Twenty Grand Slams. Six Australian Opens. Ninety-six career titles. 10% of all the Majors in the Open era.

The records tumble, as they do when Roger Federer plays his version of tennis.

But one number stood out: This was Federer’s first successful Grand Slam title defence since the 2008 US Open. The first time that the 20-time champion had defended his title in almost a decade.

Image Credit: Australian Open

The year 2008 was big for men’s tennis. Novak Djokovic won his first Major, Rafael Nadal beat Federer to win his first Wimbledon trophy, taking over the mantle of world No 1, and the Swiss won his last US Open.

Since then, while Federer won the odd title, he was no longer the outright favourite in a field that became increasingly competitive. True, he completed his Career Slam the very next year but between 2009 and 2016, Federer reached 10 Slam finals and won only four of them.

So as remarkable as his unprecedented second wind in 2017 was, the fact that he has carried that momentum into 2018 to defend his title is even more extraordinary. Federer himself said that the title defence has a much larger significance: “Defending my title from last year, sort of the fairy tale continues. That’s what stands out for me, maybe not equalling Emerson or Novak.”

Fairy tale, a succinct way to describe winning three Majors in a year at the age of 36. As Jamie Murray tweeted, it is an incredible achievement, in this era.

In this era, which has two more younger players with Career Slams, Federer has won three Majors in the span of a year as a 35-36-year-old. Words seem small to describe it. But here’s context: Andy Roddick is a year younger, Lleyton Hewitt is born in the same year. Yet, both talented Slam winners have long since hung their racquets.

The bigger picture

He is now the joint-most successful player at three out of four Majors in the Open era. Yet, every new trophy brings the same emotions out of him as winning his first. In a way, his reactions are even more intense now, as the 36-year-old couldn’t finish his victory speech without breaking down.

He had similarly teared up lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup last year after beating Nadal in a five-set thriller – then out of shock, relief, joy. Nobody had expected a player who hadn’t won a Grand Slam in almost five years to so do after a six-month injury layoff in his worst season.


This was the same podium where eight years back he had lost to Nadal and had uttered the gut-wrenching “God, it’s killing me”. He has stood there as the champion three times since then, while that has been the Spaniard’s only Melbourne success.

Like Nadal’s triumph, Federer’s back-to-back wins now has redefined men’s tennis, a process which started exactly 365 days ago. What does this mean for the bigger picture?

At a time when his long-time rivals struggle with injuries, as do the younger lot, he is at the peak of his game. That in itself is an achievement, because the peak should have logically been 2005-’07 or 2009-’10.

Federer himself admitted that he thinks his game is a much higher level now than it was a decade ago. And he even gave a precise reason why, according to Brad Gilbert – second serve, backhand, return of serve. All three aspects have evolved a lot, as is evident by the data and the results.

Read between the points: Why Roger Federer’s backhand was the shot of 2017

But it’s not just his constantly evolving game that is giving him this edge over his rivals. It’s his improved fitness, stronger mental grit and smart planning as well. A formula that no other top player seems to have worked out properly as yet.

Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka returned from a six-month layoffs as well, but still struggled to be fully fit. Nadal had to retire from his quarter-final with a different injury than his last, and Murray will take months to recover.

Of the young and younger lot, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic suffer from injuries, while the likes of Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and even Marin Cilic haven’t found their way past a mental block. All of them are younger, and possibly more athletic than Federer. Despite their injuries, their careers are not yet in the twilight zone of age.

But their performance in the very first Slam of the year, puts the ATP season in a very interesting place.

Should Federer play French Open?

Can Federer dominate this season, perhaps alone this time? Or will he take judicious breaks again? Will he play the clay-court season this year, or maybe just the French Open, on the off chance that he can cash in on his second wind? Will others follow suit?

While the first question cannot be predicted, not by mortals, the rest have more or less definite answers.

There will be breaks, a lighter season. He admitted that he didn’t have the back troubles that had plagued him in the latter half of 2017, but he has also seen the great results he can produce if he sacrifices a few tournaments.

“I just got to keep a good schedule, stay hungry, then maybe good things can happen. Then I don’t think age is an issue, per se. It’s just a number.

But I need to be very careful in my planning, really decide beforehand what are my goals, what are my priorities. I think that’s what’s going to dictate how successful I will be,” he said as he addressed the media with Norman and a glass of champagne in a “RF 20” T-shirt.

Image Credit: Edgar Su/Reuters

As for his decision to play in France, it will depend a lot on how he does in the North American swing. Last year, he lost early in Dubai and then went on to win the “Sunshine Double” at Indian Wells and Miami. This year, he is yet to confirm his Dubai participation.

Ultimately, it will come down to both body and mind. Clay courts are known to be hard on the legs, but contrary to popular belief, Federer is no pushover on clay.

If he is fit and “stays hungry”, he could give Roland Garros a try. One has to admit, it would be fascinating to see this upgraded version of Federer back at French Open. He hasn’t played there since his 2015 quarter-final loss to Wawrinka.

But even if he skips it all and plays only the Masters and the grass-court season, he will still be the favourite whenever he takes the court, for the fans and in his head. Whether he says it or not, after 96 trophies, this man still enters a tournament with the goal of winning it. In the year he turns 37, he is playing with the hunger and enthusiasm of a teenager who turned pro 20 years back.

Whether he plays the next Slam or not, whether he wins or loses the next few tournaments, one thing is certain: Roger Federer is not going gentle into the good night.