Roger Federer did not commence the 2017 grass court season on his own terms. Taking a much needed break for ten weeks after collecting the hard court title in Miami, he returned to the competitive game in Stuttgart and took on old friend and familiar rival Tommy Haas in the round of 16 after an opening round bye on the grass. Federer seemed in stellar form early on, winning the first set easily, breaking early in the second, appearing to be well on his way to victory. But the 39-year-old Haas obstinately kept himself in the match, made it to a second set tie-break, gamely saved a match point, and ultimately prevailed 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4. No one, including Federer himself, could have anticipated the result of that confrontation.
On went the Swiss to the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, and there he gradually restored his confidence, reimagined his view of himself and rebuilt his game. He did not play particularly well on his way to a title round appointment with Alexander Zverev, but Federer's performance in the final was nothing less than stupendous. He soared to an entirely different level for that encounter, put forth an unstoppable game plan, executed with excellence from beginning to end, and cast aside a befuddled Zverev to the tune of 6-1, 6-3. He thus captured a 92nd career title, placing himself only two career championships behind Ivan Lendl, who stands in second place for the Open Era behind Jimmy Connors. The left-handed American secured a record 109 tournament victories.
The view here is that Federer will move past Lendl this year and the feeling grows that with the benefit of good health and no serious injuries, he could eventually break the Connors record in 2018 or 2019. But that is a long term goal for Federer. In the short term, he has only one objective in mind, and that is winning an eighth Wimbledon singles title on July 16th. I believe that he has enhanced his chances of realizing that goal decidedly by virtue of his Halle triumph. He peaked for his meeting with Zverev and demonstrated to one and all that he remains the best grass court player in the world. Federer turns 36 on August 8, but his zest for the game and his many layers of motivation belie that fact. Put simply, the man is revitalized, and that has been the case all through 2017. He has won four of the six tournaments he has played. He has found a late career formula for success that is extraordinary. His inner conviction is unmistakable to everyone observing him from the outside.
The signs of Federer's state of mind were evident immediately against Zverev. Right off the bat, the Swiss was saying to Zverev, "You are not going to enjoy what I am going to throw your way. I dare you to do something about it." On the first point of the match, he kept sending no pace slice backhands to Zverev until the 20-year-old bungled an inside out forehand. Federer released a backhand drop shot down the line winner for 0-30. His attacking second serve return pushed Zverev into the corner and out of the point: 0-40. And then Federer broke at love, implementing a backhand down the line to set up an unanswerable forehand inside in. Federer held at 15 for 2-0, winning a key point for 30-0 with a serve-volley behind a second delivery. He made an elegant backhand half volley pickup off a good return, keeping that shot short and low. Forced to come forward awkwardly, Zverev got little on his passing shot, and there was Federer, stationed perfectly for a forehand volley winner.
Those first two games propelled Federer and discouraged Zverev significantly. Down 30-40 in the third game, Zverev released an ace. Federer then netted a backhand drop shot. The German had advanced to game point. But he erred flagrantly off the backhand, coaxed into a mistake once more by a soft backhand slice from Federer. Now the maestro played a nifty lob volley off the forehand side, took over at the net, and routinely deposited a forehand drop volley into the open court. Federer had gained an insurance break, extending his lead to 3-0, leaving Zverev utterly confused. Federer promptly rolled to 4-0 with a love hold, serving an ace and producing a pair of service winners in that game.
Zverev knew full well that he was facing a top of the line Federer. Yet he fought on tenaciously despite his predicament. The No. 4 seed trailed 0-30 in the fifth game, but an ace out wide got him back into that game. He drew level at 30-30 on an error off the backhand from Federer. Zverev chased down a Federer drop shot and passed him cleanly down the line off the backhand: 40-30. A forehand winner off a short return from Federer enabled Zverev to hold for 1-4, but the reprieve was brief. Federer held at 15 for 5-1. With Zverev serving in the seventh game, Federer succeeded again with a backhand drop shot winner down the line for 0-15. He broke at 30 to seal the set 6-1. The top seed could have played no better, and Zverev wilted beneath the barrage of magnificent shotmaking from his adversary.
The German at last found a small opening as Federer served at 30-30 in the first game of the second set. He directed a high trajectory forehand return down the middle to elicit a forehand error from the Swiss. Zverev had garnered his first and only break point of the contest. Federer, however, was unruffled. He uncorked a deadly first serve to the backhand and Zverev had no chance to return it. Another outstanding first serve lifted Federer to game point and he held on with a wide serve that set up a forehand winner. 1-0 for Federer. Another setback for Zverev.
But Zverev managed to hold for 1-1, serving an ace for 40-30, followed by a first serve to Federer's backhand that was simply too good. Federer held easily for 2-1 at 15 and arrived at break point in the fourth game, but Zverev saved it with a serve-volley combination born of necessity. Federer had exposed his opponent so regularly with the short chipped return that Zverev realized he had to mix in some serve-and-volley. So he came forward behind a big first serve, saving the break point as the Swiss chipped a return into the net. Two more un-returnable first serves lifted Zverev to 2-2, but only tenuously.
Unshaken by that stand, Federer connected with four first serves in a row, holding at love for 3-2. In the sixth game, Federer struck boldly, reaching 15-40 with assurance. He then seemed backed up by a deep shot from Zverev but somehow chipped a backhand low down the line, making Zverev come forward again on Swiss terms. Federer was set up for a forehand passing shot, and he made it comfortably. 4-2 for the Swiss.
The match was essentially over. From 0-15 in the seventh game, Federer went to work inspirationally. First a service winner down the T. Next a winning overhead. Then an ace down the T. Lastly, he came through with a sidespin forehand drop shot winner to hold at 15 for 5-2. Zverev plodded on professionally, acing Federer twice in the eighth game, holding at love for 3-5. But Federer served it out majestically. He serve-volleyed four times in the ninth game, and Zverev was too far back to thwart that tactic. At 15-15, Federer got in nicely for the first volley, punched it crosscourt off the backhand, and set up a backhand volley winner. He got to 40-15 with the same pattern, making a solid crosscourt first volley, elegantly putting away a backhand volley into the open court with Zverev stranded wide on his forehand side. And then he closed out the account stylishly, serving out wide, opening up the court for a backhand volley winner into a wide open court. Federer came through 6-1, 6-3, winning Halle for the ninth time, giving himself an immense boost in the process.
Examining the eight previous times Federer triumphed in Halle, here is how he fared at Wimbledon in those years. From 2003-2006 as the champion of Halle, Federer won Wimbledon every time. In 2008 when he was victorious in Halle, Federer lost an epic five set Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal. From 2013 through 2015 when he took the title in Halle three years in a row, Federer was beaten in the second round of Wimbledon by Sergiy Stakhovsky, and then he lost to Novak Djokovic in consecutive Wimbledon finals. So history may be no guide. Four times he has been the victor at Wimbledon following success in Halle but four times it has not worked out for Federer at the All England Club.
Be that as it may, Federer approaches this Wimbledon with vigor, purpose, deep determination and unwavering spirit. An elite server like Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic or Nick Kyrgios could topple the Swiss. Nadal could turn the tables on his old rival after losing to Federer thrice earlier this season, including the final of the Australian Open at the start of the year. The chief advantage for Federer over everyone, though, is his seasoning on the grass court surface. He is far and away the most comfortable of the leading players on the lawns. He has a wider arsenal than anyone else. He is not doubting himself these days. Roger Federer is the man to beat at Wimbledon. Who can convincingly dispute that assertion?