Roger Federer has earned the right to feel awfully good about himself. He’s had a great career and, with the exception of a few relatively minor injury issues, a remarkably smooth one. He frolics in the deep end of the pool, but he wasn’t flung into it helter-skelter. Federer played 16 Grand Slam events before he won his first—an apprenticeship that introduced him to the perils of life at the top gently, and it probably made the rewards it brings taste that much sweeter when he finally began to accrue them.
Nobody can accuse The Mighty Fed of missing out on the joys of drinking a fine wine because he grew accustomed to the harsh taste of a young one. A player like Pete Sampras or Boris Becker had so much to defend at such a young age that, in the famous construction Ion Tiriac used to describe his protégé, Becker, “He was both formed and deformed by early fame.” Federer’s surprisingly long breaking-in period has probably played a larger role in the development of his amenable character and persona than is generally acknowledged. And it has certainly helped him navigate the obstacles met by every top player.
In writing a marvelous book about Bill Bradley, the former New York Knicks forward and, later, U.S. Senator, author John McPhee chose a terrific title that was also highly relevant to just what made Bradley, a slump-shouldered victim of white man’s disease (he couldn’t jump), such an effective ballplayer. The book is called “A Sense of Where You Are.”
Federer has been a Bradley-esque figure in tennis, both on and off the court. He’s almost always had that “sense of where you are” on the court, which is one reason his style is so effortless and his game so fluid. More than any other player, he’s been blissfully free from having to develop a game plan, because he has the talent and ability to play what you might call aggressive-reactive tennis. It travels under the more familiar and now-fashionable concept of the “transition” game—how to turn a defensive position into an offensive one. The strategy let him down on only a few occasions, but more about that later.
About the worst thing you can say about Federer is that he’s been such a solid, mainstream, uncontroversial role model that he can bring out the cynic in anyone pre-disposed to skepticism. One of the words that repeatedly pops into my mind when I think of him is “inoffensive,” a quality that always strikes some as, if not exactly offensive, then at least highly suspect.
What’s not to like, after all? Federer apparently is a devoted husband and father; he has no in-your-face taste for flashy cars or high-stakes poker. He has great hair. And he’s always tried to maneuver those glimmerings of a prickly streak in a reasonable if not submissive tone and manner. So his life is good, so good that we can only look upon it with admiration or something like envy.
But like the rest of us, there are a few things Federer cannot escape, like death and taxes. Only in TMF’s case you can add, “Rafael Nadal.” And this additional inevitability looms like a storm cloud on his horizon. It’s appropriate to contemplate the gravity of the situation now that Nadal has won his ninth major, completed his career Grand Slam, and conquered the last territory formerly held exclusively by Federer, the United States (as represented by the U.S. Open).
Federer, whose domination of tennis was both grand and generally free of stress and conflict for six years beginning in 2004, is now on the horns of a dilemma. He’s said that he’ll continue to play while it’s still fun and challenging. But is he really prepared to do that if it’s going to have an impact on his legacy vis a vis his rivalry with Nadal? Or put it this way: Will Federer, whose pride is of the mellow sort but pride nonetheless, retain his appetite for tennis if he’s overshadowed, particularly if it’s by a single player?
Other players have faced a similar conundrum, but never one that seems so sharply and simply defined. Andre Agassi was often there to keep Pete Sampras on his toes, but Sampras remained in control of that rivalry, beginning to end. Besides, Agassi spent enough time undermining himself, and disappeared from the big stage frequently enough, to keep Sampras from feeling overly—or effectively—challenged.
Jimmy Connors thought he ruled the world defined by the tramlines until Bjorn Borg blew in like a chill wind from Sweden to challenge his sovereignty. The insult was so severe that at one point Connors swore to follow Borg “to the ends of the earth” in order to prevent him from winning a calendar year Grand Slam, although what he really meant was that he would hunt Borg until he won back what Connors thought was rightfully his own. Turns out all Connors would have needed to do is follow the Long Island Expressway to John McEnroe’s home and knock on the door. McEnroe showed himself more than capable of taking care of Borg, even to the benefit of his arch-enemy, Connors.
