By Chris de Waard
In contrast to Federer, it appears I peaked too soon this year. But when I wrote my previous article, following his miraculous Australian Open run, I hardly could have guessed the 35-year-old demigod would continue to dominate the hardcourt season and that I should have waited until now to do a write-up. A slight hiccup in the second round of Dubai, a measly 500 event anyway, didn't shake Federer's confidence as he followed it up with his first Indian Wells title since 2012 and his first Miami title since 2006, the year in which he won the IW/Miami double for the last time. Naturally this makes Federer's current 19-1 record his best season start since 2006 as well.
Federer claims he isn't 24 anymore and things are very different these days (referring to skipping the majority of the clay season), but he was 24 in 2006 and 2017 has looked exactly the same so far. One could wonder how it's possible for a 35-year-old to return from a six-month injury lay-off guns blazing, turning back time at least five years. After 2012 Federer's level dropped visibly and why shouldn't it have? Federer was 31 at the time, a perfectly natural age for a tennis player to start declining after having been at the absolute top of the game for ten years.
Sadly, this obscure blog is the only place where you will see any eyebrows being raised with regards to a season start that is so obviously suspicious. The rest of the tennis world prefers to explain everything Federer does as God's gift to humanity, failing to take a step back and wonder why they have been saying ''Surely Federer has to be tired now'' for ten matches straight. Nor do they find it strange when Federer, on a 9-match winning streak and after a gruelling three-set match against Tomas Berdych that ended with a third set tiebreak and Federer saving 2 match points, says he wasn't tired at the end of the match and even gained energy in the third set. The media will unironically praise him for adding ''staggering stamina'' to his game, like it's something 35-year-old athletes simply do. Federer getting tired is like Bigfoot: many people claim to have seen it, but it has never actually happened.
Another match well over three hours followed in the semi-final against 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios, ending in three tiebreaks. Once again Federer didn't show any signs of tiredness, in contrast to his opponent, who had also played a long three-set match the day before. Also once again, no one thought it was strange a 35-year-old already on a big winning streak is able to recover better from a long match within a day than a 21-year-old. I can even show a statistic to support this theory:
Normally Kyrgios is just as fast as Federer when it comes to serving, so him going over the time limit in no less than 61% of the cases is clearly indicative of tiredness. In the final awaited Federer's eternal nemesis Rafael Nadal, who in contrast to Federer had eased through his draw. Surely now was the time to take advantage, after losing to Federer at the Australian Open and Indian Wells already? But no, apparently at the age of 35 Federer has all of a sudden solved a match-up that tormented him his entire career. A 6-3 6-4 beatdown later and Federer got crowned the Miami champion, a tournament he skipped altogether in the past years because it would have been too taxing otherwise. But at the age of 35, Federer has tapped into a newfound fountain of eternal energy. At Indian Wells he beat Nadal for the third time in a row, a career first, which he extended to four in Miami. Let's not forget Nadal is returning from an injury lay-off and immediately playing better than he has in a long time as well, his specialty, which would have been more apparent if he wasn't completely outshined by Federer.
Of course, had it been Nadal beating Federer three times instead of the other way around, the current media silence wouldn't be in place. Most journalists are blatant Federer fans and won't shy away from raising suspicions about any other player, just not Federer. To demonstrate my point, this is what happened after he won Miami:
[quote]That applause for Federer started when he first appeared out of the tunnel, and it continued all the way into the media room after his win, where the clapping was so great, he gently chided the world’s tennis writers, the supposed beacons of neutrality.
“You’re not supposed to clap,” he said.
[/quote]Federer gets protected, always, even if he does exactly the same Nadal has rightfully been attacked for. No journalist would dare to make the slightest implication that Federer's comeback might be a tad suspicious. Because what they accused Nadal of when he was only 26, can't possible apply to a Federer who is 35. 'Doping, Tennis, Federer: A Connection? Roger Federer's prolonged absence from the tour has raised suspicions, and the ITF's anti-doping program does little to reassure.' Sounds like a reasonable way to start an article about Federer's 2017, right? It will never happen. Change the name to Nadal and it's an existing article, of which many appeared in mainstream media around that time. Don't get me wrong, those articles about Nadal were a good thing, but there is no reason other than bias not to hold Federer to the same standard. From the article above, a situation which is still exactly the same today:
It is indeed unfortunate that the current anti-doping system allows for rampant speculation regarding players’ integrity. But it’s also unfortunate that Lance Armstrong took over 500 drug tests without failing one. It’s no wonder even casual observers doubt the ITF’s ability to stay ahead of the doping technology being used throughout the sports world.
