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The Draw: 30 June

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Thursday, 13 July 2017 12:53 PM BST
Federer stands tall as rivals show frailty
At the age of 35, seven-time champion is keeping the years at bay as rivals struggle READ MORE

Ah, the good old days. Remember them? Wooden rackets, lovely chaps in flannels; serve and volley tennis on grass, spin, drop shots and guile on clay? Those were the days.

Today, though, we have progress. The world has moved on. Tennis is faster, more powerful, more muscular. And it is relentless.

Before The Championships began, there were four main candidates for the title: Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. As the tournament got under way and we all saw the form of the Big Four, they became the only contenders for the title: Federer was looking majestic, Nadal was looking unstoppable, Djokovic was looking better than he had in months and Murray was looking steely.

But as we approach the semi-finals, only Federer is left. The same Federer who will be 36 next month and who has been plying his trade on the great treadmill of the world tour for 19 years. How can this be?

As the Centre Court crowd bursts into rapturous applause when the Swiss maestro wraps up another set, they are cheering his elegant shot making and his stylish aggression. But what we all tend to overlook is that Federer is a phenomenal athlete.

When he stands next to the other members of the Big Four, he looks like the weedy kid who never gets picked for the school team but that slender 6ft 1ins, 187lb frame is made of steel.

Dressed in civvies before an event begins, there looks to be nothing of him but on the tennis court, he never shows physical frailty. Five sets can come and go and Federer marches on. Three sets whistle by and he there is not a bead of moisture on his brow (the old saying goes that horses sweat, gentlemen perspire but Roger simply glows).

When he slipped and fell in the semi-finals last year against Milos Raonic, there was a gasp on Centre Court. Yes, everyone was worried about his troublesome knee – had it gone again? Was he all right? – but we were also shocked. When was the last time anyone had seen him flat on his face on court before? Because Federer’s movement is remarkable; the man is never off balance. And he makes it look so effortless.

Messrs Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are also remarkable athletes, lightning fast around the court and each one as strong as an ox, but the physical effort is plain to see. They play a different game, a more attritional game. They bide their time on the baseline; they trade bludgeoning blows as they try to manoeuvre an opening. Federer can go toe to toe with them from there but he also has the wherewithal to end the point according to his timetable.

He will serve and volley, he will play shots that most would only try in an exhibition, but he does it for a reason. The SABR (the Sneaky Attack By Roger), the service return that has him ghosting towards the service line to take the ball almost as it lands, was a very jolly shot when he first started playing it. Oh, look, Roger has tried something extraordinary. But as he kept doing it, he drove Djokovic nuts. Boris Becker, then coaching the Serb, was none too impressed either. But it worked.

When he took six months off last year, Federer let his body heal completely. Bizarrely, the knee injury was not tennis related: he tore the meniscus in his left knee while running a bath for his daughters. He turned round in the bathroom, heard something click and the next day he had a knee the size of a football. But even after surgery, he knew that he had to give himself time to get better.

When he came back this year, he was physically fine and he had a new weapon in his arsenal. The backhand had been revamped and now it was not a set-up shot, it was something to be feared. It could win him points. It won him the Australian Open.

Federer, then, plays the modern version of the classic game. Yes, it requires superhuman powers of athleticism, hand-eye co-ordination and mental fortitude but it is done with an economy of stress on the body that other players could only dream of.

He has been the best in the business, one and off (but mainly on) since he won the first of his 18 Grand Slam titles here in 2003. The others have pushed him off his perch for spells in those 14 years but every time, he has come back with yet more improvements to his game.

As Federer plots his course past Tomas Berdych and on to another final, he is fit, he has plenty left to give – he has not dropped a set yet – and he is homing in on another title.

At the same time, his younger colleagues, those who play the modern game the modern way, are at home nursing a sore elbow that may or not require surgery (Djokovic), a sore hip that needs something but no one seems to know what (Murray) and fragile knees that never take well to the grass courts (Nadal).

In short, there is a lot to be said for the good old days. Roger Federer is living proof of it.

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