He was reminiscing about his history at the Hopman Cup, the team event where he was planning to begin his 2017 comeback after six months away from the tour.
Way back when, in another tennis lifetime and nearly another century, a teenage Federer—complete with a ponytail—had twice come to Perth to represent Switzerland. Both were memorable experiences: In 2001, he and Martina Hingis teamed to win the tournament; in 2002, he played with his future wife, Mirka Vavrinec. Now, 14 years and many haircuts later, Federer would be returning to pair with the newest Swiss hope, Belinda Bencic. The last time he was in Perth, he had yet to win a major title, and Bencic had yet to celebrate her fifth birthday.
Federer may not be facing Father Time just yet, but at 35 he seems to have settled into his role as Father Tennis to the game’s new generation. It didn’t take long for the Dad jokes to start flying Down Under. At the Hopman Cup’s New Year’s party, Federer stepped out on the dance floor with Bencic, Alexander Zverev, Daria Gavrilova, Kristina Mladenovic and others who are roughly two-thirds his age. If you didn’t recognize Fed’s face at the party, the dignified tuxedo he was sporting was probably a giveaway. As his fellow oldster, Andrea Petkovic—she’s 29—told him with a laugh, “Remember this, Roger. Remember the time we danced with a bunch of teenagers.”.
But a wife and four kids have yet to turn Federer into a stick in the mud. He has spent the week in Perth showing the NextGen that he can still be the life of a party. While the Aussie commentators never fail to refer to him as “The Great Man Himself,” the Maestro remains goofily young at heart.
He referred to his partnership with Bencic by the Twitter-friendly name Benderer, and while she was playing singles one night, he spent a changeover banging on a set of virtual bongos. Federer went so far over the top that his own father called to tell him to cool it. He hasn’t lost any of his promotional flair, either. Before the tournament began, Federer tweeted out a shot of the packed house in Perth that had shown up for a chance to see him practice. The crowds have kept the house packed for his three matches this week. They even cheered when he bashed a ball into the upper reaches of the arena in frustration.
The bigger question, of course, isn’t how Federer has practiced or danced, but how he has played in his first competition since Wimbledon. For a player returning from a long layoff, the Hopman Cup would seem to be the ideal place to ease back into the tour. You’re guaranteed multiple matches, and the atmosphere is competitive but relaxed. The Hopman Cup doesn’t count toward the rankings, which means that we can ignore the results. But it’s not a hit-and-giggle session, either; the players are there to compete, rather than just to entertain. Overall, it appears to have worked for Federer. He cruised past Dan Evans and Richard Gasquet, and lost in three tiebreakers to Zverev.
“I had a blast,” Federer said on Friday. “It was a long, long six months for me off the tour.”
Those words alone should make it clear that he doesn’t want to leave the court for his couch any time soon.
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop one headline from blaring that Federer was “STUNNED BY ZVEREV” after the two met on Wednesday night. Stunned is likely not how Federer felt after losing to the German. The last time they met, in Halle in 2016, Zverev won 6-3 in the third set, and everyone knows that the 19-year-old is on his way to the Top 10; many of us will be surprised if he doesn’t reach No. 1. Federer would probably have been stunned if the match hadn’t been as close and—aside from the result—crowd-pleasing as it turned out to be.
In the months that Federer was away, this was the opponent I most often pictured him playing when he returned, and most often wondered how he would handle. Federer’s skills were unlikely to erode much in half a year, and despite his injuries, he hadn’t really been in decline as a player; in 2016, he reached the semis at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. But I still had trouble imagining him, at 35, fending off the energy, shot-making and physicality of young gunslingers like Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem and Karen Khachanov, not to mention their older brethren, like Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro.
Judging by the limited evidence from Perth, Federer can still hold his own physically with any generation. He moved well and defended well against Zverev’s pace, which comes from the forehand and backhand side in equal measures. He mixed up spin and depth, and kept Zverev off balance with a variety of serves. He didn’t seem as dead set on getting to the net as he had during periods of the Stefan Edberg era, but the net is probably a tough place to be against a guy who puts as much weight on the ball as Zverev does. Federer was even sharp enough to take a swinging volley from his ankles, in no man’s land, and drive it for a winner. It didn’t take long for the rust to fall off his racquet.
In the end, though, it may not be a question of whether Federer declines at 35, but how much a player like Zverev—and Kyrgios, and Thiem, and Khachanov, and Raonic, and Nishikori—inclines in the months ahead. There was a period last spring when Zverev was visibly improving from one week to the next, and against Federer in Perth he hit the ball with more flat pace, on both sides, than he did in 2016.
You could see the generational divide in their heights—Federer is 6’1”, Zverev 6’6”—and in the way they put points together. Federer’s wide serve in the ad court is a pure spinner, with little pace; Zverev, by contrast, throws down a flatter, faster ball out wide. Where Federer uses his one-handed backhand as a setup shot, Zverev drives his two-hander full speed ahead. Federer needs to finish at the net; Zverev doesn’t.
None of this will be a new phenomenon for Federer. He’s been facing the power of youth since his first meeting with Rafael Nadal in 2004. And when Federer needed to up his own pace against Zverev—to force a forehand into a corner, or send a biting serve into the German’s body—he could do it. The sport has evolved in the 18 years since Federer’s debut, but his forehand isn’t going to be obsolete anytime soon.
Near the end of the match, Federer and Zverev traded body serves. Federer spun his into Zverev’s backhand side, jammed him and forced an error. Zverev reared back and blasted his so hard and flat that it nearly slammed into Federer’s chest. But when Zverev tried the same serve a little later, Federer managed to get it back.
Time flies, as Federer says. But there’s still some left for him.