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Talking Tennis with Tracy: Learning from Roger Federer

Many years ago, I stumbled upon an interesting word to describe what Roger Federer brings to tennis, and I never came across a better one. The word is Italian: sprezzatura. It is the art of accomplishing something, especially something difficult, while hiding the effort that went into it behind a facade of nonchalance or ease.

This is a rare gift, especially in a world-class athlete in a one-on-one sport, and I think it explains why Federer had millions of people at “hello.” It also makes it easier to understand why the “Fedal” proxy wars, between fans of Federer and those of Rafael Nadal, were as bitterly fought as some of the rivalry’s matches. Some simply were more attracted to Nadal’s “anti-sprezzatura.”

I will miss Roger Federer’s grace and elegance after having reported on him through his entire career, but there are lots of other things I will miss as well. Here are some of them.

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Scissoring his arms, Federer bends deeply at the knees, extends his left arm gently and fully in the toss, and explodes upward.

Scissoring his arms, Federer bends deeply at the knees, extends his left arm gently and fully in the toss, and explodes upward.

I will miss Roger Federer’s serve. . . because it is definitive, like Ted Williams’ baseball swing, or Ray Allen’s jump shot. It begins in an almost woeful way, with Federer slumped over from the waist, as if fatigued. His feet are parallel with the baseline, the left leg extended so far forward that it appears bowed, toes pointed forward in a way that seems balletic. But what comes next is anything but ballet.

Scissoring his arms, Federer bends deeply at the knees, extends his left arm gently and fully in the toss, and explodes upward. By the time he’s hit the ball, his feet are a good 10 or 12 inches off the ground.

Federer didn’t have the fastest serve—he’s tied at No. 54 with six others, with a career-best 142.9 m.p.h.—nor the one with the most lively movement. But that elegant, reliable action leaves him No. 3 on the all-time ace list, and his 56.8% rate for winning second-serve points trails only Nadal.

I will miss Roger Federer’s decency. . . because that virtue is not often promoted in a me-first world (Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker called it Federer’s “sunny decency”). Elite players sometimes revel in entitlement, turn friends into minions and sycophants, take all the pampering and fawning in their Disney-esque environment as endorsements of who they are, rather than of what they do and how many tickets they can sell.

I never heard of Federer ducking an obligation, blowing off an appointment, or acting superior or dismissive except in the heat and stress of competition. The critical and even inane questions lobbed at players by reporters often triggers an acid response, but I can’t recall Federer going off on anyone because of their ignorance, or insensitivity. He treats people with dignity and professionalism, even if they may not always deserve it.

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Novak Djokovic wins sixth ATP Finals crown

Novak Djokovic wins sixth ATP Finals crown

The Serbian achieved 10 different feats along with his triumph in Turin.

I will miss Roger Federer’s consistency. . . because, while his record of reaching 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals may sound like a consolation prize in the great GOAT derby, it’s a mark unlikely ever to be equaled. His 103 singles titles is not tops (Jimmy Connors bagged 109), but nobody else has broken the century mark yet.

“This is maybe an appropriate time to say this again,” Federer said at the Laver Cup, when asked what he was most proud about in his career. “[It’s] the longevity for me. I was famous for being quite erratic at the beginning of my career. . . And then to become one of the most consistent players ever is quite a shock to me, as well.”

I will miss Roger Federer’s angry outbursts. . . because they were few and far between, which makes them that much more memorable. They proved that Federer is not a human smiley-face icon blessed with genius, but subject to the same emotions, moods, and anxieties as anyone other athlete. Federer managed to win the battle within as predictably as he prevailed in the exterior one with opponents.

My favorite lapse of Federer’s cool was way back in 2008 in Monte Carlo where, following a close call that (correctly) went his way at the baseline, he turned to Novak Djokovic’s voluble parents and barked, “Be quiet, okay?” Then Federer walked up to the baseline and angrily kicked at the mark, raising clay dust.

Federer overcame an early-career zeal for splintering racquets, but he discreetly sparred with chair umpires on a number of occasions, He muttered and cursed, often while sitting, staring straight ahead, on a changeover. He once told an official, as part of running commentary, “Don’t tell me to be quiet. When I wanna talk, I talk, alright?”

My favorite quote overheard in the heat of battle: During a match plagued by bad calls and overrules, Federer chuntered: “We need a clown for this circus.”

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I will miss Roger Federer’s durability. . . because, in 1,526 career singles matches or 224 doubles battles, he never once pulled the plug mid-match. It’s an amazing record, given common perils that range from mild food poisoning to catastrophic injury.

