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Roger Federer still standing in the generation game

Roger Federer goes after a forehand
by Alix Ramsay
Thursday 3 July 2014

As the great and the good have been sent packing and the young guns have hogged the limelight, this year’s Wimbledon has been seen as a turning point in the men’s game. The changing of the guard has begun, we are told: the exciting new talent is ready to sweep away the established champions and make Centre Court their own.

That is all well and good – and the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic have played some fantastic tennis over the past 10 days – but there is one old champion who is not for moving. Roger Federer has been here before and as he approaches his 35th Grand Slam semi-final and his ninth in SW19, he is not finished yet. Federer sniffing around the sharp end of a major tournament spells danger for anyone in his way and on Friday, the man in peril is Milos Raonic.

If ever there was a meeting of the generations, this is it: Raonic is just 23; Federer will be 33 next month. Raonic is a serious young man totally absorbed by his job; Federer is knee-deep in small children (his second set of twins were born just a few weeks ago) – a family man who travels with his wife and kids and wins tennis matches along the way. And Raonic has never been this far in a Grand Slam tournament before; Federer has won 17 of them, seven here at Wimbledon.

The world’s media has been writing Federer off for years. Every time he goes through a run of poor form, the vultures circle overhead signalling the end of his marvellous career. When he struggled through most of last year, losing in the second round here and the fourth round at the US Open, the vultures could smell blood. Surely he would have to retire now – no champion of Federer’s stature should be putting himself through this sort of humiliation. But Fed knew different.

His back was aching and he needed time to let it heal and more time to train and work on his game. That was done over the Christmas break and as he started the new season, there was a new spring in his step. He felt fit for the first time in months, now he just needed to start winning again. That was achieved in Halle a couple of weeks before Wimbledon began and now, while the attention has been focused on the new boys, Federer has been making stately progress to his favourite place: the business end of his favourite Grand Slam.

“Last year was a major disappointment for me,” he said, “because I always see Wimbledon as one of my main goals of the season, side-by-side with rankings and some other highlights that I choose that there are for me. I try to be in the best possible shape, so last year was rough. I was very disappointed. Went back to the practice courts. Didn't have any options left at that point. So I'm happy that one year later I'm back in the semis and with a chance to go further.”

Going further means going round, past or through Raonic (it is inadvisable to try and go over him as the Canadian is a towering 6ft 5in tall) and that is where it could get tricky. The fluid, silky skills of Federer have delighted the crowds for more than a decade but every now and again they take a bruising from the brute strength of the tour’s bigger lads. Lung-bursting rallies from the baseline against men who treat their rackets like sledgehammers is not the way to go for Fed – he needs to find a way to take that power away from Raonic and his thundering serve and formidable forehand.

M’learned colleague, Matt Hill, one of the finest cameramen on the tour, has been watching the big Canadian for years and has come to the conclusion that he is a dead ringer for Clark Kent (it’s the hair that seals it) – and he has certainly been playing like Superman these past two weeks. But Federer has his own, personal supply of Kryptonite this year and it comes in the shape of Stefan Edberg.

The former champion has been working with Federer since the start of the year and as the most stylish serve-and-volley exponent of his generation, he is encouraging his man to be a little more adventurous. If he can shorten the points, vary the play – and get a racket string on that serve – Federer can make life awfully uncomfortable for the big man. And while everyone is talking about Raonic’s serve, it is worth remembering that Fed’s serve is none too shabby either. Raonic has been broken twice so far in the tournament but Federer has only dropped serve once.

The old guard at the top will have to change eventually, it is the natural way of things. But while he is fit, healthy and has breath in his body, Federer will not be changed. He has his eyes on an 18th Grand slam title and it will take some doing to stop him getting what he wants.

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