As thrilling as it is to watch the seemingly inhuman athleticism of so many in pro tennis, it’s naïve not to ask questions of an extended absence from the tour in a world where performance enhancing drugs and blood doping run rampant. With wisps of smoke in the air, perhaps there is more fire than some would like to admit.
Federer is the first ATP player in history I can think of who started declining at 31, only to all of a sudden make some massive improvements to his game and physique at 35, enabling him to reverse his decline and return to being the player he was before it started to set in. A common straw man is to claim Federer's style isn't physically demanding and therefore everything can be explained with that. But it's nonsense. Of course, his style is less demanding than those of Nadal and Djokovic, but does that mean he won't profit from an increase in stamina and recovery ability? Tennis is one of the most physically demanding sports in general, no matter what your style is, and especially when you are at the top of the game.
People will say his backhand can't be improved by simply doping. It's a technical change. But what enables someone to hit attacking backhands in full swing like it's 2006 again? Federer's backhand is arguably better than ever, as even the eternal moonball abuser of his backhand, Nadal, can't viably attack it anymore. Granted, this isn't the same Nadal who won their first three matches at the Australian Open, but the point still stands firmly despite that. Although one can wonder if Nadal is really playing that much worse than in 2014, when he beat Federer 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3 in the semi-final. Technical and tactical changes are one thing, but what enables someone to execute this for an entire match? Infinite stamina. When your footwork doesn't go and your timing stays intact, you can keep hitting backhands with confidence. Federer's notorious shanks were caused by just that: a lack of footwork and timing. Federer has also seemed to improve his clutchness compared to previous years, an ability that is well known for declining with age. But not for Federer, as he is 5-0 in deciding sets (including three five-setters) at Grand Slam and Masters level this year and 10-2 in tiebreaks.
Another remarkable improvement in Federer's game has been his serve, which might go unnoticed to a lot of people. This is not only a relative improvement in comparison to the rest of his post-2012 years, his serve has remained intact during the 2013-2016 period, but he is actually serving better than ever. He is averaging 2.2 aces per match more than at any other point in his career. Make of that what you will, but allow me to draw a comparison with the steroid era in baseball for your consideration. Federer would probably be able to hold his own in professional baseball as a pitcher, judging by the big increase in vascularity in his left arm between 2016 and 2017. Vascularity is widely associated with the bodybuilding world and can be caused by a variety of illegal substances also used in tennis, including steroids, human growth hormone (HGH) and EPO.
Federer has been linked to EPO before, as the ITF conducted specific EPO tests in 2008 and 2009 on a group of players who came up with suspicious blood results in earlier tests. Guess who was not only a part of that group, but even got tested the most? Indeed, Federer. Of course, you won't actually catch anyone if you only conduct four tests in two years (Lance Armstrong used EPO and came out clean in over 500 tests) and the ITF took a lesson from this incriminating level of transparency, as the information got removed from their website and similar information has not been released since. Federer's EPO connection gains even more credibility when looking at the mononucleosis epidemic around that time, which curiously seemed to center around two sports: tennis and the most notorious doping infested sport there is: cycling. It's easy to see why tennis has quite a different reputation, as the ITF only conducted 21 out-of-competion blood tests in 2011, compared to the 4613 that took place in cycling.
Federer had mono in 2008, although it didn't stop him from performing the same physical miracles as this year: ''That was what was so amazing. I was able to get up and play a five-setter against Tipsarevic at a time when apparently my mononucleosis was at its strongest.'' While Federer was powering through a disease well known for making you tired, Sergio Cruz (Jim Courier's former coach) wrote an article in which he linked mononucleosis to EPO. While Cruz only mentioned cycling at that time, he followed it up in 2014 with an article about tennis, to which I already linked in the previous paragraph. In adorable fashion, going against everything else in the article, Cruz tries to cover himself by saying he doesn't believe players like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray would ever cheat, nor that the tennis authorities would let them get away with such blatant cheating. Wink.
