Even now, at 33, Roger Federer’s greatest weapon shines brilliantly. Better yet: especially now. We’re not talking about his silky-smooth movement, nor his superb forehand, nor his deft touch, or elegant service motion. All pale behind something entirely different – and it’s a skill any tennis player can master.
Roger Federer savors tennis like a holiday dinner. Through the ups, through the downs, through his youthful potential to eventual ascent, from the pressures applied by the young to the challenges of aging, Federer remains engaged by the entire tennis process. “He’s not burdened by the tennis world,” said U.S. Davis Cup captain and Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier. “He loves it; he just loves to be in the tennis world.”
That’s not always been the case for the game’s very best players. The likes of Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and John McEnroe have spoken extensively about their ambivalence towards everything from competition to practice to travel.
But Federer enjoys all of it. Watch him at a tournament and see how he flows from one experience to another, from the practice court to the media room, from the clutter of the dining area, to the solitary pressure of match play. Speaking of Federer’s tough five-set loss earlier this summer to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, Courier said, “If I was Roger I would be frustrated and encouraged at the same time. But fortunately he’s not me. From what I’ve seen and heard, he lets losses roll off him.” Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone, concurred, comparing Federer to another Annacone charge, Pete Sampras, as someone who, “will never push the panic button.”
The events of 2013 proved just how tranquil Federer can be in the face of adversity. For a good part of the year, a back injury kept him from training as extensively as desired, hindering his fitness level. Off the heels of a second round exit at Wimbledon—Federer’s earliest exit there since 2002—he experimented with a new racquet but opted not to make a change. Then, in the fourth round of the US Open, Federer lost in straight sets to Tommy Robredo, a man he’d never lost to in ten previous matches. While certainly disturbed to lose, Federer’s parting words following that defeat once again demonstrated the trademark balance he shows both on and off court, “The story of my life: when I lose, people are shell-shocked to see me play this way. If I win, it's the best thing. I can see that. But there's no doubt about it, I'm trying hard out there trying to make it work. Sometimes it just doesn't happen.” His year-end ranking of No. 6 was his lowest since 2002.
As 2014 dawned, Federer trotted out a few subtle but significant shifts. A new racquet and a new coach, his childhood hero, six-time Grand Slam singles champion Stefan Edberg. Also helping the cause: improved health, the back pain healed. According to Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob, “Roger is the eternal optimist. This year he’s shown a rejuvenated body, energy and ability to make adjustments.”
Arriving at this year’s US Open, Federer can’t help but be optimistic. From June to August he’s played superb tennis, taking the titles at Halle and Cincinnati, reaching the finals at Wimbledon and Toronto. Everything from Edberg to the new racquet (and also, perhaps, the addition of a second set of twins to his family) has served to highlight the joy Federer brings to hitting tennis balls – and, he hopes, the possibility of winning a record sixth US Open men’s singles title. Said Gimelstob, “Edberg has pumped some energy into him. He gets to go to work with someone he looked up to. These two guys have very similar temperaments – both gentlemen, students of the game, guys who appreciate history.”
“Yeah, it's very comfortable,” said Federer of his relationship with Edberg. “I must say it's not awkward in any way. It could be. I don't know if you spent time with your idol, but for me it was quite different in the beginning getting used to that. It was not something I ever thought was going to happen.
“I'm happy that the transition is in the past now. We sort of like each other's company. We don't get bored with each other. We enjoy talking about tennis, but then we don't talk tennis all the time. It's really comfortable and I'm happy he's been helpful in the process to get me back into winning ways.”
Like his coach, Federer also had to work hard to eventually master the US Open. Like many Europeans, Edberg and Federer at first each found it tricky to balance the hustle and bustle of New York with the demands of competition. But beginning in 2004, Federer launched a stranglehold on the US Open, winning the title an unsurpassed five straight times.
Six years after his last New York triumph, Federer is razor sharp. Certainly his confidence is boosted by the withdrawal of his toughest rival, defending champion Rafael Nadal, and the scratchy form of past winners Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But even beyond those accomplished competitors and the demands of keeping a 33-year-old body refreshed over the course of two weeks of labor-intensive hardcourt tennis, Federer maintains his own distinct hold on his own persona.
Pondering his US Open chances just after earning his 80th career title in Cincinnati, Federer said, “I like my chances. I feel like I'm playing good tennis right now. I could have just not played [Cincinnati] and gone into the Open feeling good about my chances; now I feel even better, you know.
"I’m coming in with great confidence. I can really rest now, rather than having to work on stuff. So it's just about maintaining, and that’ also really good for the mind.
I can just enjoy New York for what it is and go out to the practice courts and do the opposite of what I had to do last year when I went out there and did three‑hour practice sessions and went for extra practice sessions after matches sometimes. I know my game is where I want it to be. It's about just keeping that level up right now.”