The last days of Roger Federer

What does it mean to call a tennis player a genius? Ed Smith reflects on his own career and asks - should Roger Federer just give up?

I’ve hit thousands of cricket balls, perhaps even a million, and a decent portion of them came out of the middle of the bat. But I surprised myself all too rarely. I do remember one occasion clearly. I was facing an England spinner and, guessing he was going to bowl a slower ball, I decided to use my feet to advance down to the pitch.

I guessed wrong: he fired it in faster and outside leg stump. Wrong-footed and outthought, I possessed no conventional shots to respond with. I don’t think I “decided” to do anything. It just happened. The ball had almost gone past me, when I played something between a sweep and a drive. As the ball sailed for six over the leg-side boundary, the bowler and I smiled at each other in a moment of recognition.

The shot had not been the perfect execution of a plan (coaches love talking about “skill execution”). Instead, I’d solved a problem before I even realised what it was. I was at the instinctive end of the spectrum in professional sport but I played only a handful of these shots in my whole career. A handful of imaginative shots out of a million.

In his pomp, Roger Federer played perhaps a couple of dozen shots like that in every routine tennis match. Federer’s ratio of the inspired to the quotidian was more richly concentrated than any other modern sportsman. How often he has opened up his stance to hit a forehand cross-court and then, as if the idea were occurring to him as he did it, whipped it “inside-in” back down the line. The term “tactics” doesn’t cover what Federer could do. Nor does “decision-making”. Things happened and he did his thing in response, but no one quite knows how or why.

The relevance of my sporting experience is not as comparison but context. Imagination isn’t so easy in professional sport, even if you are open to it. For Federer, it has been as natural as walking on court. Where others ask how he can play with such instinctive imaginative range, he wonders how they can play without it. “For me, every point has to be different,” he has said.

Born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1981, Federer had an unusually normal childhood, by the standards of tennis prodigies. His parents were “pully” rather than “pushy”, more concerned about keeping him grounded than engineering a champion. As a teenager, he suffered from on-court tantrums. His father, Robert, told him not to worry. “Cry when you win, cry when you lose. That’s human. Just never cheat.”

Federer gave up having tantrums as a junior. But it is not quite true, as has often been said, that the angsty kid gave way to the calm champion. Federer’s serenity, though it could appear absolute when he was in sync, was always vulnerable. Watching him smash his racket in Miami in 2009 was like seeing Jacqueline du Pré stamp on her bow.

“Talent is like the marksman who hits a target that others cannot reach,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer; “genius is like the marksman who hits a target others cannot even see.” Andre Agassi, reflecting on a tiebreak between him and the young Federer, said that the Swiss player “took the match to a place I didn’t recognise” – this from the best ballstriker of the previous generation.

“Federer Moments” was the term used by the late American novelist David Foster Wallace in his celebrated essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not”. “These are times,” he wrote, “as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”

Wallace was writing in 2006, when Federer was at his peak, playing tennis better than it had ever been played. Now, he is scrabbling to make the quarter-finals at grand slams. At the US Open in New York at the start of this month he crashed out to Tommy Robredo, a determined journeyman. You sense that there won’t be much more to come from Federer, that the last warmth of autumn is fading. As the poet and editor Alan Ross wrote about the cricketer David Gower in late career:

Stance, posture, combine To suggest a feline Not cerebral intelligence. A hedonist In his autumn, romance lightly worn, And now first signs of tristesse . . .

As well as speculating about Federer’s thoughts, we wonder about our own. Should we want him to stay or go? Is it greedy to hope for a few last moments of inspiration while the risk grows that he will be dragged towards mediocrity?

Can any sportsman deserve to be called a genius? In a thoughtful essay for Commentary magazine, the American writer Joseph Epstein recently complained about the debasement of the word, now so devalued that even sportsmen and chefs are called geniuses. “[N]one of these men is a genius”, Epstein complained, “not even close”. Yet he then argued that “geniuses tend to emerge in those areas of life dominant in specific cultures at specific times”. Exactly. And our culture, at the moment, values sport a great deal. Hence it is open to the possibility of producing a genius. True, not nearly as many geniuses as sport likes to pretend. But some.

