KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Because I’m in the third set of my career like Roger Federer, I‘m rooting for him to win the Miami Open and keep this throwback comeback going. I assume everyone of a certain age is rooting for Federer at this point.
But in my heart I wonder how long his body holds up. I’m not even sure Federer, at 35 and playing great tennis again, knows whether this latest run is a final thrill ride or a new way of life.
“I’m month to month,” he said, then amended that with a smile Tuesday afternoon at the tennis center in Key Biscayne. “I’m week to week.”
That’s why this story is so compelling. It’s why Federer winning his 18th major at the Australian Open and winning last week at Indian Wells, Calif., has made him the talk of the tennis world entering the Miami Open, where he opens play Saturday.
Federer is playing like he once always did and in a way no one was sure to expect anymore. And as much as he enjoyed winning as a kid, he appreciates winning as the elder statesman more.
“At 25, I was winning 90 percent of my matches and eventually you’re on this train where you just keep rolling and you just expect yourself to win a lot,” he said. “You play many more tournaments, so you’re racing from one to the next.
“It was an incredible experience, being able to keep that level of play for so long — at such a high level. Beating so many other guys and winning at so many finals in a row. I had some unbelievable records there.
“(This year) is definitely very different than any year I’ve ever experienced. Like last year was different than any other year I’d experienced with the injury, with the age, with the comeback — you name it. I think this is very special for me. I definitely see things different today than I ever have. I think that’s normal when you understand you won’t have another 15 years on tour.”
There’s something about the aging legend in sports, trying to squeeze more moments from a tired body, that becomes an endearing story. The Florida Panthers’Jaromir Jagr at 45. The Miami Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki at 42. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots winning a Super Bowl at 39. When does it end?
Federer is pushing the age envelope in tennis. He joined Ken Rosewall as the only player to win a Grand Slam tournament at 35 or older. Rosewall did it three times, including the Australian at 37. That was 1971. The dark ages.
The talk is Federer has changed his game to playing more aggressive and with a harder edge to his backhand. He shook his head, saying, “That’s exaggerated.”
The real story is he’s in shape like he hasn’t been for a while. After missing much of last season with a knee injury, he trained for four months. That has led to him playing two straight months of tennis — something he’s never done.
“It shows,” he said. “And I guess it shows to other players that if you take time to work on your game it pays off in the long run.”
Federer has climbed to No. 6 in the world. He didn’t plan to be at this lofty height until after Wimbledon in July. Considering No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic are missing the Miami Open with elbow issues, Federer could crack the top 5 coming up.
Already, there’s talk of Federer meeting Rafael Nadal in a marketing dream of a men’s final.
“Too far away,” Federer said.
Tennis is made or killed by the players at the top. For a while, the women were the story with Serena Williams, also 35, extending her record as the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam title.
She’ll miss the Miami Open with a knee injury. Federer pulled out of it last year. Older players aren’t the only ones who get hurt, as Murray and Djokovic show. They’re just more susceptible to it.
Federer knows. He missed so much of last year. Now he’s enjoying the view at the top again in a different manner in a way everyone of a certain age understands.
“I’m happy to be healthy, happy to be in tournaments, happy to be beating top-10 players, happy to be coming out of a match situation feeling good,” he said, “because it’s the first time in a while it’s been like that.”
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