The greatest athletes often possess a knack for holding onto their talents longer than the sports world anticipates. Their focus and determination outweighs whatever focus the mob can muster. The late success of Roger Federer is only surprising when the crowd blinks first.
When he removes the bandanna these days, one can see how his hairline has widowed, not in a frayed manner, but with the semblance of prestige and wisdom that attaches itself to wealth and talent. Roger Federer is well manicured. Everyone knows this. So many writers and analysts have spoken about his cool demeanor — his precision — , the idea of a Rolex on his wrist is, for a man who dictates time in the tennis world, redundant.
Every year, after the tennis is done at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, sport gives way to pageantry. The Club presents the winner and runner-up each with a trophy. They in turn present their trophies to the crowd by walking around Center Court. The scene recalls the pomp and circumstance of a dog show. Some players appear uncomfortable in these moments. But Federer is not one of them. He never has been. He is always nice. He believes in the tennis world’s dimensions.
After showcasing the trophies, the players exit the court. The winner watches his name being added to the official board, which is green. The name will appear in gold. The process for placing the golden letters on the green board requires a slow-peeling of tape that makes the winner’s name appear as if it had always been there, waiting to be excavated.
This process feels slow, but takes little time at all, much like a major tennis tournament that concludes in two weeks’ time, or a prodigy’s rise to the top. Little time was ever spent waiting on Roger Federer. In fact, he has lived as a name in the books almost as long as he hasn’t.
Thus, with a stunning amount of speed, the alchemy of ceremony mutes the possibilities of live play inside the annals of history. What started as a 2017 crash course for the Big Four and all their challengers quickly became the story of a single player. This is not unique to this year’s tournament — this is how tournaments work. But, because Federer has won so often, the inevitability of his winning looms larger whenever he wins again, and whenever he doesn’t win, his absence at the ceremony is palpable. Here or not, he is always present. His winning is like clockwork, and yet this particular clock was reportedly broken.
When he defeated Marin Cilic in this year’s Wimbledon final, his name returned to The Gentlemen’s board for the first time since 2012. Because he once won the tournament five consecutive years, four years without winning can be viewed as a drought. Most players do not win a single Wimbledon. These timeframes and objectives can only be understood by a very small number of people. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray might understand, but even that is debatable. Federer has always existed as their measuring stick, but he also possesses the audacity to move the goalposts when he feels like it.
Federer’s return to form at this year’s Australian Open disproved a hypothesis, not a scientific law.
Still, one would assume a Wimbledon title would require more labor, and yet Federer did so without dropping a set. In his twilight, he should at least appear as the long distance runner, but he looked the younger man against Cilic.
In matches so lacking in typical plot structures, Federer exists in a space beyond time, where his will directs the ball as much as any racquet. Such an observation is one of fable, having been made by the likes of David Foster Wallace over a decade ago. Such a state of dynastic being should also render Federer as cruel as it does cool, and yet his grace saves him from playing the villain.
No other player in tennis attracts so many fans of all ages. Part of Federer’s draw is how the sport sets players up to be dissected and he has proven impervious to the scalpel and now, at age 35, even to time. The day his powers abandon him will not be celebrated. The tennis world will look to him with the sympathy most often reserved for relatives suffering from dementia. It will be unfathomable and sad. Even in the so-called off years, there were entire sets and matches where old Federer could pass himself off as young Federer, leaving most to believe there was only Federer. Such are the phases of greatness.
The degree between his career and perfection is so slight it would require the Hawkeye line –calling system to measure it. If his career does not paint the line, then it misses by the fraction of a fingernail. To root for him is to consume some of that wonder and, for the length of a tennis match, believe the world is larger and more permanent.
Nadal and Djokovic do not offer the same opportunities. The former tastes too much like clay and a sprinkle of injuries. His muscle yokes him to the earth. The latter squirms and grimaces. Something weightier than Andy Murray, he still comes across as Fed-Lite. His salutes to the crowd after a match are rehearsed, while Federer’s mannerisms compose themselves without awareness. He blows on his fingertips and pushes stray hairs behind an ear because that’s what hands do. Whatever strain exists within him is invisible. As long as Federer plays, everyone can sample from perfection’s plate.
Watching Federer is about feel, but accounting for his actions is something else. Push a pin into a butterfly and the wings will beat against the beauty of their own barrier. The record books measure and track Federer in a way his level of consistency demands, but they have also weaponized his talents in a way his demeanor on the court never intended. The numbers hide the kind artistry and reveal his predatory nature. His rare convergence of calculation and skill becomes a hawk, circling its target.
