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The Fall and Rise of Roger Federer

By

On Sports

Photo: Stefan Wermuth

 

The year 2016 ended for Roger Federer on a Friday, July 8. In the fifth set of his semifinal match at Wimbledon, he found himself sprawled out along his service line, face down, ruefully lifting his left leg slightly up and slowly letting it back down, as if to prove to the shocked and silent crowd that he was still alive.

Even when he had been ahead in the match against Milos Raonic of Canada, Federer looked weary. In the fourth set, he double faulted not once but twice, ending any hope for a classic. Raonic—six feet five inches of muscle topped with a Clark Kent hairdo—is an elite-grade version of the typical North American thumper: a thunderous serve, a strong but finicky forehand, and a two-handed backhand right out of an instruction manual; yet he approaches the net like it’s an electric fence. Federer had spent his career feasting on this type of player.

But not lately. He hadn’t won a title all season; he had knee surgery earlier in the year; he skipped the French Open entirely. These days he seemed more gaunt than gracile, more canny than casually assured. Now and then, he would see what the other player didn’t, couldn’t. At such moments—half volleys in 2015 and overhead backhand smashes in 2014—his fans rejoiced in their nostalgia. David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay would make rounds on the Internet like uncorked champagne. For those of us his age, who grew up with Marlon Brando in Superman, Alec Guinness in Star Wars, Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans, it was familiar and fine, though we didn’t know why. He slowed, but slowed like a dangerous panther. He staged strange suicide missions to the net on his opponents’ second serves. His game—a sexy hybrid of tennis in black-and-white, tennis in standard definition and tennis in 3-D—looked good in defeat. Other players grunted, lunged, sprinted into swinging splits, found the worn patch on a grass surface to buckle over, the drizzle-slicked white line to slip on. Not Federer. In his tennis dotage, he was like a Fabergé egg spinning on a tabletop because it could. 

And then at Wimbledon he fell. And he didn’t just fall. He looked like your uncle doing the robot and having it all go wrong. If you saw that match live, you knew then that it was over.

Except it wasn’t. He started off the 2017 season ranked seventeenth in the world. Since then, he’s won thirty-one matches and lost two. He skipped Paris again this year, not because of injury but because he could afford to. Clay wears on the body, and besides, why let Rafa Nadal take your measure on his sovereign surface, the dirt? Federer shedded, waiting for Wimbledon like Christmas morning.

By the time he got there, he was seeded fourth. He looked sharp, dangerous, healthy, his game kaleidoscopic. At the start of week two, Djokovic, the second seed, withdrew with an injured arm. Nadal lost to thirty-four-year-old Gilles Müller and the defending champion, Andy Murray, succumbed in the quarters to American Sam Querrey and a bad hip. Suddenly, Federer’s 2017 Wimbledon became something else entirely. It became a revenge tour.

Federer cruised to the quarterfinals, where he faced Raonic again. Raonic dug in, threw everything he had at Federer, and still lost in straight sets. In the semifinal, Federer faced the player who had knocked him out of the 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinal, Tomas Berdych. This time, Federer gut checked him to the duck-season-duck-season-rabbit-season tune of 7–6(4), 7–6(4), 6–4. After the match, Berdych was asked if the 2017 version of Federer is better than the 2010, to which he replied, “There is no way to prove this, if we can measure it, if he’s better or not. He’s playing just too good.”

In the final, Federer again faced Cilic, who had beaten him in the 2014 U.S. Open. He went the entire tournament without losing a single set. Cilic wept after the second set, realizing that the foot blister he carried over from his semifinal hadn’t magically healed. Blister or no, he had no clear path to attacking Federer, and Federer knew it. The pinprick-size holes in Federer’s game, the ones that Nadal and Djokovic learned to pry open, seem gone now. But that’s not to say Federer healed both his body and his game. He seems to have healed his body and changed his game.

Tennis is a kinetic and rather lonely kind of problem solving. How do you solve for Federer? Serve as though your life depends on it, push him back with high balls to his backhand, make him not only play but also think defensively and, if any of those happen to work, floor it and don’t look back. But he pushes back as hard now as he ever has when he gets a second serve to his backhand. He hits the backhand with topspin and space resolutely from the baseline, exclusively from the baseline, as though he’d been told the world was flat and ended there. So much so that any ball that bounces at the baseline, the type of ball that even a professional would sensibly take a few steps back to hit at knee level, he plays as a difficult half volley that he makes look easy; to hit these with intention, in rhythm, again and again against top professionals, should be practically unthinkable, and yet they have become typical rally strokes in his game. Every point is about finding the first strike as soon as possible. He takes no time between serves. Rather strangely at his age—he’ll be thirty-six shortly—he has sped things up while making the court smaller. It is his younger opponents—a chagrined Cilic but the latest—who seem starved for time and space.

 

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s most recent collection of poems is Heaven. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Award, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.