Roger Federer ought to be feeling his age, but is not. Alex de Minaur is feeling his age, which is just more than half of Federer's. He calls himself "the same kid I was two years ago, doing the same old thing". The same old thing, but agelessly, is Federer's schtick.
At age 37, Federer is the second oldest man in this year's Australian Open. Nineteen-year-old de Minaur is the second youngest. Without greatly offending any social order, they could be father and son. When de Minaur was born, Federer already was ranked inside the top 150. Federer won his first title when de Minaur was two, his first major when the Australian was four and more intent on rackets than racquets.
Federer has 99 tour titles. De Minaur has one, but it's more recent than any of Federer's, just two days old. You could say they have 100 titles between them.
Alex de Minaur on his way to winning the Sydney International.Credit:AP
On Monday, as the tennis clans gather at shiny Melbourne Park for their first summit of the year, they will be peers of a kind, each starting from nought. On a day when the temperature is expected to reach 36 degrees, both should feel the heat, but won't. De Minaur says he thrives on playing when everyone else would rather be taking a siesta. Casey Dellacqua used to say the same thing. It's a bit of an Australian trope, like prawns on the barbie.
Federer is playing at night. It is the defending champion's privilege. In past tournaments, some have grumbled that a nights-only program is also a favour done for Federer, but no one else.
Roger Federer warms up for the Australian Open.Credit:AAP
De Minaur thinks authorities have done him no favours by scheduling him on day one of the Open, two days after he was up all day and half the night winning the Sydney International. But it is not surprising that tennis authorities seek first to please their greatest crowd-pleaser.
Federer is the miracle that has already happened, de Minaur the miracle Australia is praying to happen one day. The men's circuit is said nowadays to be too demanding for physically immature teenagers, and it should by right be too much for a creaking grandee like Federer. Yet, 19 and 37, here they are. If successful here, Federer would become the oldest winner of a major championship, eclipsing Australia's Ken Rosewall, who must think he stopped too young and at 84 still looks as if he might come out of retirement any day now.
Federer has watched them all rise, fall and in some instances rise again, watched as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have suffered injuries, lapses in form, crises of motivation, is watching now as Djokovic rides again, but Murray limps off stage. He watched the various triumphs and torments of Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios, and no doubt is keeping a paternal eye on de Minaur, though he has seen dozens of his type. Yet he has only once slipped himself, literally, while running a bath for his children three years ago and wrenching a knee that put him out for six months. Instead of an end, it became a sabbatical, leading to yet more loot.
Federer can't really explain his longevity, but admits to an element of luck. Players accumulate injuries, but his have been low-grade and to parts that don't matter so much; no hips or back for instance. The knee must have been ready to go, he said, but luck made sure it wasn't in a match. Never has he felt as he imagines Murray is now, that the gain was no longer worth the pain. Otherwise, he knew when not to push his body, was fortunate to be able to play well when training only lightly, and perhaps was blessed also to have a low-stress style.
"Maybe the way I play tennis is smoother than the other guys," he said. "Maybe it just looks that way. I work extremely hard in the matches as well. It just maybe doesn't come across so much. I don't know if that's also part of the equation."
Federer is arguably the best ever, de Minaur the best in Australia for now. He talks up his own game, down his stature. "I feel like I'm closing the gap," he said. "Hopefully I can have a lot more matches against these top guys because that means I'm doing something right. Hopefully push them and even try to just sneak a couple of wins here and there."
With time pinching, de Minaur flew from Sydney to Melbourne on Sunday morning in a private yet. Who did he think he was, Roger Federer? "It was a small one," he said, a little sheepishly. Nonetheless, it opened a window into Federer's world. He'd liked these wings, this wind under them. "Well, if I've got to keep on winning matches to get there," he said, "that's a real incentive."
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