As we enter the second week of the French Open, this is the time for those of us who are unabashed disciples of Roger Federer to start feeling nervous. Our hero doesn’t glide towards the latter stages of Grand Slams with the certainty that he used to, the inevitability that seemed to accompany his triumphs a decade ago having been replaced by the always inevitable descent into vulnerable fallibility. Despite this inexorable decline, he remains World No. 2, and more importantly for his devotees, he is still the game’s most elegant practitioner.
Everybody knows what makes him special, and it is not simply a gift for the seemingly impossible. We are living through one of the great eras in men’s tennis, and Federer is but one of a cast of special players who have redefined the possibilities of the game over the last decade. With Federer, it is not simply his greatness as measured by titles but the way he does it that inspires adulation. Sport is an area where aesthetics are highly prized, and many great writers are drawn to it. Federer himself has occupied the thoughts of a number of the foremost men of letters of our time. A correspondence between Paul Auster and JM Coetzee revealed them to be “exalted at the revelation of what a human being … can do”.
Perhaps the definitive literary appraisal of Federer came from David Foster Wallace in 2006, in which he wrote about the “kinetic beauty” of a top athlete. In applying that to Federer, the whip of his forehand, the variety of shots he can play with his backhand, he acknowledged the difficulty in trying to describe abilities that appear mysterious, preternatural, otherworldly. Having not seen Federer play in the flesh, any appraisal, however gushing, will be limited in what it can authentically relate. For Wallace’s paean to Federer also included the assertion that “TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love”. While television can convey aspects of the beauty and finesse, the footwork as he shapes up to play a shot, it doesn’t fully allow the observer to appreciate how this aesthetically satisfying style is allied to a winning game in a sport that has been transformed over the past thirty years.
Federer has thrived in a period when physical conditioning, and the premium on power that directly implies, has reached new levels, perhaps approaching man’s physiological limits. He can generate topspin on his strokes to compare with the best of his contemporaries. And yet there is something simultaneously old-school about him in the way he provides a living connection with the game as it was played in former times. He is a jazz age sportsman transported almost a century into the future to rescue the sport from what it was threatening to degenerate into during the 1990s.
The 1994 Wimbledon final infamously featured a paucity of rallies, with only one lasting beyond four shots. Overall the match featured barely nine minutes of action. It seemed the game might not survive as a spectacle, with the new template of player being powerful servers like Richard Krajicek, Greg Rusedski and Mark Philippoussis, players possessed of little finesse and courtcraft. Fittingly, Federer defeated Philippoussis in his first Wimbledon final, and he proceeded from that rescue mission to take the game to places which heretofore few could have comprehended.
Of course, he was never the dominant force at Roland Garros, his great nemesis Rafael Nadal repeatedly demonstrating his superiority on the clay. This writer recalls stumbling along the streets of Buenos Aires in a dazed funk after the 2008 final between Federer and Nadal turned out to be more of a merciless punishment beating rather than an actual contest. As I write, Federer is poised at one set apiece against Gael Monfils in the fourth round of this year’s French Open, bad light having suspended play. Upon resumption, Federer will likely be favoured to advance, but progression for Federer in these rounds of the Slams is something nobody can take for granted anymore.
We Federer supporters can accept that his superiority has come to an end, an acceptance made palatable by the fact that our hero at least remains a relevant contender in the Slams. His remarkable longevity has enabled us to continue enjoying his talents, and we should be grateful that he intends to keep on playing for several more years. It possibly doesn’t matter if his Grand Slam tally is eventually surpassed by Nadal, or somebody else. What matters is that he is possessed of what many would simply term the grace.