Roger Federer entered the St Jakobshalle arena to the sort of raucous ovation reserved for those walking to the ring on big fight nights in Las Vegas. Basel is his home town and he will always be regarded here as the heavyweight champion of tennis regardless of the body of evidence that suggests he is a man taking a mandatory standing count.
In these past months, he has been the victim of a series of blows to his game — and his vanity — from previously unrecognised players such as Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands in Hamburg and Gstaad respectively and from Tommy Robredo at the US Open.
Last night Federer narrowly dodged another knock-out punch. He survived a mammoth fright before salving his own nerves, and that of the crowd, by defeating 23-year-old Canadian Vasek Pospisil 6-3, 6-7, 7-5.
He took an emotional curtain call but it was one laced with relief as he thanked his supporters. Federer will this afternoon attempt to win just his second ATP title of the year when he meets Juan Martin del Potro in the final of the Swiss Indoor tournament.
‘After these results, there are more ways for people to attack you, more questions to face,’ he admitted. ‘People have been telling me to retire for the past four years, since I won the French Open [the last major that eluded him].
‘I have spent most of my life in the news and I have had to deal with tough questions for the last 15 years.’
At 32, the passing years and onset of injuries, have become a wearying reminder of the toll demanded of the man widely acknowledged as the greatest player in tennis history, as he readies himself, barring freak results in Paris this week, to take his place in the eight-man showdown at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which start at the 02 Arena in London in eight days’ time.
No one has won this prestigious year-end event more times than Federer, a six times champion since he first qualified to compete in 2002. That proud record is his shield and his armour, to deflect the harshest criticism as he said, defiantly yesterday: ‘What’s being said about me by so-called experts is not something I can control. I can go to London with a lot of confidence and the feeling I can do something great there again. I don’t want only to participate, to lose three in a row in my group matches.’
Yet there is a cold reality that cannot be ignored. Federer has fallen to No6 in the world and for the second time in three seasons he has failed to win a major title. Can he ever again withstand the force of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray when, in all probability, he would need to beat two of them, to win another Grand Slam?
Some argue that an arduous tour of exhibition matches in South America at the end of 2012, in exchange for an estimated $12million in appearance fees, compromised his usual training pattern, which cost him dear this year. Federer claimed he wanted to reach a new audience, but he did reject all overtures of undertaking another hugely rewarding tour next month to concentrate on preparing for the Australian Open in January.
Last week, Australian legend Rod Laver refused to discount the possibility of Federer winning an 18th Grand Slam title at Melbourne. ‘You might be surprised when you look at the champion of the next Australian Open,’ said Laver. ‘It might be Roger. You don’t have to win all the points to be champion, just the right ones.’
Undoubtedly, Federer was relieved to attract such distinguished support in these troubled times. ‘It’s good to know Rod still believes in me,’ said Federer, whose wealth is estimated to total $180m.
This afternoon money will be far from his mind as Federer steps out at the St Jakobshalle, a 9,200 capacity arena, where he had been a ball boy as he grew up in the family home within walking distance of the stadium. Never has Federer felt more in need of the affection of the local public, who do not judge him on the results of one wretched year.
‘I have felt the public behind me here all week, because my matches don’t finish 6-2, 6-2 any more,’ he said.
As midnight approached on Friday, a crowd of almost 100 people waited patiently outside the arena for Federer, who had beaten ‘Baby Fed’ Dimitrov more than two hours earlier. Federer posed for photographs and signed autographs as though it was still a novelty.
Del Potro is a step up in class for him today, having beaten the former No1 last year. ‘Perhaps it is Roger’s chance for revenge, but it’s a pleasure to play the man who has made the biggest history in this sport,’ said Del Potro.
At least Federer feels he can trust his body again. ‘I just couldn’t play the tennis I wanted for a lot of the time this year, because I was physically limited,’ he said. ‘I played subdued tennis. I can now run after every ball.’
Despite moving away, Federer has never forgotten his roots and for the six years he has won this title he has shared pizza with the ball boys afterwards. He would like nothing more than to repeat the tradition today. Federer insists he can still punch his weight. – Mail On Sunday