Should we be preparing ourselves for Roger Federer’s last great, golden summer in London, when once again it will feel as though all his shots and deeds ought to be covered in gold leaf? What we do know is that this is going to be the longest grass-court season in the city for more than a century, since the sepia, Edwardian, wood-and-flannel days of 1908.
Then, like this summer, London hosted the ‘regular’ Wimbledon Championships and the Olympic tournament. And there is no one who benefits more from an elongated stretch on the lawns than Federer, a tennis traditionalist in almost every way, who is often at his best when he is running – or gliding – across the sport’s original surface. For those, such as Federer, who like to see tennis being played on lawns, it often feels as though the grass-court season is over too soon. This summer we will have a decent grass-court fix, and perhaps even a good Federer fix, too. It was at the All England Club that Roger Federer truly became Roger Federer, by winning the 2003 Wimbledon Championships for his first grand slam title, and it is there that he could have the last brilliant summer of his career.
“Wimbledon is always ultra important for me,” Federer has told the Swiss press. “Wimbledon is special, and a few weeks later we have the opportunity to play at Wimbledon again for medals, which is an incredible chance for our generation.”
Of course, there will be differences between the two ‘Wimbledons’ – the matches will be best-of-three sets at the Olympics (with the exception of a best-of-five final), and during the Games the players will not be restricted to predominantly-white clothes, and can wear coloured kit. Yet whoever wins the ‘normal’ Wimbledon – and if Federer does so he would put himself level with his friend Pete Sampras on a record seven titles – will be extremely difficult to beat when the Olympic event starts just under three weeks later. Tennis players are supposed to start going curly at the edges after they have reached their thirties, but Federer, who turns 31 in August, is more than capable of achieving the grass-court double of holding up both the golden pineapple-topped Wimbledon trophy and an Olympic gold medal.
Plainly, there is much to play for in south-west London. There is little that Federer likes more than going to Wimbledon’s champions dinner, and if he were to become Olympic champion he would achieved everything as a singles player.
It is sometimes said, by those who regard tennis players as intruders on the Olympics’ supposedly amateur ethos, that Federer and his gilded, racket-swinging friends don’t care nearly enough about being on the podium and about the Olympic movement. That is plainly not the case with Federer (or with many other players, for that matter). The Olympics have been an important part of the Federer narrative, not least because he had his first kiss with his future wife, Mirka, in the athletes’ village at the 2000 Sydney Games. He has cried after singles defeats, and in 2008 he had one of his happiest moments in tennis when he won the doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka. When it was announced that London had won the Games, and that the tennis would be played at Wimbledon, there was no one happier to hear that than Federer.
There is no reason to believe that position has changed. So no one needs to gently remind Federer that playing Olympic tennis at Wimbledon is a “once in the lifetime opportunity”. “Winning the Olympics singles is a big goal for me, there’s no doubt about that,” he has said. “This is going to be my fourth time, and I don’t think there’s another player in singles who has played four Games in this era so I’m very happy that I’m able to do that. I think it’s going to be very helpful that I’ve already won an Olympic gold in doubles as I’ll feel a little less pressure, although there will be massive pressure on all the players, especially the favourites. I’m excited.”
Perhaps previous generations of tennis players never felt like true Olympians. Federer and others have committed to the Olympic rings. “I think tennis players have shown enough goodwill to prove that we care deeply about the Olympics,” said Federer, who has disclosed that it is “not inconceivable” that he will compete at the 2016 Games in Brazil. “It’s not always about points and ranking and money – what’s important is that the players show they love the Olympic spirit, the dreams of representing their country. I’m happy we’re in the Olympics and the more that we prove to people that we love the Games dearly, the more I hope everyone’s going to be happier about it.”
So what are Federer’s chances of winning one or both Wimbledon events? It is now three years since Federer won his sixth and last Wimbledon title by taking a 16-14 fifth set against Andy Roddick. He has not reached another semi-final since then, never mind a semi-final. Two years ago, he was beaten in the last eight by Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, and last year, though he went two sets up against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he lost the quarter-final in five. The fact that the matches at the Olympics will be the best-of-three sets – with the exception of the final, which will be played over five – is surely to Federer’s benefit. The shorter the match, the greater Federer’s chances of beating opponents such as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Djokovic and Nadal plainly know what their way around Centre Court, as both are former champions, and Murray’s game is also well-suited to the turf, and is a former semi-finalist. Others to consider are Tsonga and Milos Raonic, the young Canadian whose serve has a top speed of almost 160mph.
Will the courts be prepared any differently – and therefore play any differently – because of the extra pressures brought by the Olympics? This summer will be Eddie Seaward’s last as the head groundsman of the All England Club, after more than 20 years of horticulture, and he described the challenge of the Wimbledon-Olympic summer double as his “greatest challenge yet”. But Seaward said that they would not be changing their approach because the Olympic rings are coming to Centre Court. “We have 20 days between The Championships and the Olympics, and we’re confident that we can get the grass back on the baselines,” Seaward said. “We’re sticking with the same grasses. Between the two events, we’re going to be sowing grasses which are pre-germinated – in other words, they would have already started to grow. That should take about three days.”
The Swiss in the ‘RF’ branded baseball cap will be pleased to hear that; the grass is going to be just fine.