Either time’s passage is an illusion or the Roger Federer Effect is a mirage, writes Nirmal Shekar

COMING as he does from a country of legendary watchmakers — Switzerland — you might have thought that Roger Federer would be acutely aware of the passing of time.

After 17 Grand Slam titles and a clutch of other records — ones that might never be broken in decades to come — nobody would have been shocked if the great master had settled into a routine of dropping off his twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, at school and opted for an easy chair and newspaper crossword puzzles, while eagerly awaiting the arrival of another set of twins later this year.

Instead, Federer has started 2014 apparently hell-bent on conquering some super-Himalayan peak that nobody on Planet Tennis knew existed.

To be certain, none of us can still be sure that it does exist — which, of course, does not mean that its pursuit by the Swiss genius is likely to turn out to be a Don Quixote-and-the-windmill affair. 

As they glide into their routine effortlessly, the greatest of athletes freeze time itself. They fool you into believing that all the summers they have left behind do not really count, as they would for us ordinary mortals. 

“When you lose, the journey is endless. When you win, time just flies.” This was the text sent by Robert Federer to his 32-year-old son after the Dubai Open recently.

But then, Roger, who proudly tweeted that reassuring message, has always given you the impression that ruthless Father Time has never, ever, left a mark on him, whether it flies or crawls. 

And the arrival of the genial Swede, Stefan Edberg, as his coach at the start of year, as well as Federer’s decision to switch to a racquet with a bigger sweet spot, appeared to give the great man the chance to regain his sublime self-confidence and mock at time’s tentacles. 

But who does he have within sight to emulate? What is the target that you aim at when you have done everything there is to be done? What remains after the tallest of peaks has been conquered? 

Ah, well, these are meaningless questions when addressed to a man who finds rich, ever-more-life-enhancing meaning in every moment that he spends on the court, even if he is someone for whom the burden of proof is past. 

Against Andy Murray at the Australian Open in Melbourne, against Novak Djokovic in Dubai, and against the veteran German Tommy Haas at Indian Wells on March 12, Federer displayed the hunger of a gifted teenager in quest of his first Tour title. 

Ultimate beyonder

The US psychologist Ellis Paul Torrance has talked about high achievers as men and women who “fall in love with a dream” and then go after it with evangelistic zeal. He calls these special members of our species “beyonders”. 

Surely, modern sport — not just men’s tennis — has not seen a ‘beyonder’ beyond Federer. He is the ultimate example of this small band of outliers. 

Right through 2013, a year in which Federer won a solitary tour title and twice lost before the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event — which is roughly the equivalent of Sachin Tendulkar failing to get past 10 four times in a row in a Test match at Chepauk — the Swiss maestro had got used to facing unforgiving microphones. 

On the other side (of the microphone), were men and women who were almost certain that an era had come to an end. Federer’s retirement no longer seemed to be a question; instead it looked like it would turn out to be a happy answer to all his woes on court. 

Hampered by a back injury through half the season, Federer lost in the second round at Wimbledon, a championship that he has won seven times, and then, two months later, was dumped out of the US Open in the fourth round. 

His 45-17 season record was his worst since anyone might care to remember and Federer dropped from No.2 at the start of 2013 to No.8 currently. Who, then, would have bet on a Roger Resurgence at the start of the year? 

If you counted out his diehard fans — and you might need to do a lot of counting to get that figure right — there was only one person who did believe that Federer could more than drop hints of a comeback: the great man himself. 

Right from the time he stepped on the court for his first match this year, at Brisbane, Federer has suggested that he has regained the aggressiveness and confidence of his pomp and rediscovered the intensity that saw him embrace unsurpassed greatness in the first decade of the new millennium. 

Yet, the point is not merely that he looks like a contender again; it is that he does so while still offering us the unique peak emotional (aesthetic) experience that Bernard Shaw called “Mozartian joy”. 

Either time’s passage is an illusion or the Roger Federer Effect is a mirage. Given the laws of nature, both cannot be true at the same time.