Why is This Man Smiling?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

If you’ve been sticking with Roger Federer and absorbing his thoughts and comments through the end of the season, you might agree that he sounds like a man who’s encountered Chicken Little and taken the fowl’s rantings for so much hooey.

“The fun has definitely returned,” Federer declared at the end of this year, through the medium of a sponsor’s (Credit Suisse) website. “I can see no reason why I shouldn't play better again in 2014, and have some great wins.”

Could this have been the same man who, after losing to Novak Djokovic for the second time in five days at the ATP World Tour Finals, barely was able to keep the steam from shooting from his ears?

When a reporter asked Federer if he was encouraged by having taken a set off Djokovic in each loss, he drawled, “Yeah, sure. Let’s see it that way. Great, we’re positive. It was great to win two sets off Novak and losing four. Losing a match, it’s really exciting.” 

Actually, it was two matches you lost, Roger. 

But we’ll forgive the oversight because we know those two hurt. But they apparently didn’t hurt all that much, because just days later Federer spoke of how the fun had returned and declared himself all in for 2014: 

“I have still got some major goals, because I certainly haven't forgotten how to play tennis; after all, I was still number one in the fall of 2012, and at the end of the season, once my back was better, my results also improved.”

You can dismiss that as an attempt by the all-time Grand Slam singles champion to buck up the troops. After all, their (his) previously unassailable morale had taken a severe beating through long stretches of 2013, as Federer won just one tournament—that one merely a Wimbledon tune-up, a lowly ATP 250 played in the German town of Halle. For the first time, Federer’s army of fans had to endure heavy, repeated shelling as he lost his bearings and appeared to fall victim to the worst enemy of a fighting man, panic.

But this is Roger Federer we’re talking about, and even that mid-summer lapse, occasioned by a vortex of factors—including an ill-fated attempt to switch to a 98 square-inch racquet for the first time in his pro career—was not too much to endure and overcome. Perhaps he remembered what Sergiy Stakhovsky had said after sending Federer into his tailspin with his second-round upset of the defending champ at Wimbledon.

“When you play Roger Federer at Wimbledon, it’s like you’re playing two persons. First you play Roger Federer and then you play his ego. When you’re beating one, you still have the other one who is pressing you. You’re saying, ‘Am I about to beat him? Is it possible?’”

When you panic, Federer probably realized, the other guys are much more inclined to realize that there’s really only one Roger Federer, the 32-year-old who can shank a backhand with the best of them, and who’s probably a twitch slower and a mite less eager to leave it all out there on any given day than he was at 26. So, with a show of hubris that is simultaneously crafty and comical (aren’t these athletic superheroes, in their own ways, all a bit over the top?), Federer has rushed to revive that other opponent to whom Stakhovsky alluded.

I certainly haven't forgotten how to play tennis; after all, I was still number one in the fall of 2012. . . 

This is the passive-aggressive Roger Federer we all know and love. The champion who makes the case for his own amazing wonderfulness with an absolutely straight face, and with such bland Swiss precision that it’s hard to tell if he’s a monster—or the most reasonable and clear-thinking man on the planet. 

I certainly haven’t forgotten how to play tennis. . . Just in case you were wondering. Let this stand as a warning. Write me off at your peril.

And don’t you love Federer’s use of the emphatic, “certainly?”

In all fairness, Federer already did a fair amount to silence his more vociferous critics in the fall. His lost summer culminated in a horrific performance, a straight-sets loss to Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open. He also early lost at the Shanghai Masters to Gael Monfils, but then he slashed his way to the finals of his hometown tournament in Basel (where he lost to Juan Martin del Potro).

Federer avenged himself with a win over del Potro in the Paris Masters, and made the semifinals, where he lost to Djokovic. And while he suffered another loss to Djokovic just days later at the World Tour Finals, he scored wins there over Richard Gasquet and del Potro to earn one of the coveted semifinal berths. His year ended with a straight-sets loss to his old pal and rival, Rafael Nadal.

Those post-Shanghai results—all losses to players ranked above him; there wasn’t a Federico Delbonis in the bunch—stoked the smoldering flames. Suddenly, words that sounded hollow back in Shanghai took on resonance: “I always knew that this year, after a very tough year in 2012, the Olympics (and winning Wimbledon), was going to be a bit more quiet. I expected myself probably not to be as successful and as busy playing matches and tournaments. My mindset now is, okay, next year is going to be a great year again.” 

Sheesh, Roger, you could have saved your fans much weeping and gnashing of teeth had you made those feelings clear earlier this year. But never mind. It’s obvious that Federer subscribes to the notion that past is merely prologue in defiance of some pretty grim evidence to the contrary when it comes to beat-up 30-something athletes. It’s probably one of the great strengths he will bring to this upcoming year of renewal. 

This is a pretty radical stance, and all kidding or nit-picking aside, you must appreciate Federer’s mettle. Wobbly as Federer was in July, he’s not exactly wandering around the dark moor like some racquet-wielding King Lear (like Lear, Federer has a good daughter to lean on; two of them, in fact). If he sounds a little like the guy whistling as he walks past the cemetery, so what? Would it be better if he ran past helter-skelter, begging for mercy? And it isn’t like those goblins aren’t real. 

Federer has become the trophy that any player outside his tiny, immediate circle of peers covets, fueled by this theory: “If Delbonis and Stakhovsky can do it, why can’t I?” Federer fell fast and hard this year, from No. 1 to No. 6 in fewer than 12 months. He’s going on 33 years of age, well past the use-by date for most Grand Slam champions. But he’s acting like his difficult summer of 2013 was just some weird interlude that eventually made him scratch his head and wonder, “Wow, what was that all about?”

“By the end (of the year), everyone around me was talking positively again,” Federer said. “The mood was much better than in the summer. That boosts my morale for the coming year, and it's a big relief.”

Yes, but have Federer’s reliable forehand, quickness, and composure all come back as well? I guess we’ll see.

Given what Federer went through in 2013, and what he faces next year, you’re entitled to ask, “Why is this man smiling?” Maybe you’d have to be a well-adjusted, healthy, poised, and widely revered 17-time Grand Slam champion to really understand.

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