Why Roger Federer Hasn’t Broken Down
Another piece on tennis for The New Yorker (online)–this one on Federer’s remarkable longevity
There he was again: Roger Federer at thirty-four, an age when tennis players are typically being put out to pasture, winning yet another major tournament. The tournament in question was the Western & Southern Open, in Cincinnati; it is one of nine Masters 1000 tournaments on the men’s tour, an élite series that sits just below the Grand Slams in prestige (and in ranking points). Federer’s opponent in the final last Sunday was Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked Serbian who has been virtually unbeatable all year.
With this victory, Federer moves back into second place in the rankings, a position he had ceded to Andy Murray just a week earlier. Heading into the U.S. Open, which starts on Monday, in Flushing Meadows, he is on familiar terrain: a real contender for the title, which would be his eighteenth Grand Slam trophy, and which would make him the second-oldest male Grand Slam winner ever.
How does he do it? Tennis has been a young man’s game for as far back as I can remember. The first match I watched—on a grainy, black-and-white TV in India, interrupted by several power cuts—was Boris Becker’s Wimbledon triumph in 1985. Becker was seventeen, a fresh-faced, strawberry-blond kid. His victory came not long after the end of Björn Borg’s reign at Wimbledon; Borg retired at twenty-six. Later came Michael Chang (who won the French Open at seventeen), Stefan Edberg (Australian Open, nineteen), Pete Sampras (U.S. Open, nineteen), and Rafael Nadal (French Open, nineteen).
There have been exceptions, of course. Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors played well into their thirties. Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open—and then promptly retired—at the age of thirty-one, in 2002. But none of them played with the consistency of Federer (Sampras was seeded seventeenth when he won the U.S. Open; Connors was ranked No. 174 in 1991, when he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open), and none of them stayed for so long at the very top of the game.
There are many reasons for Federer’s longevity. Talent, hard work, good timing, and a little luck have all contributed to his remarkable staying power.
The talent—that outrageous grace and fluidity that David Foster Wallace famously compared to a religious experience—comes first. Federer’s smooth, effortless style, his near-perfect balance and poise, are throwbacks to an earlier era in men’s tennis, before all the grunting and power shots, when men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into (or almost into) their forties. That classic kind of game isn’t just beautiful to watch; it’s also far easier on the body, reducing the wear and tear that have plagued practitioners of a more modern, physical game.
Nadal, for instance, plays a brash brand of tennis that has often overwhelmed Federer. He is the boxer to Federer’s ballerina, and, faced with Nadal’s power and sheer physicality, Federer has often seemed fragile, a little anachronistic. But now, in this late stage of their respective careers, Nadal is plagued by injury and loses in the early rounds, and Federer glides his way to titles.
Federer has also benefitted from changes in the men’s game. Vijay Amritraj, a television commentator who was previously ranked in the top twenty, and who later served five terms as the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals Player Council, pointed out to me that competitors today play far less tennis than they did a few decades ago, thus reducing the damage to their bodies. Only the Grand Slams (and the Davis Cup) still play best-of-five-set matches; the other tournaments have acceded to television’s demand for quicker matches and play best of three.
Also, many players used to feel obliged to supplement their singles earnings by playing doubles. The avalanche of prize (and sponsorship) money in the sport today means that they no longer need to do that. As a result, Amritraj says, the top players are often playing a couple of hours fewer a day than in the past.
The game has evolved in other ways, too. Over the years, as success has become more reliant on brute force, players have been peaking later; their bodies and muscles take more time to mature. In fact, while Federer, at thirty-four, is clearly an outlier, the over-all trend in the last decade or so has been away from the teen-age champions of the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Stanislas Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam, last year, at the age of twenty-eight; he followed it up with another title, at the French Open, this year. Today, only four players in the top hundred are younger than twenty years old; the highest placed of these, Borna Ćorić, from Croatia, is ranked No. 35.
Federer has taken maximum advantage of these changes, organizing his schedule to avoid overplaying and to limit injuries and fatigue; from the start of his career, he has played fewer tournaments than many of his peers. Yet, as Brad Gilbert, who was once ranked No. 4 and later coached a number of players—including Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick—points out, Federer has also been tremendously fortunate. “You can do everything right and still trip down the stairs,” he says. “There’s no athlete in the world that wouldn’t say, ‘I want what Roger has, health-wise.’ ” Even taking into account Federer’s talent and all the changes in the sport, he adds, “you still need a bit of luck.”
People have been predicting Federer’s imminent decline for years. In 2013, when his ranking slipped to No. 7 and he was losing in the early rounds of tournaments to journeymen, the tennis world assumed that it was witnessing, as it has so many times before, the slow, sad fading of a champion. Back in 2008, no less an authority than Björn Borg forecast that Federer would lose his Wimbledon title that year to Nadal (he was right) and retire soon after (eminently wrong).
As reported in L. Jon Wertheim’s book “Strokes of Genius,” an account of that year’s classic final, Federer wasn’t too happy with Borg’s comment. But when someone asked him at a press conference if he’d confronted the Swede, Federer replied, “Oh no. . . . I don’t want a problem with the King.” Seven years on, with five additional Grand Slam wins and twenty-seven more tournament trophies in his cabinet, it is Federer who remains the king—for now, and for the foreseeable future.