Who, a month ago, didn't know better than Roger Federer? There was no room left for him at the top of the sport: Novak Djokovic was the game's ruling power; Rafael Nadal was edging ever closer to Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam singles titles; and Andy Murray was giving every sign of leaping next into their winner's circle. Federer was 30 and hadn't won a major in 2½ years. He had been left, if not for dead, then for done. It was odd, really, how only he refused to understand that.
Take heart, London. If Wimbledon 2012 was just a tune-up for the coming five-ring circus, then your Olympics are going to be a corker. It had been more than a decade since the All England Club hosted a fortnight so startling and dramatic, even while serving up history on a platter: The two singles champions, after all, may well be the greatest men's and women's players of all time. But their resurgence still came as a shock.
Indeed, the tournament played out as a kind of tribute to perseverance against almost surreal odds: Brian Baker's run to the fourth round after losing nearly six years to injury, Murray's burrow through 74 years of British futility to make the men's final, 30-year-old Serena Williams's fifth Wimbledon triumph after two years of health emergencies and on-court self-immolations.
"I never dreamed of being here again," Williams said, eyes filling with tears, after she beat Agnieszka Radwanska for the title 6--1, 5--7, 6--2. She wasn't alone. Meltdowns at her last two U.S. Opens and a first-ever first-round loss at Roland Garros in May suggested a deepening vulnerability. Williams had her fragile moments at this Wimbledon too, but her serve was never better; neither defending champion Petra Kvitova nor 2012 Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka could stand up to it—a testimony to both Williams's resolve and the questionable quality of today's women's field.
The men's game, of course, occupies a headier plane these days, making Federer's run the most remarkable of all. It's not that he wasn't capable of winning another major; Federer's astonishing durability and his peerless grass-court skills will make him a Wimbledon threat for the next five years. But along with some aura-cracking losses in the last few years, Federer had demonstrated an odd obliviousness. He sniffed at the go-for-broke forehand with which Djokovic saved match point and turned around their 2011 U.S. Open semifinal as something déclassé, and he somehow walked away from a four-set loss to Nadal (6--1 in the fourth) at last year's French Open certain that he had been "very close." It all seemed very sad—until, at Wimbledon, he proved himself to be absolutely right.
Federer had, it turned out, been playing a far deeper game than anyone suspected. Because his seventh Wimbledon title, which tied him with his idol, Pete Sampras, wasn't a one-off. It was the culmination of canny scheduling and clutch wins at smaller tour stops, a stealth climb that brought him back to No. 1—enabling him also to tie and, this week, beat Sampras's record of 286 weeks at the top—when few thought Federer could reach that spot again.
Still, Federer insists that it was the process of getting to No. 1, not the number itself, that mattered most—that somewhere in the scramble to remain relevant, in loss after crushing loss to Djokovic, the way back to his best would reveal itself. "Fortunately I'm very positive," Federer said late on Wimbledon's last night. "I never stopped believing."
It paid off. A second-round loss removed Nadal's psyche-pummeling presence. Federer steamrollered a lethargic Djokovic in the semis, then received the greatest of boons when rain forced the closing of the roof over Centre Court in the third set of the final. Freed from wind and sun and all other distractions, Federer crushed Murray to extend his record of majors won to 17. Rumors that the queen would attend were unfounded, but it hardly mattered. The king had returned.