Ten years later, it can be said that no sportsman has borrowed more time than Federer. Meantime, Nadal and Djokovic have seized theirs. But instead of stepping aside graciously, Federer gathered the other two up into a trinity, unholy to lesser rivals, but so transcendent that no active male player younger than 30 boasts a major to his name. Only periods of injury for each of the big three have allowed anyone else even a glimpse.
Each says that the tripartite rivalry – the trivalry if you like – has lifted him to new levels as player and person, and the sport with it. “I think that kind of rivalry that has been really special between three of us, has brought us to these tennis heights where we are at the moment,” said Djokovic pre-tournament.
“And I think we still look at each other’s games, look at each other’s careers, and we still kind of measure our own career compared to the other guy. I think that’s the beauty of the rivalry, and I think we are contributing in a way to the evolution of the sport.” Only a churl would argue with that.
After tonight, each will have played the other at least 50 times, reflecting how often they have been the last men standing in tournaments great and small for more than a decade.
Animating their competition is that they are appreciably different. Last week, New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey pithily characterised Federer as the pleaser, Nadal as the fighter and Djokovic as the searcher. Three of a kind, however virtuous at tennis, would not be nearly so enthralling.
When young, they played for titles and money. Now they are more mature and mellow and their motivation is more abstract: undying love of the game, search for perfection, competitive outlet. All are aware of the major championship ladder, but disavow it as motivation.
“Getting to 20 does not make me incredible,” Nadal told Clarey. “And if I get to 22, I am not more incredible. I see my life as something more normal.”
So they go on. But no one can outrun time forever, especially not in tennis, which is played to a standstill, not a clock. Though they speak as peers and have jointly given their names to an era, Federer is offset from the other two by half a generation. If the governing dynamic in 2010 was the youth of Nadal and Djokovic, now it might be Federer’s Methuselah-scale age. That is offered advisedly, of course, lest that tolling bell again turn out to be tinnitus.
Time’s winged chariot has been shadowing Federer for a while. After his miraculous win here in 2017, he could not even guarantee to come back the next year. He did return, and won again, but not since in a major. By not, we mean not quite: in a Wimbledon final this year that was a self-contained saga, he had and lost two match points against Djokovic. That result stands as an illustration of the gap between the pair: minimal, but unvarying.
In this tournament, Federer has had a charmed run. He has not played anyone ranked higher than 41, and in his quarter-finals it was No.100.
Yet twice, he has teetered on the edge of the precipice. Against Australia’s John Millman, he had to win the last six points of the match to save it. Against Tennys Sandgren, he somehow staved off seven match points. “I could have blinked at the wrong time and shanked,” he said. “That would have been it. I was incredibly lucky today.”
Both matches were epics, the prospect of which Federer says gets him out of bed. It is easy to ascribe his great escapes to some sort of champion’s mentality, perhaps inexplicable even to himself. That might be right. But it might also blind us to more prosaic truth, about how much more often he is getting into a corner before he gets out of it. Blindness and ringing in the ears; there’s an ague.
Against Sandgren, Federer was sore and tetchy. He took an injury timeout, a rarity. He swore it was not strategic, but was vague about the injury. He also swore at a lineswoman and was warned. He pleaded for understanding, saying it was one minute in three-and-a-half hours, and out of character, but he did not apologise to her. He rarely does. He cloaks his pride well, but has it none the less.
Once, Federer might not have believed that he was being challenged like this. Now he couldn’t believe that he had survived. By his own admission, he had been fatalistic about the outcome. “I don’t deserve this one, but I’m standing here,” he said, “and I’m obviously very, very happy.”
Here were intimations of mortality rarely heard from Federer. Fans feel it, too. Federer long ago inverted the paradigm here. Though not Australian and rarely underdog, he was always favourite nonetheless. It’s more acutely so than ever. Millman was little loved, Sandgren not at all. The crowd was there to indulge one man.
On Thursday night, Djokovic will have to smuggle in his own cheer squad. He won’t mind. Federer owns the crowd, but Djokovic owns the court. No one has won more there. Federer won his most recent match against Djokovic, a round-robin in London, but before that not since 2015, and not in a major since 2012.
In contrast to Federer’s travails, Djokovic has breezed through this tournament for the loss of one careless set. After accounting for Milos Raonic in a quarter-final, he looked forward to Federer and said: “Let the better man win.” He could afford nobility. You have to say that for all that is exceptional about Federer, and much as it is sacrilege even to think it, at this time, in this form, on this surface, against this opponent, he cannot win.
McEnroe was right. The guard is changing, but from one old guardsman to another.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.