Federer now owns nineteen Grand Slam titles. With his eighth win at The All England Club, he broke his tie with Pete Sampras in all-time Wimbledon wins. If he wins later this year in New York, he will hold the record for US Open wins. If he were to win another Australian Open, he would stand even with Djokovic at the Grand Slam calendar’s first stop. The personification of late capitalism, Federer doesn’t appear to be after a number one ranking so much as owning history.
Directly after winning his eighth Wimbledon, he spoke about the six months prior to winning the 2017 Australian Open, when he took time off from the game, hiked, and did whatever it is aging prodigies do to rejuvenate. This sabbatical served as a catalyst for this year’s success, but hidden in the arc of this vision quest are the calculations. How much time did Federer spend in the gym? How many tennis balls did he hit? How often did he visualize himself outthinking and defeating the rest of the Big Four? In interviews, Federer references these parts of the process, but in the end, the only concrete image of him to emerge is the prodigy who won Wimbledon thirteen years ago and never looked back.
At thirty-five, anything resembling a sabbatical could easily bring about the life-changing decisions that alter career paths and cause individuals to spend more time with their families. Federer opted to have his children be witnesses to his greatness, which is a paternal kind of selfishness that can also be endearing. Perhaps such sabbaticals are necessary in keeping once in a generation talents from succumbing to their own appetites (a la Tiger Woods) or burnout.
Is it possible before this revival Federer may have been pressing, pushing his game, ever so slightly, outside the boundaries of perfection?
Late career renaissances occur in other sports. Michael Jordan left his sport twice and returned to different levels of success. Kobe Bryant scored sixty points in his impersonation of Nero. But these athletes and their late career successes and failures were bound by their teammates. Federer is alone. The closest analog might be Jack Nicklaus’ win at the 1986 Masters, but Federer’s revival looks to be something more than a magical weekend.
Following the match, Federer talked about more than his time away from the game last fall. He also offered a statement about the power of belief that coming from anyone else would have sounded as trite and delusional as a Journey lyric. But Federer is too cool to be a rockstar. He speaks as if he were his own guru. He speaks as if the words are true and, for a man of his talents and work ethic, they usually are.
Federer’s ability to perfect his game is beyond admirable. The sight of him is an ideal people can experience. Watching the onehanded release of his backhand is an iconic gesture that beckons onlookers to think everyone possesses an inner Roger; that restless spirit hiking in search of answers. Only when Federer seeks he finds, and that is, perhaps, far from typical. His ability to inspire, as well as his decorum, defangs him and makes him safe.
But whatever processes have made him are the same that have stunted the growth and development of younger talents. This does not make Federer sinister. He is an athlete who like most successful (and unsuccessful) athletes never stopped believing, but the road to greatness paves over other careers, no matter how much they believed too.
In the first set of their championship match, Cilic fell. His knee may have been tweaked. It may have buckled slightly. John McEnroe guessed he popped some anti-inflammatories. He removed his shoe and sock. All of this happened in the haze and innuendo of real time. No one really knew what was going on aside from Cilic. One wonders what Federer thought. Chances are not much. Sport is about surviving and persevering. Federer is ultimately better at these two tasks than anyone else. And yet, even as Cilic cried on the court and Federer casually changed his shirt, it was difficult to imagine anyone other than Roger Federer as the protagonist. His focus on the sport makes it difficult to focus on anyone else.
After the match, Federer would say he didn’t notice his opponent’s suffering, and Cilic would claim “his mind was ‘blocked with the pain’ of a blister.” The historical margins between perfection and everything else are both as small and large as another man’s blister — or one man’s immunity to such blisters.
The illusion offered by Roger Federer’s greatness is that time stands still not only for him, but for everyone. The last six months have made tennis observers feel quite young again, but when Roger Federer is done, we will all know how old we’ve become. Cilic is 28. He’ll be 29 in September. He is not young for a tennis player, but he is one of only two players under thirty who have won a Grand Slam. He is buried in the history and knows it, but he is most definitely not alone. In some ways, that might make his circumstances all the more frightening.
The age of Federer cannot continue without a Cilic receiving physical and emotional treatments. To urge the permanence of one is to hail the fragility of the other. To not root for anyone against Federer is to accept the status quo. How he conjures loyalty is the true talent, because, in truth, he is so unlike the rest of us it’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever being like him. When he is gone, one wonders what could possibly be left behind in the void, if anything.
Bryan Harvey tweets @Bryan_S_Harvey.
Originally published at lawnchairboys.blogspot.com on July 18, 2017.