Genius is not the same thing as achievement. The most prolific cricketer in history was Don Bradman. But ask shrewd judges who watched both men play and they will say Garry Sobers, not Bradman, was cricket’s pre-eminent genius. Bradman’s genius was for concentration and relentlessness; Sobers’s was for the game of cricket. Whatever facts we unearth about Sobers’s sporting education – from beach cricket in Barbados to lush, grassy pitches in Nottingham – it still does not “explain” what he could do. He is a mystery that can never be decoded.

Having missed seeing Sobers, I have been fortunately placed to follow Federer, the true genius of tennis. The familiar descriptions of him – his balletic fluidity, the artistic economy of movement, his gracefulness – are true but are incomplete. Watching Federer has been a richer, more complex and more emotional experience than watching all the other sport I’ve consumed put together.

Greatness often straddles two distinct eras, retaining a link with tradition while anticipating the future. Federer has done exactly that. His genteel manner and courtesy refer back to the amateur ideal. His relentless hunger and consistency are hallmarks of modern professionalism.

It was much easier for Sobers to remain naturally Sobers than it has been for Federer to remain naturally Federer. The control reflex of professional sport – the coaches and physiologists, the agents and administrators – has tried to domesticate and control athletes; to turn them, as far as possible, into machines for winning. Federer somehow escaped the leash. He took much from professional methods but weeded out the dangerous stuff.

He has been the odd one out for a long time now. Whereas Novak Djokovic has his ice baths and gluten-free diet, Federer prepares for Wimbledon finals with a bowl of pasta primavera, a litre of Coke and a KitKat. While Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray revolutionised their bodies with brutal weight-training regimes, Federer has never bulked up. He jokes about his “weedy arms” in court-side interviews. (Perhaps there is an edge to his self-deprecation. There are lots of rumours about drugs in tennis; I’ve never heard anyone mention Federer in that regard.) If he has been able to win 17 grand slam singles titles in this era, remaining physically unchanged as his rivals have piled on the power, how many grand slams would he have won in a previous generation – 25, 30?

There is, as always, a case against Federer. As a pure sportsman, whatever that means, he has a poor record against his arch-rival, Rafael Nadal, trailing 21-10 in the head-to-heads. This contrasts with Muhammad Ali, for example, who had a winning record against all his great rivals (Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman). Champions usually find a way to win; Federer never found a way to beat Nadal consistently.

There is a wider criticism that he relished the surface aspects of his career a little too much: the gold-trimmed cardigans, the fashion events with Anna Wintour, the cultivation of gentlemanly style, his preparedness to discuss his own achievements with unembarrassed attentiveness.

This was part of the Federer effect. He projected an aura of benign dictatorship, something that became another of his weapons. The crown sat all too easily and he knew it. At the 2010 Australian Open in Melbourne, when Andy Murray qualified for his second grand slam final, Federer was asked about his opponent’s chances. “I know he’d like to win the first [grand slam title] for British tennis in, what is it, 150,000 years?” Federer joked. Reflecting on other things counting against Murray, he added, “He’s also playing me.” It brought the house down. And landed the lightest blow on his opponent, a mere glance of the épée. Federer won in straight sets.

His occasional lordliness in public, however, has been matched by private naturalness. I learned about this when I met with Brad Drewett, who was then the chief executive of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), in Melbourne in January this year. Drewett was dying from motor neurone disease and the meeting had the poignant subtext that it was likely to be the first and last time we would meet.

“You wouldn’t believe how normal Roger has been about my illness. Just incredible.” Normal, in true Australian style, was meant as the highest compliment. Normal meant emotional, natural and instinctive, untainted by the sense of superior apartness that often accompanies great fame and achievement. Normal: it was considered and profound praise.

Sportsmen have a tough relationship with so-called normal life. The day job demands a remarkable ability to believe they are superhuman agents of destiny. But carry over too much of that faith into everyday life and you veer dangerously close to madness. So, the holy grail is a kind of dual life, in which the athlete safeguards and protects an adolescent faith in his own specialness, and at the same time develops normality in the rest of life. Having been around Federer at several grand slam tournaments over the past few years, I’ve seen him in many modes. The normal and the remarkable coexist naturally, the one giving enough space to the other.

