This story originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine
It’s just after midnight and Roger Federer is standing with his eyes closed. He’s tired, exhausted maybe, but smiling. It’s not the same Federer smile you’ve come to know, the one he uses to sell you chocolates on TV and Rolex watches in magazines. This smile isn’t meant for the cameras. This one’s for Roger. He turned 33 a few minutes ago, ate a cupcake, and now he’s standing beneath the grandstands of one of the countless tennis courts that make up his world.
He’s smiling because he just survived one of the worst tennis matches of his recent career, a mess of missed opportunities that played out over two and a half hours in front of an adoring crowd. They winced and moaned every time he flubbed his once-majestic backhand but broke into song when, after 40 unforced errors, he finally cut a precision shot down the line, breaking his opponent’s serve, winning his 43rd match of the year and retiring to these corridors and that cupcake.
This is Roger Federer a few years past his prime savouring a sweet little moment. He’s still the greatest player who ever lived, though he’s no longer the best in the game. It’s been two years since his last Grand Slam, eight since someone described watching him play as a "bloody near-religious experience," and a seeming eternity since he dropped to his knees and cried on Wimbledon’s Centre Court grass after he knocked Pete Sampras one match closer to retirement.
He’s old now, older than Sampras was when he retired. Older than any man who has won a Grand Slam in the past 40 years. He’s not the man he used to be, but that doesn’t really matter because no one else is either. Tennis has changed drastically in the past couple decades. Once a finesse game of serve and volley, it has morphed into a contest between men who stand at the baseline and play a more athletic but much less refined game of you-smash-the-ball-at-me-and-I’ll-smash-it-back-at-you. What once made Federer special was his unique ability to go to the net, stare down balls travelling at upwards of 130 km/h and react with reflexes that no one else possessed. He spent the past decade playing with a smaller racquet that was considered state-of-the-art at the end of the last century. Yet in his hand it seemed an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
For years, sports writers struggled to report on his play without resorting to descriptions of "beauty" and "artistry." It was David Foster Wallace who summed up Federer’s very being when he wrote: "Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws." It was also Wallace who waxed lyrical about what he called Federer Moments—"times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK."
Those Federer Moments still occur, of course, though they’re rarer these days. Like when he sprints from one end of the baseline to the other, spreading his legs to their structural limit and squeaking to a stop whilst cutting at the ball with that one-handed backhand, getting just enough spin on it to send it curving over the net, fans in the stands opening their mouths and saying "ahhh" as the ball lands a good foot to the left of where his opponent believed it would. And it’s because these moments still occur that people continue to don Federer’s line of "RF" baseball caps and "Betterer" T-shirts and come out in droves to watch him play. Even when it’s painful.
Two days after eating that cupcake, he walks onto the court at the Rogers Cup for a match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who dissects his serve and picks on his backhand with such severity that women with Federer’s name written in lipstick on their foreheads scream out their man’s name in agony. Others get extremely upset when a drunk in the crowd, the lone man who seems to be rooting for the other guy, shouts out "Roger sucks!" just as "the Maestro" double-faults into the net yet again. "You’re a very obnoxious man," one woman says to the drunk, while another chimes in: "Please, sir, will you leave?"
None of this is new, of course. Those who love tennis tend also to love Federer and have always struggled to watch him lose. But it’s all a bit more bothersome now because with each loss comes a feeling that the player and the way he plays will soon be gone. Given the game’s current propensity for never leaving the baseline, it’s likely that we’ll never see another player like Federer emerge. If he were a boy today, his coaches would surely change his playing style—force him to put both palms on the racquet and torque every ounce of power he could into his backhand because that’s what everybody else is doing. Knowing this makes watching him all the more special.
Hot-headed in his earliest days, he gave up on the petulant side of tennis before he even turned pro. For the past 16 years he has been one of the most polished and personable athletes in all of sport. He’s among the few players on the ATP Tour who brings his wife, four children (he fathered his second set of twins earlier this year) and his parents to tournaments all around the world. His wife can almost always be spotted at his matches, cheering from the stands, while his children can often be found in the players’ lounge. It was in one such lounge in the hours after a recent defeat that Federer was spotted teaching his eldest set of twins—the five-year-olds—to play Ping Pong while his wife and nannies looked on. Federer says he’s fortunate his family still enjoys travelling to tournaments—they keep him grounded, and, even more, their presence keeps him in the game.
This time last year everything was failing him, most notably his back, which left him unable to even practise for a time. He resorted to standing at the baseline and playing that inelegant power game, which his opponents prefer. He tried updating his racquet mid-summer but finished the season on a low, dropping out of the top four for the first time in more than a decade. Then he hired a new coach in Stefan Edberg, himself a serve-and-volley master from the 1980s, and rekindled some of the game he’d lost. Edberg, the six-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 1, does more than just carry Federer’s gear to and from practice. He has been instrumental in restoring a degree of Federer’s confidence. Edberg is charged with what some ATP tournament organizers consider the most important job in the sport right now: Keeping Federer young. It’s an impossible task, of course, and therein lies the inevitable human tragedy that will soon become the Roger Federer story.
There was a moment earlier this summer when Federer was up a set against Novak Djokovic and looked primed to win a record-setting eighth Wimbledon Championship. But the moment didn’t last, and Djokovic kept Federer pinned to the baseline, rifling the ball in his direction until he made a mistake. There was a poignancy to his defeat that hadn’t been there when he’d lost in years past. The chance to actually hold the record for most wins at Wimbledon was something that had driven him to play through pain and he probably knew just as everyone else did that this year was likely his last best chance. Which explains why, in the moments after his defeat, he struggled to keep a lone tear from rolling down his cheek.
Federer later admitted to feeling an "unbelievable sadness" as he left the court, which really just meant he felt the same as most leaving the stands.
It was a similar story in early August at the Rogers Cup, Federer again losing in the final on a backhand shot into the net. Later, for what seemed an eternity, he sat by the court, staring at his feet. But then he smiled again when his conqueror, Tsonga, took to the microphone and, in a thick French accent, tried to say something along the lines of "I’d like to thank Roger for all that he has done for tennis." But instead it came out sounding like: "I’d like to thank Roger for tennis." And in that moment, with Federer looking tired and somewhat sad, Tsonga’s words seemed almost apt.
But even that moment is history, Federer having gone south to Ohio in the days that followed to win the Cincinnati Masters. He now makes his way to Flushing Meadows for another shot at the U.S. Open, which he hasn’t won since 2008. He says he’s content just to be in the game at this point, but that can’t possibly be true—otherwise he wouldn’t have hung his head for so long in Toronto or shed that tear in Wimbledon.
Regardless of how he fares in the season’s final Slam, we should all be thankful that he’s still out there. Even if he’s trying to do what no one can truly do anymore. Trying, as best as he can, to play like Roger Federer.