10 for 30

by: Steve Tignor | August 08, 2011

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TENNIS.com

Rf Roger Federer’s birthday—August 8, 1981—has always been paired in my mind with Pete Sampras'. In the first of many parallels between the two men, Pistol Pete was born almost exactly a decade earlier—August 12, 1971 (lordy, lordy, look who’s about to be 40!). While 30 marks the onset of adulthood, responsibility, and weight gain for most of us, tennis players—whose lives, Boris Becker once said, should be measured in dog years—inevitably brings with it talk of decline and retirement. Sampras lived with that talk for the last three years of his career, and Federer has already fended off his share of questions about when he’s going to hang up his racquet.

There will be more of it to come, even though Federer, while his results have begun their expected decline, has so far shown no signs of being weary of the tour grind. Like Sampras, he may have a big surprise or two left in him. So for this post, on his birthday (which will hopefully not become better known as a Black Monday on Wall St.), I’ll leave the future to its own devices and give you some of my memories of the Federer decade just past—10 for 30.

*****

—Federer and I started our tennis careers around the same time. He was one of the first players I interviewed, for Tennis magazine’s regular “On the Rise” feature in 1999, when he was 17. A photographer, photo editor, and I met him, bright yellow hair and all, in Key Biscayne and drove him around for 15 minutes looking for a suitable spot for a shoot. We finally put him between two palm trees and had him hold out his arms toward them. I talked to Federer, who I had seen play just once, for about an hour afterward. I don’t remember much of what he said, but that he was a nice and accommodating kid, quieter and more deferential, of course, then he would be in the future, as his stature in the sport grew. I had no premonition of how good he would be. I don’t think he did, either. He was hoping, like anyone else at 17, to make it as a pro. After losing early in Key Biscayne, he was looking no farther than the clay-court season just ahead.

—A second memory from Miami. This was from 2005 or 2006, years of Federer’s dominance. I had walked around Crandon Park on an exceptionally humid day watching various matches and players, seeing their strengths and flaws as they went to war against each other in the deadly heat. Then I stumbled, gladly, back through the air-conditioned media room and sat down in the shaded press seats overlooking the main stadium court. Federer was playing. Watching him do all of the things, with ease, that all of those players on the outer courts tried to do, I felt the natural hierarchy of tennis, and of ability in general, like never before. Outside they were frantically climbing the mountain; inside was Federer, alternating easily between slice and drive backhands, flat and kick serves, winning from front court and back. He was the mountaintop. For once, the two sides of the sport were unified: the most artistic technique led to the best results. Even in that Miami heat, Federer really didn’t seem to sweat.

—Masters Cup 2006 semifinals, Shanghai. This was the year when Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal had taken off. They’d played a series of clay-court finals in the spring, all won by Nadal, that peaked with a five-set classic in Rome. That match was like the 14-round, Thrilla in Manila, war of attrition between Ali and Frazier; their semi on slick indoor courts in Shanghai at the end of the year was Hagler vs. Hearns, a bloody, brilliant, three-round slugfest that left Hearns flat out on his back and seemingly near death. Federer and Nadal went toe to toe in Shanghai in a way I can’t remember them doing before or since. It was Federer who survived, but he also ended up on the court, on his knees. His victory scream that night wasn't merely triumphant—it was primal. Winning Wimbledon was something special for him, but beating Nadal in that way on that day was a raw affirmation of self-belief.

—Federer’s first Wimbledon win. My most vivid memory of this match is seeing his coach at the time, Peter Lundgren, and his future wife, Mirka, in the player’s box, looking at each other in disbelief as Federer crept closer to victory over Mark Philippoussis. Federer hadn’t come out of nowhere, of course; the talent had been long recognized. But he had just come off a first-round loss at the French Open, and the idea of him winning a Slam, even one Slam, at that point, was hardly something to take for granted. Federer himself, crying his first Grand Slam trophy ceremony tears, couldn’t quite take it all in afterward. As match point approached, Mirka, the same Mirka who has been there and done that many times over by now, looked like she was ready to jump out of her seat.

—Federer in defeat. Rarely have agony and ecstasy been juxtaposed as starkly as they were on Centre Court after the 2008 Wimbledon final. Nadal ended up in the players’ box in a group family hug, while Federer was alone on court, sitting forward in his cardigan on the sideline, forced to peer through the semi-darkness with the rest of the world as his conqueror celebrated his conquest. From the Federer point of view, there was something tragic about it: The best player of all time, a guy who had won five straight times at Wimbledon, had just lost what will likely be the most famous match of his career. But that little sense of the tragic also deepened his human appeal and added a balance and depth to his persona. You could always watch him in awe in victory; now you could also feel for him in defeat, as he sat alone on the court where he most wanted to win.

