Open Minded

Roger Federer confirms there is no limit in sport

Twenty-two years ago in a stadium in Atlanta in 1996, a long-serving leaper defies physics and bounds into history. I am watching Carl Lewis, who is 35 and should be behind a commentary microphone, but still walks on springs. A man of airs.

He barely qualified for the long jump final, then he won it, making it his fourth consecutive Olympic gold in that event and his coach Tom Tellez told Sports Illustrated: "You've just seen a great performer at the end of his career." Some athletes take talent an awfully long way.

Where is the competitive limit, the physical boundary, the mental ceiling? We're not sure and athletes don't know, but they're searchers. Sometimes writers over-reach, as I have, and feel athletes should retire but we can have an inadequate understanding of what residue of skill remains, what suppleness lives within a carefully nurtured body.

Sometimes as an athlete continues there is nothing left, sometimes they want to pad a bank balance, sometimes they have nowhere else to go but a field. But we should be grateful they make the journey because sometimes there is another swimming gold for Michael Phelps. And sometimes there are three Slams in 12 months for a 36-year-old who prior to that went 15 Slams without a title.

"I don't think limits," said Usain Bolt and Roger Federer does not think boundaries. He's smart enough to play less frequently, has a family's support and a style that's helpfully Gandhian. Still, there's something inexplicable about a mid-30s man playing six five-setters since January 2017 and winning them all. Is he even playing at 100 per cent and is he lasting because he isn't? Is this an era or in fact an aeon?

Once the subject with Federer was art and now it is resilience. He is winning so much he is creating statistical anarchy. Of course, at the Open most players were producing acts of resistance, against the heat, injury and higher-ranked players. Defiance is always breathtaking, if sometimes painful. Chung Hyeon, not used to five-set tournaments, literally ran further than he ever has till he could run no more.

Simona Halep ran her way into hospital but discovered new territory within herself. "I feel that I can face any challenge," said the Romanian. Caroline Wozniacki wore nerves but found she could win with them. Marin Cilic forcefully interrogated Federer and believes he can be No. 1. Nick Kyrgios simply explored what calm feels like.

Remote video URL

But Federer was the final headline and is still - with Rafael Nadal - the central story of tennis. A fan told me she was tired of him, not disliking him but had seen enough, but do we ask musicians to lay down their instruments? In sport you have to supplant the old, grab the torch, yet here he was beating men aged 28, 27, 31, 25, 32, 21, 29 at the Open. Perhaps he moves too well to be shown his place.

Federer has changed coaches, rackets, schedules over time, but one thing is unaltered: Him and the crowd. People come for him and he plays for them, making it both competition and concert. Spectators can make for a vast and disparate group but the rare athlete hits a note which connects them to a crowd, a relationship that transcends a tribalism of club and country.

Bolt did it and so does Federer, who has a following that knows no borders. He hits a service winner and almost gets a standing ovation. He wins the first set 6-2 and receives, without a hint of irony, a "let's go Roger" chant.

A journalist friend, who calls Federer tennis' "international communications manager" makes a pertinent point. He said people were once drip-fed news about players via the media, but through the years at the Australian Open, with the assistance of Jim Courier, Federer has spoken directly to the world. In a time of a sharp separation between an Oakley-wearing, bodyguard-protected superstar and his fan, Federer has conversely created an intimacy and a sense of conviviality.

All Sunday night, after his victory, people wished him in the corridors, shook his hand, posed with him, handed over phones to speak into. When he entered the press conference he received dutiful applause but also a few whistles. Sometimes he even has to calm people down.

A reporter asked him about a reflective moment he seemed to have while walking down the Walk of Champions and Federer smiled and replied: "It wasn't as deep as you make it sound... I was just trying to make sure I have enough power in my biceps, which is not very big, trying to carry this guy." He meant the trophy, which he calls Norman.

Everything ends in sport, even one day the fable of Federer, for his art must bend to the scientific truth of ageing. But he remains an intriguing experience, an athlete investigating the depth of his powers. Age is just a number, he scoffed anyway. Thirty-six means nothing. Twenty, of course, is another matter.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2018, with the headline Roger Federer confirms there is no limit in sport. Subscribe