Although he had to manage some back problems, Federer hit the age of 34 in 2016 before he suffered an injury (knee) that required surgery. It appeared that his career might be over, but Federer would win three more majors in one of the most spectacular and unexpected of comebacks. In mid-February of 2018 he reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, at 36 becoming the oldest ATP world No. 1 by more than three years. That also earned him the record for longest elapsed time between appearances at the top of the rankings, 14 years and 17 days.

I will miss Roger Federer’s SABR ploy. . . because the “Sneak Attack By Roger” is a legitimate tactic, albeit a glamorous, suicidal one. Let it not be said that Federer, the amiable Swiss, lacks a flair for the dramatic. Or a child-like side.

The SABR was Federer’s very own light saber, powerful but not for everyday use. Federer enjoyed talking about it. And make no mistake, the SABR was something new—a technique that took the concept of chip-and-charge to the next level, where hurtling forward and sweeping up the serve with a swipe instead of blocking it back with a chip put even more pressure on the server.

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I will miss Roger Federer’s grit. . . because it was so easily overlooked. Federer’s friend Pete Sampras once told me, “Roger is easy on the eyes.” But Federer was never easy on opponents. He was relentless, rushing them, pushing them all over the court. He punished them, now with power, now with precision, now with touch. He made their heads spin and left them playing catch-up, like greyhounds futilely chasing a mechanical rabbit.

“People won't talk about that (the grit),” Federer said at Laver Cup. “They will talk about the other things, which I'm very happy and very proud of, but you need everything. [You need] especially grit and fight and all that toughness to come through and stay at the top for as long as I did.

“I'm proud of how far I have come, because I know that this was something I really struggled with early on. I was criticized a lot, heavily maybe sometimes even, fairly or unfairly. . . Why wouldn’t I fight more when losing? I didn't quite understand what that meant. Do I have to grunt, do I have to sweat more, shout more, be more aggressive towards my opponents? What is it? It’s not me. I'm not like that. That's not my personality.”

Federer is like a pepper grinder, but one that doesn’t make that rasping noise.

I will miss Roger Federer’s cheekiness. . . because his lack of false modesty is refreshing in this era of heavily scripted humility. It also resonates with realism. Federer was a truth-teller, albeit a well-mannered, companionable one who never sold himself short.

In 2004, Federer became the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win three majors in the same year. In the Australian Open quarterfinals the following year, Federer was matched against 34-year old Andre Agassi. When Federer was asked if he needed to up his game for that one, he replied, “I think he has to raise his game, not me.”

I can’t see how anyone who understands the intense competitiveness and self-regard of an uber-athlete could have a problem with those words. Apparently, some do.

Federer’s most cheeky interlude occurred over the course of the Wimbledon fortnight in 2009, when he abandoned his persona as a well-groomed but basically conservative Swiss. He swanned onto Centre Court that year in a succession of outfits that robbed people of their breath, not always in a good way. His get-ups screamed Brideshead Revisited, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Zoolander (a gold-and-white man purse?) and, ultimately, Liberace. The only thing missing was an elaborately decorated elephant for Federer to ride into the court.

What could Federer have been thinking? “Record,” it turns out. That fortnight, Federer became the first man to win 15 major singles titles. As soon as the match ended, he slipped into a jacket—obviously created in advance—with more gold piping and embroidery, including the No. 15 stitched in cursive.

Federer crammed a career’s worth of cheek into those two weeks, and then—poof!—he reverted overnight and permanently to shorts and a polo, with matching headband.

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Federer’s most cheeky interlude occurred over the course of the Wimbledon fortnight in 2009, when he abandoned his persona as a well-groomed but basically conservative Swiss.

Federer’s most cheeky interlude occurred over the course of the Wimbledon fortnight in 2009, when he abandoned his persona as a well-groomed but basically conservative Swiss.

I will miss Roger Federer’s love of the game. . . because very few have kept their flame burning so cleanly. Federer’s is the kind of passion you usually find in the less gifted, the strivers for whom developing Federer-like skills and success is a lifelong dream destined never to be realized. In many other great athletes, that original passion for tennis curdles, breeding resentments and disillusion that diminishes that love for the game.

Not for Federer. He has always loved playing tennis, he will love it next year, and the one after. At Laver Cup, he said, “I love being out on court, I love playing against the guys. I love traveling. I never really felt like it was that hard for me to do. Winning, learning from losing, it was all perfect. . . I love tying my shoes, getting ready, putting the bandanna on. I look in the mirror, ‘Are we ready for this?’ Yeah, okay, let's go.”

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Federer had another 10 years and 10 majors in him. Too bad it doesn’t work that way. But this way was certainly good enough.