An Age in Autumn

    23 June 2012

    There shouldn’t be anything left to say about Roger Federer. The superlatives ought to be exhausted, the eulogies weary, the mysteries resolved, the magic tricks deconstructed. And how could anyone advance on David Foster Wallace’s New York Times essay from 2006? “Almost anyone who loves tennis has had…Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

    Foster Wallace’s words still hold. But the Federer story has become even more interesting since those halcyon days of the mid-2000s, when he was so dominant that he won five consecutive Wimbledon titles. “Late Federer” – assuming, perhaps rashly, that this is the autumn of his career – is even more fascinating than “High Federer”. I do not apologise for the artistic terminology. If you do not admire the way Federer plays tennis then you are blind to beauty. Federer is a tennis player through and through, but the play he produces should not be classified as simply “sport”: it has a universal quality.

    So we begin with two Federer paradoxes. In terms of ranking points, he is now behind both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. So the world’s most admired sportsman is in fact only the world number three tennis player. Secondly, this relative decline has not chipped away at Federer’s innate self-possession and self-confidence. Most champions who have tasted complete mastery find being dragged back into the chasing pack an experience of unbearable pain and cruelty. Not Federer. He demonstrates the same joy, grace and expressiveness as world number three that he once showed as number one. By doing so, he has made a delicious contribution to the age-old debate about how we should measure greatness in sport.

    A few years ago, two sportsmen could claim to be the outstanding athlete in the world: Tiger Woods and Federer. By chance, they had very different styles and personalities. Woods embodied the triumph of will-power and determination. He sought to be a machine – someone who treated human emotions as flaws that needed to be ironed out like a faulty backswing. Federer, in contrast, for all his epic consistency, embodied the elegance and effortless style of the perfect amateur. So which would prevail? Would the champions of the future be defined by self-expression (the Federer type) or iron-willed self-denial (the Woods type)? Was professional sport marching towards the triumph of willpower and the elimination of joy?

    Watching the two players now tells us the answer. Shorn of his dominance, we can now see the emptiness that always ran through Woods’s career. Winning was the only point for Woods; the game – let alone the friendships within the game – was entirely incidental. Now that Woods is not winning, he struggles to find joy in anything he snaps and snarls his way around the course, cursing the failure of the fairways and greens to cooperate with his commands. No longer the god of his own universe, Woods finds the challenge of being a normal human baffling and unfair. Why am I being asked to stoop so low, his body language asks? That he is lucky to earn a living playing a sport he professes to enjoy seems never to have occurred to him.

    Compare angst-ridden late Woods with the eternal joyfulness of late Federer. I have watched Federer field questions from journalists asking if he is planning to retire. You don’t need to listen to the words; Federer’s body language tells the real tale. We might translate them roughly like this: “Why would I give this up, why would I not want to entertain as I do, to bring joy around the world? What could be better? Number three, number four, number one yes, each number has meaning within the sport of tennis. But which other sportsman is able to be so gloriously himself? Who can run that race as well as I do?”

    Revealingly, his rivals recognize this about Federer. Nadal holds an 18-10 winning record in head-to-heads. But Nadal insists Federer is the greater player. Nadal’s conviction is only partly explained by Federer’s superior talent (Nadal’s words), and only partly informed by Federer’s higher tally of majors. I suspect there is also a much deeper reason. Reading Nadal’s autobiography, you sense that he subliminally envies Federer. Nadal has always played with a hounded intensity, as if he were scared of someone noticing that he’d taken his foot off the gas.

    Even though Nadal has beaten Federer so many times, Nadal sees in his great rival an unrestrained expressiveness and openness that he finds more elusive. Nadal has trained himself to be the ultimate winner, but the real nature of winning is much more complicated than what is written on the score sheet. For Nadal, the more he suffers, the better he plays. Federer is just the way he is. As a life, that is hard to improve upon.

    At the peak of the David Beckham craze, Julie Burchill replied to Beckham’s critics by asking them to stand alone in a room and shout “I feel sorry for David Beckham!” They would, she felt, be unable to spit out the words. It was a nice rhetorical conceit, but I wonder if she picked the right athlete. No doubt Beckham enjoys life. But he surely suffers from the inevitable vulnerability of someone who needs to be liked. Federer has much of Beckham’s charm, but more self-reliance. I suggest Federer’s critics try shouting “I feel sorry for Roger Federer!” at top volume alone in their garage.

    Federer’s achievements are the least of it the 16 majors, the 22 consecutive semi-finals, his on-court elegance and the way he raised the bar of courtesy and sportsmanship. No, he has done something much bigger than that. He has always been entirely, joyously himself. “I have to play every point differently,” he once said. Every day presents the chance to play new points and to express himself in new ways.

    In his essay “Late Style”, Edward Said described how “age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works.” We are now enjoying Federer’s late works. In their own way, they are at least the equal of his earlier pre-eminence. How typical of the mercurial Federer that he would start with perfection and then improve upon it.

    Ed Smith’s new book Luck – what it means and why it matters (Bloomsbury) is out now