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...
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