Every fall with the start of a new school year, as returning students become re-absorbed into the orange bubble, we’re inevitably greeted with the question, “How was your summer?” How banal. How mundane. Why not delve into something minimally more interesting, like “Did you watch the Olympics?” I mean, really watch them, for the little things called sports that passed the time between Ryan Lochte coverage and McKayla Maroney meme faces? This year though, to really judge whether my friendships had withstood the test of time (everyone knows time passes more slowly within FitzRandolph gates), I’m going to take the interrogation a level further. Forget asking people I meet what cool things they did this summer, I only need to know if they had done the only thing that really mattered—if they had been watching tennis.
(I believe it was Shakespeare who once said, “All the world’s a tennis court and all men and women merely [tennis] players.” How he said this before the modern game was even invented in the 19th century is beyond me, but I guess that’s why they call him a visionary. Could that be what it means to do research in English? I still don’t know.)
Once they answer positively and affirm that indeed, it’s worth my time to continue this conversation, I arrive at the million-dollar question.
“Who’s the best current men’s player?”
Two ways this could proceed. Either they will answer correctly, in which case we’ll become best of friends and host tennis watching parties together, or they will say someone whose name isn’t Roger Federer and I will promptly escort them to McCosh because clearly this person is intoxicated and a danger to themselves and others.
By all counts, Federer has had one of the greatest summers of his—and any player’s—career. He began the year having only just regained the world No. 3 and still stuck in a two-year Grand Slam drought. Then in June, back at his home court at Wimbledon, he comfortably upset Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and easily defeated Andy Murray to win his record-tying 17th Grand Slam and return to world No. 1 again, to occupy that position for the longest period in ATP history. Just a few weeks later, he was back in London, to defeat in epic fashion Juan Martin del Potro in the longest three-set match in men’s singles history and clinch the silver medal, letting the host country enjoy a Murray victory. Oh, and amidst all these accomplishments this summer, he turned the grand old age of 31. 31! All while young (okay, younger) ‘uns Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters bid the sport adieu at the US Open. No, Roger had to reassure everyone, he wasn’t going anywhere.
It’s incredibly annoying when the critics are so quick to pounce on one bad match of the hundreds he plays in a year, to have them speculate whether this time really is the time that “marks the end of the Federer era.” Or, like when he calmly bageled Djokovic in Cincinnati, for commentators to remark how he’s playing like “the old Roger.” People, Roger never went anywhere. He never left. There’s no need to bring sexy back when sexy’s been travelling the world racking up points to finish the year at the top of the charts. Sure, there’s no doubt that the last few years have been among the best in men’s tennis, with so many incredible players and too many rivalries and broken records to count. Federer may have occupied the sidelines for a while as other big names got first billing. Which only makes it all the more remarkable the conversation always returns to him when discussing today’s greatest player, when we could be worshipping at the altar of so many others.
How do I love thee, Roger? Let me count the ways:
1. His playing. Federer brings a natural grace and beauty to a fast-paced, equipment-heavy sport. He plays with a famously effortless one-handed backhand. Audiences in courts around the world also appreciate his lack of grunting while still serving and returning at incredibly fast speeds. He plays without a sense of desperation, but subtly and with perfect control. His footwork is also impeccable—you won’t see six-foot Federer trip or run in the crazy bursts so characteristic of Rafael Nadal, the “Spanish bull” whose relentless playing is starting to do him more harm than good. There’s lots of talk that the Fed’s only having a good run because Nadal’s knee injury has kept the latter out of much of the tour. But that’s exactly it—even without playing him directly, Roger has shown he’s one-upped the King of Clay, playing in a solid, consistent manner that will let him win more matches, gain more points and stick around longer in the tennis world. With Federer, the game is different. It’s not about using the most technologically advanced racket made of stronger metals, or relying on sheer power-playing from the baseline. It’s about tailoring his game to his opponents, about making impossible shots. It’s about tactics. Federer recently posted on his Facebook page that he had just passed 15 years on the ATP rankings. And it is this mental dominance that will allow him to play injury-free, knock on wood, for another 15 years, as he adorably joked in that same Facebook post (though fans like me are going to hold him to that promise because we have to watch him play live at every tournament on tour so we can die happy knowing we lived full and meaningful lives). But maybe you don’t appreciate Federer’s style. Maybe it just isn’t your cup of tea. I’m perfectly understanding of that. There have to be some people in this world with bad taste, so those of us with good taste always have someone to condescend. Yet on a pure level of being, on awesomeness as an individual, Federer wins in that court too, hands down.
2. Unlike so many other male athletes (among tennis players alone I’m looking at you, Novak, Andy, and other Andy), Federer isn’t with a model or model-esque beauty dominating the attractiveness factor in the relationship. Let’s be honest, what woman in the world can compete with Roger’s mix of adorable countenance and kingly stature that made Annie Leibovitz photograph him as King Arthur? What Herbal Essences girl has a mane that comes even come close to those luscious locks of hair he tucks under his Nike headband? In fact, Federer’s only ever been committed to one woman—his wife Mirka, a former tennis player he met when he was 19. They were both representing Switzerland at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and while they failed to produce anything for their country then, they have since created the most precious of twin daughters who even a Betty-Draper-type like me find cute. They’re easy to forget when you’re busy watching Federer do his thang at matches and kissing gold trophies, but when the three-year-olds appeared in the stands for the first time to see their dad win Wimbledon, you remember: this guy’s a FATHER! He changed diapers between tournaments!
