Few expected the 35-year-old to win the Australian Open after his injuries but he has been on stunning form since and a more relaxed attitude has helped
Two comeback kids met in Miami and played a very fine match of tennis this week. One was Juan Martn del Potro, the lanky, lugubrious Argentinian who has suffered two career-threatening wrist injuries. Since returning last year, after a twoyear hiatus, he narrowly lost to Andy Murray in the Olympic final and led Argentina to their first Davis Cup win.
His is an uplifting story of triumph over adversity, stalwart determination in the face of debilitating physical and psychological setbacks. He played beautifully this week, with his elegant backhand slice and his thunderous slap of a forehand. But unfortunately for him he was up against Roger Federer, who, at 35 and following his own long lay-off with a knee injury and then a back injury, is playing perhaps the best tennis of his life.
Given that Federer is arguably the best player in history, that would make his tennis right now the best there has ever been. Thats an extremely large claim that is probably easier to shoot down than support. But there is no doubt that Federer, that most heavenly of players, is enjoying a second coming at an age when most top players are either retired or long past their peak.
He went through Delpo like Delhi tap water through a tourist. Some of the shots he played were, even by his own exalted standard, jaw-dropping. And there is certainly no question that his single-handed backhand, so ruthlessly targeted by Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is now a weapon of matchwinning destruction. Federers supreme 2017 continues to defy all expectations as he booked a place in the Miami Open final and with it the 37th episode of his rivalry with Nadal.
Has sport, let alone tennis, witnessed such an astonishing comeback? First we must acknowledge that Federer wasnt exactly a spent force. During his injury-riven doldrums last year his ranking was 17, his lowest since 2001 but still among the worlds elite. That said, at the start of this year he hadnt won a grand slam title for five years and the only way forward seemed down or retirement.
He had retained his competitive instinct during that spell, three times finishing runner-up in grand slams to the seemingly unbeatable Djokovic but the plain fact was he hadnt defeated the Serb or his great rival Nadal in a grand slam final since 2007.
Even though he had accumulated an astounding 17 grand slam titles, it was almost painful to see him try so hard, want it so much, and get further away from his goal of an 18th. Moreover, the slow decline started to cast a shadow backwards over his early glorious years. Between 2004 and 2007 he was by so far the best player in the world that he resembled a god among men except on clay, where he had feet of clay.
Yet this superiority was now held against him. He was only so successful, said his critics, because the rest of the field wasnt up to the job. Once Nadal found out his backhand weakness and Djokovic started to outlast him, Federer, for all his peerless grace, began to look all too mortal. And the man who never seemed to break a sweat, much less strain a tendon, started to get injured.
In January at the Australian Open in Melbourne, the stage was set for the worlds new No1, Andy Murray, to confirm his position with his fourth grand slam title, especially once a psychologically troubled Djokovic fell by the wayside. That didnt happen.
Instead Federer and his nemesis Nadal fought an epic five-set final, with the Swiss emerging triumphant. Since then hes scarcely lost a set. His game is not just revived but in many respects, not least with his backhand, improved.
When he was a promising teenager, the imperturbable Federer was known for his fierce temper not with other players, but himself. He couldnt forgive himself for his mistakes. As he reasoned at the time: One should just be able to play a perfect game.
He really started to beat everyone else only when he stopped beating himself up. The paradox was the less he demanded perfection, the closer he got to it. And this may be a clue to this splendid Indian summer of his sparkling career.
He didnt expect to win the Australian Open, or to be back in the top five by this time of the year. Its not that he stopped trying it required enormous effort to regain fitness and change technique more that he lightened the load of expectation and allowed his phenomenal talent to enjoy one last season in the sun.