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. Read More