NEW YORK—And so here he comes, Roger Federer, sauntering out of the tunnel to the Imperial March, head lowered then briefly raised to the roaring throngs packed inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sound as if we’re all trying to fog up a gigantic window. Just off-court, network cameramen with protruding guts sit in reclining, sofa-like chairs, which swivel along with the players. It’s Federer vs. Tomas Berdych, 8:35 p.m., September 5, 2012, Arthur Ashe Stadium, Evening Session 20, U.S. Open Quarters.
Berdych is already to his chair, but Federer’s still approaching his, shoulders doubly slung. A Nike duffle is strapped over one, a Wilson on the other, his hands steadying both like a backcountry hiker. Waiting patiently is chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who periodically scans the upper reaches of Ashe and raises his eyebrows. Ramos stands at the center strap with his hands behind his back, shifting his weight and teething his lower lip in what must be anticipation.
Now Federer arrives at his chair, which is built like those chairs for Hollywood directors are built. First to go down is the duffle, which he sets down to the right of his seat, and then the Wilson, shaped like a stout guitar case, which he props off the ground such that its length runs parallel to the sidelines. The crowd quiets to a convivial murmur and adjust free green hats courtesy of Heineken. Fed and Berdych are impassive, but not the ball boys, who scatter in complex patterns and hyperactively supply the players with towels and bottles of evian.
The Fed has on various shades of dark blue—navy shirt, shorts, headband, and wristband—with the exception of his socks, which are blemishless and white and never scrunch up. He unties the plastic on his Wilson Pro Staff Six.One racquet, standard length, paper-thin beam, 90 square inches. (Which actually, so I’ve heard from Wilson execs., departs from its stock iteration by only a dozen or so grams of extra weight.) Tip first, he points to stick to a ball boy, who quickly relieves it of its plastic. Behind me a group of irreverent New Yorkers crack stick-related sexual innuendos.
Ramos flips the coin. Federer chooses to receive. Fed and Berd are lithe and purposeful in the warm-up; they seldom miss. There’s more fussing with their stuff, until Ramos bids both to “play.” Federer breaks in the first game.
I don’t really keep track of the score, nor the patterns of play; every time I look to the scoreboard, it seems, three or four games have transpired. Really, I just watch Federer, his habits and tics. He’s all so consistent and meticulous. Like how he wipes his face with his wristband—smears it, actually, evenly and with both sides of the ‘band, the way little kids wipe sleepies from their eyes. Or how, like a girl inspecting a manicure, he checks the fray on his gut strings before every return of serve. Or how he twirls his racquet at regular clips. Or flicks away little pieces of sneaker and dust from the court. Watches his shots, good and bad, on the Jumbotron. Blows on his fingers without puffing out his cheeks. Doesn’t suck on the bottle but lets the water cascade into his mouth, almost as if he expects someone else to drink right after him.
All these rituals, so regular and precise: One wonders how conscious Federer is of them, how telling they really are of his on-court mental state, how integral they are to his performance.