Drewett spoke quietly, almost inaudibly, but the message was clear. He described how the culture at the top of men’s tennis was unrecognisable from that of his own time as a player in the 1980s. Back then, rivalries morphed into outright hatred and many big guns treated the junior players with contempt. “Roger changed all that and Rafael Nadal matched [fitted in with] the standards he set,” Drewett explained. “After them, everyone had to follow their example.”

Cultures are always in flux; they can improve as well as decline. Beside all their other achievements, Federer and Nadal disproved one of the silliest myths of professional sport: that there is a competitive disadvantage in being a decent person.

Beneath the courtesy and mutual respect, Federer and Nadal are the opposite of each other psychologically. Nadal is relentlessly spartan, driven by self-denial. He plays with hounded intensity, as though he couldn’t bear to let anyone down. But does he enjoy it on court as he chases down another lost cause, pushing body and mind to the limit? It is a life more admirable than enviable.

In Federer, Nadal sees an unrestrained expressiveness that he finds more elusive. “His physique – his DNA – seems perfectly adapted to tennis,” he says of his rival. “You get these blessed freaks of nature in other sports, too.” The nature of winning is always more complicated than what is written on the score sheet. Federer plays with joy, with barely constrained amazement at his own mastery. If happiness is fully expressive of your deepest talents, he is blessed indeed.

How should he be judged purely as a competitor, though? You can’t win 17 grand slams, some say, without being a fighter down to your shoelaces. But what if you’re simply an awful lot better than everyone else?

Federer’s personality was undeniably well suited to securing dominant victories – the warm embrace at the net, the open smile, the natural order of things reaffirmed. In contrast, Nadal walks on to court ready to fight the odds, conditioned for warfare. After losing to Djokovic over the course of six hours in January 2012, Nadal said to the gathered press, “But it is good to suffer like this, no?”

Federer and suffering? It had to be coaxed out of him. Gruelling conflict took him to places he didn’t naturally want to go. The sense of an imaginative talent being dragged into hand-to-hand combat was one of the most moving aspects of watching him play. It also explains why he seemed to win some of the great matches he actually lost. He gave of himself in an unusual way.

Federer has taken joyous delight in his talent. Competing sometimes seemed incidental, celebration more central. This also leaves weathered sports pundits feeling suspicious. In Melbourne a couple of years ago, during one of his routine victories, I watched him devote more attention to helping the ballboys than to winning the match. It started when he chipped a return (the serve was long) straight into the hands of the ballboy at the net. The Australian crowd, being naturally educated in cricket, cheered wildly. So Federer did it again when the next serve missed, and again, a motif for the rest of the match. He was amusing us, amusing himself.

You aren’t supposed to do that in professional sport. The unusual balance he has struck between self-expression and competitiveness explains why many sports insiders don’t quite understand him. They don’t recognise the type.

Should Federer go on? Ali stayed too long in the ring and it was ghastly. Watching him lose late in his career to Trevor Berbick was “like watching a prince leave town on the back of a dustcart”, wrote Hugh McIlvanney for the Observer. Comebacks were kinder to the American basketball star Michael Jordan, whose great peaks, even if they were increasingly infrequent, survived deep into his thirties.

What keeps Federer going? I speculate that it is a strange mix of motives. He will continue to find joy in hitting tennis balls uniquely and imaginatively. But there is also one last, unresolved question. Federer could always beat any opponent when he was playing at his best. But can he learn to chase with the pack, to hunt down rivals as well as fend them off?

If the natural aristocrat can find a way to hustle and scrap back to the top, it will complete his mastery of tennis, adding the final strand of greatness that has eluded him.

Ed Smith writes the New Statesman’s Left Field column. His latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Pleasure principle: on the tennis court, Federer plays as much for the joy of it as with the intention of winning. Photograph: Jiri Buller/Hollandse Hoogte.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.