By the time Ivan Lendl became part of that conversation, it was pretty clear that nobody of that era was going to do much dominating of anyone else. The men basically each settled for a slice of the glory pie, canceled out each other out, and realized that none of them owned the planet. They all just rented space.
But the Federer vs.Nadal rivalry is different. For starters, long before he won his 16th major in Australia this year, Federer was hailed as the anointed one. This Greatest of All Time conversation, once started, was impossible to dismiss or ignore. And as Federer added to his resume, his status continued to swell until it matured fully when Federer completed the last leg of his own career Grand Slam in Paris in 2009.
That Federer scaled that final summit at a time when Nadal’s career appeared to hang in the balance only strengthened Federer’s case. And while Nadal’s subsequent resurgence—aided by a few missteps by his rival—was persuasive, the difficulties Nadal traditionally had at the last major of the year put a dampener on any valid comparison of the two players. Just as Federer had no pre-emptive claim on the GOAT label before he won the French Open, so Nadal could not be considered Federer’s equal—or better—until he bagged that U.S. Open title.
Of course, that didn’t stop diehard fans of either player from shouting their man’s praises from the rooftops. Now the most lavish claims on behalf of either man are supportable. Federer has 16 majors—almost twice as many as Nadal. He’s by far the most successful player of the Open era. But that isn’t the same as saying he’s the best one, and that 14-7 head-to-head advantage enjoyed by Nadal undermines any claim of dominion made on behalf of Federer. Like it or not, you can argue each man’s case pretty persuasively. The discussion is less about who’s the GOAT, something that can’t be definitively determined anyway, than about which guy is better, period.
And that’s just why Federer is in such a tight spot. Personally, I have no doubt that his game is in decline. Without wishing to take anything away from Novak Djokovic, that was the major takeaway for me from their semifinal clash at the U.S. Open. I don’t believe it’s an irreversible decline, or even necessarily a physical one. In fact, TMF’s critical weaknesses in that Djokovic match seemed entirely of the mental kind, and less related to any threat he felt from his rival, or the occasion (as if that could bamboozle Federer), than to the hours he’s logged on his competitive clock. For the lives of tennis players, like farm equipment, are best measured in hours of service rather than accumulated miles.
Federer’s dilemma is obvious. He can certainly enjoy the late stages of his career without duplicating his previous success rate. But can he afford to lose more matches than he wins against Nadal, especially if Nadal goes on to add to his Grand Slam title count? The real question is not whether Federer can tolerate the implicit disappointment, but whether tennis will continue to remain as enjoyable to him, month-in, month-out, if Nadal were clearly in command. Those who really believe that Federer is a better player than Nadal can always hope that TMF will re-assert his superiority. I find it hard to imagine that happening, simply because Federer is at an age disadvantage.
I wasn't encouraged on Federer's behalf at the U.S. Open, when he volunteered that he hoped Nadal would win the final, and made a point to say that he won't watch it. A curious soul asked him, "Why," and his answer bordered on the snappish: "Look, I've been around tennis for weeks and weeks and weeks right now. Last thing I want to do is watch another tennis match where I'm not a part of it. I will spend some time with my kids and take it easy, maybe go shopping. I don't know if shops are open here in New York on Sundays, but I'm sure something is open. We'll see."
I couldn't help but think how Nadal, just a few days earlier, admitted to the press that he was going back to the hotel to watch tennis, that he enjoyed watching tennis. And the way he said it, he might have started his answer with, "Duh!. . ."
In all fairness, Federer made his remarks on the heels of a bitter, perhaps devastating loss. You couldn't blame him for wanting to have as little to do with tennis as humanly possible at that moment. Still, the contrast in the attitudes of the two men was memorable. TMF appears to be one tired, Fed up warrior.
In some ways, we may be on the verge of seeing which thing TMF loves more—winning or playing. At one time, they were synonymous, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, and that's always when things get difficult.