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?

Roger Federer.
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.

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)