The Long Winter of Roger Federer

Roger Federer's best tennis may be behind him, but whatever's ahead still demands watching.
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There is always the plucky underdog, the most beloved and co-opted and rehashed and rehash-able of our sports fables. But if sports has a second narrative, it is the all-time great’s relative all-time greatness. The road up is tracked from the beginning and charted meticulously, its every switchback discussed in depth and its final terminus -- where in the pantheon, above or below which and whom -- shouted about on television by people whose job it is to have this particular endless argument.

We’re doing it now with Peyton Manning, with LeBron James, with Tiger Woods, asking what exactly they have to do to be considered the best ever in their respective sports. Mike Trout has played all of two seasons in the major leagues, but no one has ever been this good, this young, etc.; add italics to taste. In tennis, before there was Roger Federer, there was Pete Sampras. He was the old end of this conversation.

There’s something unavoidably futile about trying to pin this particular thing down, but it’s an enticing story, one that indulges our generational-sports-vanity complex -- the phrase is Brian Phillips’ -- and justifies, sort of, the investment we make when we watch what we watch. And for all its ubiquity, it’s mostly absent from the liminal post-Sampras phase in men’s tennis.

There were greats in there, to be sure. Lleyton Hewitt was a baseline bulldog who worked opponents to death and fought like hell, but he wasn’t the epoch-defining godhead that fans -- those in their formative years, as I was, and others just searching for someone in shorts to worship -- were after. That, it emerged, was Roger Federer, who started out in the post-Sampras twilight to do things on the tennis court that strained credulity and possibility. He was the one. He was, it became clear, the player that we would argue about.

***

This is David Foster Wallace, as Enfield Tennis Academy prorector Aubrey deLint, on the tennis prodigy protagonist of Infinite Jest:

Hal’s in essence a torturer, if you want his essence as a player, instead of a straight-out killer like Stice or the Canadian Wayne. This is why you don’t stay back or play safe against Hal. This way of the ball seeming just in reach, to keep you trying, running. He yanks you around. Always two or three shots ahead. He won that point on the deep forehand after the serve -- the second he had Stice wrong-footed the whole thing opened up. Though the serve set the whole thing up in advance, and without the risk of much pace on it. The kid doesn’t need pace, we’ve helped him find.

Wallace wrote that long before Federer became the greatest tennis player in the history of the sport, but he later saw in Federer something similar. In his profile for the New York Times’ Play magazine, Wallace recounts, stroke-for-stroke, a point from the 2006 Wimbledon final against a young Rafael Nadal in which Federer sets up, over the course of ten or twelve shots, a short-angle backhand winner that stayed tantalizingly just out of Nadal’s court-spanning reach.

The Federer that dominated -- gracefully, understatedly, and also unequivocally -- the world of tennis in the middle of the last decade was a torturer. He was, to be accurate and to be fair, a torturer who had pace to burn; we’re talking after all about the highest echelon of the ATP tour, not O.N.A.N. prep tennis. But Federer was a torturer, and he won a lot of matches tormenting world-class would-be killers like Andy Roddick. This was all pretty incredible to watch: partly because he was on pace to catch Sampras, but only partly.

What is truly incredible, and what bears out his torturous genius and some other things we might not have anticipated, is that Federer is out there nearly a decade on, at age 32, and still one of the best players in the world on his good days, which are still most of them. Those paid to do so have been eulogizing his career for five years now, longer than most NFL running backs hang on to a starting job, longer than most humans anywhere hang on to any sort of glory. After an impressive showing in oppressive heat, Federer fell in the semifinals of the Australian Open, to Rafael Nadal. We’ll do all this again for another year, it seems.

Federer is, on any given point, capable of using an angle or executing a drop volley that will take away the breath even of someone who has watched him for the last decade, and watched tennis for even longer. The question of whether Federer would surpass Sampras in terms of career grand slams has been put to rest; he did that. Whatever our motivation in watching Federer, he is playing for something more and less than legacy. We are still watching because it would be silly not to.

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The players that have eclipsed Federer in the Westerosi winter of his career are all basically torture-proof. One, they move too well: the torturer that would slowly play them out of position finds that they somehow always recover to a neutral position, that the progress he thinks he’s made toward putting them on their back foot is erased after each exchange. Two, they’re too cagey even when the torturer puts them in a compromising position; they have the pace and the vision to return a dangerous ball from anywhere on the court. The hallmark of Federer’s late-career futility against Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray is this: Federer, the deftest, most technically proficient net player of his generation, coming in behind an approach to net only to find an impossibly-angled and impossibly-paced pass already dropped behind him. What a drag it is getting old. But it is not always like this.

On Friday of last week, Federer was left to look at a lot of those passes from Nadal. Despite his good form into the semifinals, his new racket and new coach, his assurances of his own health, Federer couldn’t muster a set. Contests between these two continue to be treated as solemn and momentous occasions; they lead Sportscenter and have their own high-flown orchestral theme music. In recent years they’ve boiled down to a basic dynamic, with Nadal bludgeoning Federer’s one-handed backhand with lead-weighted topspin balls until the Swiss is driven to frustration. It looks increasingly unlikely that Federer will ever again seriously challenge Nadal in a best-of-five set match.

Still, tennis fans and writers tend to prefer Federer’s game to Nadal’s. Federer’s tennis is described as full of art and free of effort, in contrast to the -- borrowing, again, from Wallace -- “totally martial” Nadal. These characterizations ring true, but they are code for something simpler.

Federer’s brilliance is ephemeral: he looks like many other professional tennis players, until he does something that no one else can do. It is hard to attribute directly and easy to muse floridly over. There’s an unidentifiable, magical element in the alloy. But we can explain Nadal, and anticipate him: he is speed and strength and self-sacrificing doggedness, inexorable as a vice grip for all the ailments that slow him periodically. This stylistic difference is actually sort of befitting of the paths each one is currently walking.

Nadal’s is a march to the sea, one that can only be halted by the various Achilles-style weaknesses in his imposing physique. In the final Sunday, Stan Wawrinka played some magnificently low-margin tennis, but it’s hard to imagine he could have repeated his first set heroics often enough to beat a healthy Nadal. The Spaniard will continue to win French Open after French Open as long as the clay remains red. It’s hard to imagine him falling short of 18 slams, or of any other meaningful barometer of achievement in tennis. And then we will flip over the “greatest ever” card yet again, for the third time in two decades. There will be a new conversation about Rafael Nadal.

This may or may not be interesting to you; records are made to be broken, and all that. But the demonstrably fungible the-King-is-dead-long-live-the-King procession is almost definitely less compelling than what’s going on on the other side of the net. Which, in the semis, is where Federer again found himself.

That other side of the net, then, where Roger Federer, ever-so-slightly diminished, is on a different sort of path, playing for reasons we don’t usually discuss and maybe can’t fully understand. He has earned the self-confidence to believe that there are more major titles ahead of him; he was, after all, just two matches away in this Australian Open. But his body in that final set on Friday suggested that he knows what a longshot this would be, especially if the road to that title runs through that indomitable Spanish rival, a few years younger and marginally more impervious.

But Federer does not seem to think this matters, and with good reason. He is still singularly, thrillingly good, in a way that does not need to modified with “still” any more than does his enjoying the performance of high-level competitive tennis. Like the artists to whom he’s often compared, Federer’s craft requires no context to appreciate. It is something to behold, all by itself. Even now, even in this new context, and until he decides it’s time to stop.


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