Roger Federer: playing with perfection
The uncontested master of the Grand Slam is back for more
Roger Federer’s achievements in professional men’s tennis are without parallel. No man has won as many Grand Slam titles (20), nor appeared in as many Grand Slam finals (30). Alone in the history of men’s tennis, he has won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments on at least five occasions. He has been Wimbledon singles champion a record eight times, holding the title in consecutive years between 2003 and 2007 – a feat he emulated at the US Open between 2004 and 2008. In the past decade and a half, he has been the world’s top-ranked player for a total of 310 weeks, most recently in June 2018.
Yet to describe Federer’s career in a list of statistical superlatives is to diminish his stature. As the 37-year-old Swiss prepares for his 19th US Open, few nowadays question his right to be considered not just the most successful male tennis player ever, but the most sublime exponent of the game. His status among contemporaries and former players is such that any criticism seems irrelevant, almost ungracious. As Serena Williams announced before the 2017 Wimbledon men’s final: “I’ve always been a Federer fan. I think if you’re not, it’s kind of uncool.”
So what is it that makes Federer arguably the greatest player in men’s tennis history? Former British No. 1 Tim Henman tells The Times that, quite simply, he has no weakness: “He returns well, his forehand is one of the best shots in the history of the game, he is a great athlete, so comfortable at the net. You have got to be playing well to have any chance of competing.” Author David Foster Wallace, writing in 2006 in The New York Times, had a more poetic take on his skills. “Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip,” he says, “his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, coat with topspin, or slice… His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to.”
But none of this, Wallace thought, could properly explain the experience of watching Federer on court, where he appears “to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws”. William Skidelsky, in The Observer, takes up the theme, noting that while most top players now adopt a “power baseline” game, Federer combines this with a more subtle and varied approach. In the process, he reveals a new way of playing tennis that is as attractive as it is effective. In Wallace’s words, “He is Mozart and Metallica and this combination is somehow wonderful.”
Federer’s story is also compelling for the late-career resurgence that has seen him take three Grand Slams out of the five he has entered over the past two seasons. After dominating men’s tennis in the first decade of the century, his career slumped and he managed just one Grand Slam between the start of 2010 and 2017. Then, after a six-month injury lay-off in 2016, he returned the following year to take the Australian Open, beating arch-rival Rafael Nadal. In 2017 he won Wimbledon without dropping a set.
Federer’s 20-year career “has now traced the unlikely path of an inverted parabola: from unbeatable to unbeatable, with a seven-year stretch of eminently beatable”, says Peter De Jonge in The New York Times. He quotes former tennis stars Rod Laver, Mats Wilander and Brad Gilbert, who all argue that Federer is now playing the best tennis of his life: “Federer has always played loose,” says De Jonge, “but since Australia he has attained spalike levels of relaxation. His long break rejuvenated him.”
His resurgence is not just the result of a psychological re-set. In 2014 he upgraded to a larger racket, which improved his backhand drive and strengthened his return of serve. Statistics reveal that the Federer serve is now a more effective weapon, helping him to win more service points and games, as well as delivering a greater number of aces. And he has adapted his game to accommodate the fact that, as a player in his mid-thirties, he is no longer as fast as he was. Henman says Federer compensates with an attacking style that means opponents find it difficult to make him run around the court.
Former world No. 2 Tommy Haas tells The New Yorker how it feels to be on court with him: “I’ve never felt more pressure playing against another player as I did against Roger when he’s on, where you feel like you have no room to breathe. You’re on your toes. You don’t know – is the ball going there? Is it going here? And the court is so big.” But underlying the Federer tennis phenomenon is simply the player’s love of the game and everything associated with it. In the same New Yorker piece, Louisa Thomas explains: “He loves tennis. Not just the titles, not just the competing, though he loves those, too. He loves the travel. He loves practising. He loves the fans. He loves the press conferences. He loves the tradition, the history. He loves making history.”