Tennis has changed a lot lately. The courts are slower, the rackets larger, the strings tighter, the serves faster, the balls fluffier, the grunting louder, the baseline rallies longer, the fans rowdier, and the sportsmanship rarer. It is no longer a gentleman’s game that it once was. Genteel has morphed into brash, and power has replaced finesse. Promising younger players complaining of boredom and/or premature burnout are now emblematic of the decorum and discipline the game appears to have lost forever. And yet, right in the thick of the change, the remarkable resurgence of a remarkable tennis player has allowed us to pause, recalibrate and rejoice.
Thank goodness, we have Roger Federer.
When Federer steps on a tennis court, none of the above matters. His game straddles different eras like a veritable time machine. If one is lucky enough to catch Federer in the zone and in full flight (there is nothing more resplendent in all of sport), one just might see the past, present, and, yes, the future, coalesce into a display of shot making brilliance so out of the mainstream that one can only marvel at his inventiveness and audacity. Improbably angled crosscourt forehand slice winners, no-look backhand flicks on the full stretch, and spinning squash shots out of no-man’s land are interspersed with sublime shots of controlled aggression on both flanks of the court. Federer is that rare breed of player who evokes nostalgia and anticipation in equal measure. His hybrid game, an unlikely amalgam of finesse and high-powered tennis from current and past eras, takes us back to the future, to a place unlike any we have ever known. Andre Agassi summed it best several years ago when he said, “Federer plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
PeRFection, the monogrammed sign that pops up ubiquitously whenever and wherever Federer is playing, is not just a fan appreciation thing, it gets to the core of his personality, both as player and human being. Astonishingly enough, almost twenty years on the tour and 93 titles later, Federer believes there is still room for improvement. He stepped away from competitive tennis for six months last year, not so much to heal the body but to heal the mind and rekindle his passion for the sport. He came back in January this year with a purpose and a plan; the purpose, to start winning again, especially on the big stage at the majors. The plan: to walk on the court without the burden of expectation, to be aggressive, and “to play the ball…not your opponent.”
If you think an old dog cannot learn new tricks, you simply have not watched a reincarnated Federer lately. Remember the fifth set at the Australian Open final? Down a service break against his biggest nemesis, Federer went on a tear, winning five straight games to snatch (pardon the cliché) an improbable victory from the jaws of defeat. It was arguably the best five games he ever played. He was fearless and free-wheeling throughout the match, but during that five-game stretch, he literally abandoned all caution, stepping in on second serves, taking the ball early, hitting his backhand with impunity, and charging the net at the earliest invite. One commentator on ESPN exclaimed Federer was “flying around the court again now.” The joie de vivre that had been missing from his game in recent years was back, and Federer was at the summit once more. Six months later, in July, Federer went on a tear yet again to win a record eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a set. Writing in The New Yorker after that match, Louisa Thomas eloquently states, winning (for Federer) “seems like a natural consequence of a more general joy.”
There is no tennis champion, past or present, who has embraced life on the tour (and beyond) with as much affirmation of joy as Federer. The racket throwing moments of his youth are long gone, replaced now with a genuine sense of wonder, not just over his own achievements but those of his fellow players as well. When he plays, he is calm and serene, almost Buddha-like. During practice, his relaxed and casual demeanor on the outside belies a steely resolve on the inside. He is a stickler for rules (and excellence), for which the purists love him. If injured he will not play, and if he plays he will not quit midway during a match. He does not wear his celebrity on his sleeve when he hangs out with younger players in the locker room or invites them to be his hitting partner. He hobnobs easily with ball boys and girls and throws pizza parties for them even when he loses. He displays an air of quiet exuberance when he talks to the press, for whom he always somehow makes time. Most endearing of all is the fact that he travels with his family as much as he does (wife, parents, two sets of twins) not just because he can, but because for him the joy of tennis also means having them around as much as possible.
Greatness in most fields of artistic human endeavor is absolute. How can you compare Rembrandt with Picasso or Mozart with Beethoven? You cannot put genius on a scale and assign a numerical value to measure one versus the other. Greatness in tennis is for the most part relative, with grand slam titles, weeks at number one, and head-to-head performance serving as primary differentiating markers. And then we have Federer. All the talk one hears about Federer being the greatest of all time (or not) misses the point altogether. To compare him with others on relative measures is to troll. He is as much an artist as he is a tennis player. His balletic movement and grace on the tennis court compel references to Baryshnikov and Nureyev, so how can relative numbers alone capture the full measure of a man who has brought so much joy to the world?
The final grand slam tournament of the year gets under way in New York tomorrow. Federer may or may not win an unprecedented sixth US Open title, but that the spotlight continues to be on him at this late stage in his career (he turned thirty-six earlier this month) is in itself a celebration of a remarkable athlete and his continuing legacy.