3. Did you miss the part where I mentioned he’s Swiss? The Swiss can do no wrong. They make perfect watches. They have the biggest banks. They have chocolate! They have spectacular mountains! They have spectacular mountain-shaped chocolates! Even their flag is a big plus. And Switzerland has been ranked the most competitive economy for years while the U.S. continues to decline. Basically Federer could run for president this November and our housing market would revive. Even Andre Agassi noted, when playing Federer in a charity match, “You’re not very intimidating, man. You’re very Swiss. I don’t know what it is.” Good-natured Roger agreed and replied, “I know, very neutral, very calm.” He then proceeded to win the next point with an epic eight consecutive volleys. Not very intimidating, my ass. And being Swiss, he speaks German, English and French fluently, with a little Spanish and Italian on the side. He even took a Mandarin class while playing at the Masters Cup in Shanghai. Nbd it’s not like he had a busy schedule or anything. One side effect of his gift of tongues means he often spends longer speaking with the press after a match than it took him to win the match, but you won’t find Federer anything less than charmingly polite as he endures days-long media blitzes, repeating his answers to the same questions in three languages.
4. Maybe it’s a corollary of his being Swiss, but Federer has always been considered the classiest player on the court and to have one of the greatest sportsmanship of any athlete. He’ll stop a match to correct the score, giving the point to his opponent. A master of trick shots, he won’t resort to cheap shots at the face or body like the one a desperate Murray launched at him at Wimbledon. It’s rare that Federer will openly argue with the umpire, and he shies away from publicly imitating other tennis player’s tics. He had his anger issues as a junior player, but since then, I can count on one hand the number of times he’s vented frustration in a match. Federer doesn’t smack around his racket and glare at his opponent the way Rafa does, transforming from a boyish, scared-of-the-dark Spaniard into a beast of a player. He doesn’t pull a Djokovic, roaring and raising his hands to the crowd, as if to say “Did you see how great that was?” And no one does that weird thing Murray does where he angrily mutters to himself when his opponent wins a point, like a petulant child whining about how he wasn’t given a chance. Federer hardly gets angry, but celebrates good playing with a quick fist pump and a victorious match with a fall to the ground, as if he’s blessed and can’t believe he actually won. As most of the tennis-watching world expressed a bit of sadness that he failed to clinch Olympic gold on the court that’s been his second home, Roger expressed only contentment. “For me it’s been a great month. I won Wimbledon, became world number one again, and I got silver. Don’t feel too bad for me.” Because of the breadth of his achievements and the nonchalance with which he speaks of them, remarks like this have made Federer at once an icon of humility and arrogance. While he’s one of the few athletes without a Twitter account, there is @PseudoFed, a hilarious fake account whose #humbletweets have become somewhat of a tennis culture phenomenon. But with Federer being Federer, why would something like that bother him?
5. You should love Federer, because cool people love Federer. Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale are Roger’s BFFs. David Foster Wallace wrote a half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek analysis of Federer’s playing for the New York Times—in 2006, when Federer hadn’t even achieved half the success he’s since accumulated. Kobe Bryant and Bill Gates were among his supporters at the Del Potro Olympic match. Even famously bitchy Anna Wintour adores him, becoming a fixture at his matches and throwing him a lavish birthday party. And don’t even get me started on the Federer-Nadal bromance. Videos of the two doing interviews and behind-the-scenes of commercials make it clear that the greatest rivalry in tennis is also the cutest friendship. If even Federer’s greatest nemesis loves him, what’s holding you back?
Looking at this season as a whole, the players are pretty even. Each of the top four won one of the Grand Slams, and there’s been quite a bit of reshuffling within the rankings. Now that Murray has finally won a Grand Slam, does he get counted into the trifecta? The general consensus seems to be, not just yet. There are too many jokes out there on the Internets in which Fed, Rafa and Nole exclude Murray or give him the gold in London out of pity. There’s too much pity for him though—Murray thrives on it like some weird dementor, acting entitled to everything and sucking the love of the sport out of the game. After Djokovic’s meteoric rise in the rankings, his dominance on a variety of courts, and his reputation for being a funny guy, it seemed like maybe he was the new Federer. But therein lies my point. We’re always going back, comparing to the Fed, and with good reason. On a numbers basis alone, the sheer amount of records he holds is too much. His 17 Grand Slams equal the amount of the next three top players put together. Having just confirmed he would play in the Shanghai Masters, if Federer makes it to the quarterfinals, he will hit 300 weeks as the world’s number one player. One can’t talk about tennis without talking about Roger Federer. David Foster Wallace’s description of Federer as a metaphysical genius exempt from the laws of nature still holds true. This tennis season may have pretty much ended, but you can bet Federer’s story is nowhere close to being over.