The last time Roger Federer was in China, he owned a mere 17 grand slam titles, never mind that the newest of them more than three years old. In a country where his status is almost God-like, an immense feeling of anti-climax followed a loss to world No.70 Albert Ramos-Vinolas in his Shanghai opener in 2015.
That was then. Federer’s weekend return to China’s most populous city was greeted with the usual rock-star-level hysteria, but since his brief visit two years ago, the ageless veteran has this season added two unexpected majors, long after most thought it possible. Only Rafael Nadal is ranked above him, and the sidelined Andy Murray is the closest pursuer among those below. There. That’s more like it.
While Federer is beloved wherever he plays, of course, the Chinese believers are among the most reverential. The crowds at his practice sessions and warm-ups would be flattering for many of his peers on match days. When he was struggling through a famously difficult 2013, even the then world No.7 was touched by the fan hanging over the fence in Shanghai holding a sign declaring “I believe in you”, while others doubted.
Last weekend, while stranded in Guangzhou on the way home from the Wuhan Open due to a lost-passport debacle (long story), I discussed the Fed phenomenon with two ATP China staffers over fine Cantonese dim sum. As you do.
The feeling seemed to be that, aside from the obvious achievements and aesthetics that prompt such devotion everywhere he goes, the reason Federer enjoys an extra level of adoration in China is because of the events of about a decade ago.
It was then that Federer was at the peak of his dominance. Remember those 2006 glory days of three Slams and a 74-6 win-loss record? It was also then that China was first starting to open itself up to a non-traditional racquet sport in which the government had invested most heavily in the women’s game as it chased Olympic/Slam success. In doubles, if necessary.
And there he was. Roger. Impeccable, superstar Roger. For a while there, the tennis news in China was ALL about Roger. As with all great romances, the feelings have endured.
Yet, interestingly, the other male player the local experts believe enjoys enormous popularity in this immense nation is not a man always quite so beloved elsewhere: Novak Djokovic. The absent 12-slam champion has had better results in China than any other member of the Big Four, while the cosy relationship between the Serb and Chinese governments has prompted a little extra promotion.
Djokovic has also made a concerted effort to woo the locals, who speak of his impressive eye contact and appreciate his effort to learn a little of their language, even writing in mandarin on the camera lens. A bit like when a non-French speaker goes to the trouble of rehearsing a few lines for the Roland Garros trophy presentation, it has not gone unnoticed.
Nor, of course, since Saturday’s arrival, has Federer, and there were plans to borrow Mickey Mouse from the local Disneyland for a joint appearance by two global superstars before a tournament which the second seed enters with a slimline but outstanding 2017 tournament record of 39-4.
On Wednesday, against Diego Schwartzman he will play his first match since the four-set quarter-final loss to Juan Martin Del Potro at the US Open. The locals will be smitten, as they always are, Federer gracious and professional, as he reliably is.
Nadal may head the rankings list, but there are places where King Roger still rules. This is one of them.
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