The Swiss player won his eighth Wimbledon title yesterday (the most ever), and somehow, 19 Grand Slam championships later, there’s still so much to learn from watching Roger Federer play.
If you’ve been watching men’s tennis in 2017, you’ve had a Roger Federer Moment. And no, I don’t mean the kind David Foster Wallace described in his oft-cited essay where your eyes bug in disbelief as the Swiss pulls off what for anyone else would be an impossible shot. You’re way past that. You, a true Fed fan, have been leaping off the couch, screaming at your television, pumping your fist in victory for fifteen years or so, and now you’re tired, you’re getting older, your back hurts. You’ve long noticed the weary looks from your non-tennis-watching friends as they endure your explanations of Federer’s perfect forearm, his silky serve, his balletic footwork. You got away with it in January when, at the Australian Open, Federer surprised everyone with his first Slam title since 2012, finding a way to win against longtime rival Rafael Nadal, after being down in the fifth set. But your glee became routine as Federer embarked on a seemingly endless string of wins, taking subsequent titles at Indian Wells, Miami, and Halle. And at some point along the way a new thought arises, what we could call your late-stage Federer Moment, in which you ask yourself: Should I still care about Roger Federer?
That moment had to come for many midway through the second set of Sunday’s Wimbledon men’s singles championship match when Federer’s opponent, gentle giant Marin Čilić, asked for a doctor and trainer to be brought onto the court. He’d taken a hard fall a few points prior, and it seemed possible that he’d been hurt despite not showing it immediately. The trainer kneeled at Čilić’s feet, but instead of pointing out an injury, Čilić began to sob openly, leaving the trainer with little to do other than place a comforting hand on his shoulder. Čilić was, at this point, already down a set and a break, and whatever pain he was feeling was clearly tied in part to his being all too aware of the stinging loss that awaited him. When the chair umpire called time to end the changeover, Čilić remained still, face hidden beneath a towel, while Federer coolly strolled by and waited at the baseline to finish off the 6’6” Croatian. Which is just what he did, shortly after, winning the match, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4, and taking his eighth Wimbledon title, the most by any male player in the history of the tournament.
“It is cruel sometimes,” Federer said with a sympathetic shrug during the trophy ceremony’s on-court interview. What he could have said was, “I’m cruel sometimes,” which would have been a fair way to describe his precise and efficient play, in which he allowed opponents to break his serve a mere four times in the entire fortnight and won each match in straight sets, a first for him at Wimbledon. He looked over his shoulder at the deflated Čilić and added, just in case anyone in the arena had missed the totality of his domination over the one-Slam wonder, “I hope we can play, down the road, some better ones.”
Maybe at this point you, the ardent fan, hear a whisper within you that asks, “Am I sick of Roger Federer?” Maybe it even came earlier in the tournament when poor Stan Wawrinka, cursed by being also Swiss in the time of Federer, tired of being treated by reporters as if he were a mere simulacrum of the other True Swiss, said in frustration, “We can talk more about Roger, if you want, but I'm a bit tired. It's been 10 years you ask me questions about Roger.” (This would be the last we’d hear from blasphemous Stan, who was promptly punished by the tennis gods and dumped out of Wimbledon in the first round.)
But look: After your cringing sympathy dissipates, you’ll swat away the doubtful whisper that questions your continued allegiance to Federer. Why? Because there are still, after all these years, lessons to learn by watching him play, especially on grass. Tennis on any surface is mentally grueling, but grass may be the most taxing. A struck tennis ball makes contact with a surface for a few milliseconds. On clay, the ball digs into the surface, slowing its exit out of the bounce. Loose bits of clay accumulate in the yellow fuzz of the ball, adding drag as it flies in the air, gifting the returner extra time to meet the ball, wind up their arm, and slug it back over the net. Long rallies are common on clay. Winning them consistently requires a combination of raw power and endurance.
But on Wimbledon’s grass courts, the balls bend blades and bounce through with less friction, retaining speed. Not only do the courts play faster, but the ball’s bounce stays low, forcing players to crouch and scoop up the return at their knees. Both of these factors make it much harder for players to get to the ball, and as a result, rallies tend to be short, with most points won in the first four shots. Add to this the fact that the surface of a grass court is a living thing, and so it, like all living things, is in a constant state of flux and deterioration. Every match changes the court, as gameplay rips divots into the surface or players kick up grass, exposing gray dirt all along the baseline. As the surface becomes more idiosyncratic, the purity of the ball’s bounce decreases, making it harder to predict how it should be met and struck. While all players accept this as an unavoidable nuance of the short grass-court season, Federer thrives on the chance to win through improvisation, fine perception, and supernatural anticipatory skills. Federer uses his ability to read his opponents' habits and weaknesses to punish those who are too rigid in their game, unwilling to venture out of a comfort zone and adjust to the demands of the moment. Where others retreat within habit and familiarity as they age, Federer is becoming smarter, more insightful about his opponents, more playful, more creative. While time will eventually wear down all bodies, Federer proves that intellect and instinct are ageless weapons.
We do not watch tennis to see a ball go over a net. We watch for the metaphors; to experience, as Venus Williams put so perfectly earlier this year, “triumph and disaster witnessed in real time.” We cannot help but be moved when we see the perceived limits of human ability transcended. And here’s Federer, still smashing records at nearly 36 years of age, able to come back from an injury many thought marked the end of his career to take two out of the first three Grand Slams of the season, upping his record-setting total to 19. Sure, you might root for the underdog in a match. At this rate, the underdog might never be Roger Federer.