resonate as resoundingly in the coming weeks as Federer’s fans might have hoped. Thwarted by Roddick in Miami, he did rebound to win another Masters 1000 title on the conveniently fast blue clay of Madrid. But that week came without a signature victory and nearly ended in disappointment against Tomas Berdych, one of the players whose multiplying successes against Federer in 2010-11 had marked a symptom of his decline. Toppled in straight sets by Djokovic at Roland Garros, the erratic Swiss star scarcely resembled the player who had stunned the Serb there a year before. By the grass season, his momentum from Indian Wells had evaporated like rainfall in the desert, and an uncharacteristic loss to Haas in Halle caused concern that he remained mired in a quicksand of ebbs and flows in form.
Following Nadal’s astonishing exit from Wimbledon, Federer became the co-title favorite with Djokovic but needed the narrowest of escapes to survive the first week. Like eventual women’s champion Serena, he hovered on the brink of an ignominious upset in the third round. The precipice once avoided, Federer swiftly settled into the major that he had won six times and advanced with efficiency to the highly anticipated semifinal with Djokovic. After the rivals split a pair of far from sparkling sets, the uneven play of only one man continued. Through the third and fourth sets, Federer’s relentless serve delivered with the precision for which he had relied on it in his prime. Departing from his recent meetings with Djokovic and Nadal, he appeared to embrace the role of the underdog in swinging and moving more freely than the world #1, whose shoulders tightened with accumulating pressure. This clarity of mind and fluidity of body defined much of Federer’s performance in the final as well, when his serve again whistled unerringly to its targets near the second-set crossroads where the match could have tilted against him. Winning most of the long games from both Djokovic and Murray, he never suffered the extended lapses of focus that had cost him key matches in their rivalries before. And yet one wondered whether he would pass the test of nerve posed by finishing a crucial match, which he had failed to do at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2011. Those disappointments seemingly erased from his mind, Federer delivered the coup de grace with poise to the two younger men—and to those who had written his epitaph too soon.
Among them was Martina Navratilova, who bluntly admitted to the champion afterwards that she had not expected him to win another major. Equally astonishing to Navratilova, and most of her colleagues, was the ascent to the #1 ranking that arrived with it. Federer long had valued the status associated with the top spot more than any other player on either Tour, famously declaring that no other ranking mattered. After he had lost it at Roland Garros in 2010, one week short of the Sampras record for total weeks there, doubts mounted as to whether he could reconquer it from players in or approaching their peaks as he descended from his. A man who seemingly has compiled almost as many records as he has trophies, Federer still surely relished becoming the first man to cross the 300-week threshold in the penthouse. And he wore the ranking well in the immediate aftermath of capturing it, securing his first Olympic medal in singles on the same court after a classic duel with Del Potro. Federer then repeated his Wimbledon success against Djokovic with a comprehensive victory in the Cincinnati final over the man whose ranking he had captured.
Struck down unexpectedly by Berdych at the US Open, the Wimbledon champion could not duplicate his 2010-11 mastery of the fall season. Forced to surrender #1 by withdrawing from the year’s last Masters 1000 tournament, he could not defend his title at the year-end championships from the redoubled assault of Djokovic. But Federer hardly sounded regretful when fatigue undermined him during a phase of the season that he had dominated. Nor should he have, for that fatigue stemmed from the battle to reclaim his legitimacy as a contender capable of defeating any challenger, perhaps the hardest-won battle of his career.
Number to note:
302: Federer’s record-breaking total number of weeks at #1, amounting to nearly six full years there. Only three other men (Connors, Lendl, and Sampras) stand within 100 weeks of him.
This article marks the halfway point of the series on 2012 in review, which will end on December 24. Explore the earlier articles for the Breakthroughs, Breakdowns, and Signature Achievements of the Year. Keep coming back for Unsung Heroes, Upsets, and the grand finale: the Sharapovanovic Player of the Year Award, bestowed on one lucky man and one lucky woman. Next, though, comes…
Overachiever of the Year (WTA)