—A few months later, Federer took another five-set loss to Nadal even harder, at the Australian Open. That, of course, was when he gave us an even more famous trophy ceremony tear session. Federer, the master of smooth, the unruffled champion on so many occasions, offered a glimpse of the more unruly passion and desire that animated him deep down. When Nadal walked back and threw his arm around his shoulder, Federer smiled a little sheepishly, like a kid, before shaking his tears off and finishing his speech. Their rivalry had become something more, and this era of good feelings in men’s tennis, an era that Federer helped usher in, had its most indelible image.

—Federer in triumph after the defeat. A few months after hitting that humiliating low in Melbourne, Federer was lifted to a stunning high point in Paris, when he won his first and so far only French Open. To bounce back that quickly and make the most of Nadal's earlier defeat to Robin Soderling was a mark of his resilience, an underappreciated element of Federer’s success. It also led to a sort of reverse release of emotion on the trophy stand. In Melbourne, he couldn’t control his tears; in Paris, he couldn’t control his happy words. He blurted away, from French to English and back again, before reaching a height of goofy joy when he acknowledged Mirka in the stands. "My lovely wife—she’s pregnant!”

—After interviewing Federer as a teenager, I wanted him to justify my interest and become a star. For years, I sought out his matches and rooted for him. I rooted for him to knock off Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 and again during his run to the title in 2003. He became a star and then some, and when he became virtually unbeatable I lost some of my earlier fan interest. I knew that he was a good guy, but I didn’t respond to his game as much—maybe it was a little too smooth for me, and his wins began to seem like foregone conclusions; his overhwleming excellence took a little of the drama out of the sport for me.

Something similar had happened when Sampras began to dominate. It wasn’t until after he retired and I watched some old tapes of him that I began not just to appreciate but to really enjoy Sampras's style of play again, the way I had when he had first come up. I can see that happening to me with Federer. Last year the Tennis Channel re-ran the final of the 2003 Masters Cup in Houston, in which Federer cruised, with scary ease, past an outclassed Andre Agassi. Looking at it again seven years later was a revelation. You could see the New, Federer, effortlessly surpassing the Old, Agassi, and making him look hopelessly earthbound—dated, even—in the process. I look forward, as Federer’s career wanes and he eventually does retire, to enjoying many more moments of his on tape that may have gone underappreciated by me when I saw them live.

—Wimbledon 2011. This year it rained ceaselessly in the days leading up to the tournament; no one could get out and practice. Finally, on the Sunday afternoon before the first round, the sky cleared. The players swarmed the practice courts and tried to hit as many balls as they could. It was a manic free-for-all, and who knows if it helped any of them. Most players were in T-shirts and whatever they could throw on in a hurry. Buried in a corner of a back court, though, was one player in full regalia: regulation Nike all-whites, complete with sweater vest and white headband. It was Roger Federer, and your eyes naturally gravitated to him as he banged ground strokes loosely with Ivan Ljubicic. The kids working in the food service area above the courts abandoned their jobs for the moment to have a peak at Federer.

As cursory as his practice was, he didn’t disappoint. When he and Ljubicic were out of balls, Federer jogged forward, picked one up, hit it over the net, and then jogged forward some more to pick up another ball. When he stood back up, a shot from Ljubicic was coming to his backhand side. Still moving forward, Federer wrapped his racquet behind his back, volleyed it straight to Ljuby, and bent down to pick up another ball. When he stood up this time, he was on top of the net and Ljubicic’s next shot was flying above his head. Federer leaned across the net, put his racquet up without looking at the ball, and volleyed it straight back into the net from Ljubicic’s side. I’d never seen that angle before. Roger Federer had invented a new shot. Wimbledon could begin.

—Federer will celebrate his 30th in Montreal, so I’ll close with a memory of him at that tournament from 2003. The previous month he had won his first Wimbledon and become a worldwide star. I watched him practice on the first day in Montreal, sign a ton of autographs, and then get into a golf cart that would take him back to the locker room. He sat facing backward, and two kids who had gotten lost in the autograph scrum ran after him, holding up magazines for him to sign. Federer grinned his elastic grin, but didn’t signal the driver to stop. The kids yelled, “Please, Federer!” (he wasn't "Roger!" quite yet) and generally made a bunch of incomprehensible noise. Federer kept grinning. Finally, he turned around and told the driver to stop. The kids cheered. Federer took their magazines and pen, but rather then sign them, he told the driver to start up again. The kids yelled, and Federer started laughing loudly. He stopped the car again, signed his name, shook their hands, and pulled away, still grinning. I remember thinking how much he seemed to enjoy the moment.

There was nothing forced about it, and he had actually gone out of his way to do more than just sign his name. Roger Federer, on court and off, as tennis player and star, has long been a natural.

*****

Happy 30th, Rog. You spent your 20s well. Not many other athletes have offered fans of any sport so many memorable moments, mostly in triumph, occasionally in disaster, always with a grace that can't quite hide the deep emotion underneath. I'm guessing you've got a few more to come.

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