It speaks for itself that vascularity shouldn't be seen as concrete evidence (if only doping athletes were that easily recognizable), it can be caused by other factors as well, but the difference is striking for a non-playing arm and those substances are notoriously associated with it. Granted, Federer looks fresher overall in the first picture and vascularity can increase naturally during physical activities as the arm has to endure more strain, but that is something you might expect to happen in his right arm. Federer's left arm barely has any physical strain to endure during matches, only playing a part in his ball toss and to guide his backhand.
I have also never seen this before.David Ferrer is not someone you want to look like while trying to distance yourself from doping allegations.
But if Federer used doping throughout his career, why didn't he have such vascularity in his left arm before? Simple: during a six-month break, when you can even avoid getting tested altogether as I explained in my previous article, you can get a lot more work done compared to your 'run of the mill' doping (likely microdosing for the most part) while playing on tour and cycle your body to perfection. This also makes it more likely to become apparent in a player's physique. Again, subjects that have been thoroughly discussed regarding Nadal's comebacks, but apparently unthinkable to the general public when it comes to Federer.
Andy Murray made a similar observation about HGH user Wayne Odesnik, as he was struck by his huge upper body. Assuming his audience consists of fools and no one will notice he is in fact describing himself as well, Murray went on to say he has played against players and thought ''They won't go away'' or ''They don't seem to be getting tired''. ''Have I ever been suspicious of someone? Yeah. You hear things.''
Federer credited his Miami success to 'thinking young', which also sums up the attitude of journalists, who mindlessly eat up statements like that. Federer is such a divine entity that he can age in reverse through sheer mindpower. But not even when he was young did he possess some of the powers he has gained during his injury lay-off. He came into the Australian Open with a 7-14 record in fifth sets against top 10 players, having lost three in a row between 2013 and 2016. He left with a 10-14 record. Despite being 35 and just back from a six-month injury break, he suddenly had the stamina, recovery ability and clutchness to fend off two top five players and his eternal nightmare Nadal in fifth sets within four rounds to win his first Grand Slam title since 2012. Between 2013 and 2016 Federer had a 8-9 record against top 10 players in Grand Slams, at the 2017 Australian Open he went 4-0. Some point to Novak Djokovic not being in his way, who beat him in his previous three Grand Slam finals. But is beating Nadal not even more significant, especially under these circumstances?
Tennis is dirty and has been for a long time. The testing system is inherently corrupt because tennis takes care of it themselves. It's the epitome of a conflict of interest. Why would they catch top players and ruin their own business, costing themselves and others billions of dollars in future revenue? One might point to Maria Sharapova's case, but that was a completely different scenario, with WADA getting involved in a sports wide crackdown on Russian athletes with regards to meldonium. Plus, she blundered by coming forward herself to try and control the narrative. Had it solely been up to the ITF, we would have never heard about it. If tennis was serious about fighting doping, they would retest old samples, as it's the only way to catch athletes who are years ahead of the anti-doping authorities. But they don't even store old samples, let alone test them.
Why would players not take doping if there is no risk of getting caught and millions of dollars to gain? This is why it's counterproductive to say doping allegations are useless and only hard evidence counts. What are these people expecting, for me to sneak into a player's bedroom and take a blood sample? The only way to challenge this corrupt system is to keep raising these questions until it changes for the better. Naturally I realize the system will very likely never change, but that doesn't mean it isn't the right approach. When the system can be trusted, allegations will no longer be needed. If tennis journalists did their job as independent watchdogs, the sentiment I am expressing would appear in their writings as well. The essence of this article isn't the speculation about Federer as an individual, which in the end does not prove anything and is just that: speculation, it's the demonstrably corrupt system as a whole and the biased media who are supposed to criticize it.
Whether it's Federer, Nadal, Ferrer, Djokovic and his 'gluten free diet', Murray and his full body transformation during an off-season or Wawrinka who suddenly had endless stamina at the age of 28, it doesn't matter, they are all at it if you ask me. And given the fact that over the course of 2002 and 2003 no less than sixty players had nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, in their system, it's likely to be more widespread than many of you would think. Do I expect tennis to become anything less than full of doping? No. Should at least the bias and hypocrisy surrounding doping end? Yes! Federer himself said it best: ''Naivety says that tennis is clean.''