For 525 weeks of the last thirteen years either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic has been atop of the ATP rankings. The two most dominant players of the recent era have ceded the number one position to their rivals for just 148 weeks (Nadal 141, Murray 11). Federer forever changed tennis with his unrivalled, and continuing, consistency; his successor Djokovic has continued in this vein. Early round losses for Andy Murray and Djokovic in Australia this past week only underline why Federer’s record of reaching 23 consecutive grand slam semi-finals will stand the test of time as one of sport’s greatest records. Djokovic’s own feat of 13 is exceptional. Yet in wake of the Swiss star’s recent glowing form Down Under, the legend of their fabled consistency has grown forever more.
At 2-1 in the fourth set of their five set battle, Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori produced a level of tennis not often seen in sport. As Federer raised his level of play to loftier heights than those shown in his dismantling of Tomas Berdych, the end looked near. But the pivotal break didn’t arrive. Nishikori pushed back and rose to meet him. A myriad of winners ensued until Federer eventually prevailed an hour later. John McEnroe was left aghast. How can Federer play as such after six months of injury?
By Wimbledon last year, Federer had been unable to overcome the effects of knee surgery in January. During his semi-final defeat to Milos Raonic, Federer was left in a state his fans had never seen before; crumpled on the grass after his knee collapsed beneath him. On consultation with his team he decided to prematurely end his 2016 season. Complete rest for his knee and ailing back were essential to prolong his career for “another two to three years, not just another six months or so.” The planned return date was the Hopman Cup, two weeks before this year’s Australian Open.
Federer could have been ready to return by November but it was caution that led to taking a full six months off. He has trained intensely for the last three months; a luxury that his fellow players have not been afforded. His immediate return to form is no surprise, the advantage is clear. “I trained as hard as I possibly could” Federer says, “I did numerous sessions where I trained over two and a half, three hours.” Others have had to cram a rest period and an extended training block into a short six-week off-season.
The relentless flow of tournaments no more, Federer allowed long standing aches to diminish. “I think also my feet needed a rest. I always felt like I had burning on my feet and I felt like that’s disappeared a little bit” he says “I remember I had often a lot of foot pain, like in ’05 when I lost to Marat Safin at the Australian Open, I could barely walk after the match.” While there is always the worry injuries will resurface after so long away, he is arguably as rested and ready as he has ever been.
After eighteen years of playing a full tournament schedule, Federer is finally benefitting from manipulating his schedule. A luxury he is allowed as he continues to reach grand slam finals at a time when his entire generation has retired. Federer and Djokovic have held the number one crown for almost all of the past decade and longer. They have consistently put their bodies on the line week in week out for some of the greatest consistency records the sport has ever seen. Federer has reached 36 consecutive grand slam quarter-finals, Djokovic 28. Their number of grand slam victories is made all the more remarkable by their refusal to take time away to prepare for them.
Rafael Nadal, amongst others, has chosen a different path. Nadal is renowned for his ability to dominate tennis for shorter periods after long hiatuses. In 2013, Nadal won two grand slams, four masters and profited, like Federer now, from over six months away from the tour. While the Spaniard chose to rest his troublesome knees, surgery was not required and he spent almost all of the rest period training. The results were fierce. Serena Williams too is known for ending her season in September after the year’s final grand slam. Even Andy Murray skipped the French Open the year he won his maiden Wimbledon title.
Rafael Nadal training just a month into his seven month injury break in 2012/13.
With Nadal, it’s a strategy he has employed throughout his entire career and continues to benefit from even now. At the Shanghai Masters four months ago Nadal decided, despite no immediate injury, to end his season early in preparation for the current season. Following defeat to Viktor Troicki, he stated “I need to… prepare myself for the calendar to try to do the things that I need to do and to work on things I need to work, because sometimes keep competing is not the solution. Sometimes the solution is practice and stop and have a process of training.”
The difference in mindset and approach is best highlighted by his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal. In 2006 Nadal withdrew from the Australian Open because Toni cited that they wouldn’t be entering the tournament just to lose early. Nadal prefers to compete only when ready to win the tournament. With Federer the difference could not be more pronounced. At the Australian Open pre-tournament press conference he admitted to having “no expectations” and that he was simply “happy” to be there.
So while Roger Federer’s immediate return to form is impressive, the surprise is in his and Novak Djokovic’s ability to dominate the entire tennis calendar week in week out for years on end.