Among the many aspects of Roger Federer that defy comprehension, most of them having to do with the possibilities of the human body, one puzzle has been stuck in my head lately. That is: his plain likability in spite of what looks, on paper, like so much countervailing evidence.
A dispassionate survey of his resumé would peg him as blandly regal, maybe unctuously luxe at worst. When he wears Wimbledon all-white it reads less like dress-code adherence and more like self-actualization. In an already genteel sport Federer has found a new apex, a new cloud to lounge on. His appeal never had much to do with relatability, and his roster of endorsements does him no favors here: Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, Moët & Chandon, Credit Suisse. If he is in your commercial break or in the pages of your magazine, he is peddling things outside the realm of almost every viewer’s means. If he is on the tennis broadcast, he is doing things outside the realm of almost every peer’s physicality. Nor is he particularly bashful about any of this. His personal monogram, a precious little gilt alloy of his initials, could inspire a world of resentment, but, somehow—no, this makes a weird sort of sense, even when it appears on corny cream blazers or cardigans. Maybe this is the most direct way of framing the issue: I see a man walk onto court caked up in all this, as Federer did in 2009—
—and not only do I not loathe this man or cheer for his humbling, I even hope for him to win, and want him to keep winning even after he’s already won more than any other man ever has. And I want him to rack up those wins with dramatic backhanded death blows, too, without much regard for a bright young aspirant getting crushed underfoot. But that feeling could not last forever. (Even if his ageless game could apparently hold up its end of the deal.) As a longtime fan I always wondered where the limits of my greed lay. At what point does the appeal of Goliath, already a little counterintuitive and unseemly on its face, fade out altogether? When does it feel like excess?
Yesterday’s Wimbledon men’s final, in which No. 3 seed Federer thrashed No. 7 Marin Cilic, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4, forced me up against that border between rabid loyalty and “Hmm, maybe this is enough.” More than once I winced as Roger knifed a perfect backhand return deep into the court; more than once I sensed relief when the Croat simply landed a first serve in the box. That is not what the first four games of the match foretold: Cilic, a player of devastating power, came out swinging those heavy groundstrokes that had Federer scrambling and looking pregnable. What undid all the promise of this match was a blister on the bottom of Cilic’s right foot that had bloomed during his four-set semifinal against Sam Querrey. Before the final, medical staff drained it of fluid, had even injected it with anesthetics, but it forced itself into the match nevertheless, an unwelcome third competitor. (See the grisly scene for yourself.) When you are walking on something like that, a game of elite grass court tennis—which demands so much twitchy, lateral movement, so much friction between man and shoe and shoe and turf—becomes an exercise in masochism. “My mind was all the time blocked with the pain,” Cilic said later. That kind of pain dulls your reaction. It doesn’t matter if you’ve grooved your shots into perfection if you’re getting to every ball late, and reeling.
This crisis reached its public climax at 3-0 in the blowout second set, when Cilic sat down for a changeover and left nothing inside. Under a towel and ringed by medical staff, he sobbed. As Cilic tells it, those tears had to do not with the pain itself but rather with the gulf between what his mind wanted to do and what his body would permit. At his 11th Wimbledon, Cilic had finally made a final, and he could not play it the way he knew he could: “It was the worst moment I could have experienced. It didn’t hurt so much that it was putting me in tears. It was just that feeling that I wasn’t able to give the best on the court, that I cannot give my best game and my best tennis, especially at this stage of my career, at such a big match,” he said in the postmortem.
This is not a common sight in the middle of a sporting event. Live commentators, not exactly the people equipped to treat the finer points of human emotion, largely stuck to hushed silence and disbelief here, but Boris Becker did drop an evocative phrase: “There is no hiding place,” he said, referring to the merciless exposure that comes with competing on the most famous court in tennis, for the highest stakes. Becker’s words left me envisioning such a Hiding Place, not a broom closet, but a simple booth of soundproof black velvet, in the corner of the court and available once a match, where a beleaguered athlete could get some catharsis—could scream or pray or puke in peace, banish an unsightly itch or excavate a problem booger without the scrutiny of millions. Watching Cilic red-faced and despondent with only a towel as defense, you wished he could find such a place, because the cameras felt like a startling intrusion.
If the moment was difficult to watch it was not because it broke some kind of code of sporting machismo, as our most craven bloviators would have it, but because of the raw intimacy—an ego flayed in public. When people talk about the drama of sports they’re generally referring to the action of the game itself—a story told through feats on the court—and yet here was a match functionally over within an hour, a lackluster on-court product, but one that nevertheless had the resonance of an elegy, enough to cast a pall over a room of stans.
Roger, for his part, handled all this with respect and grace. As Cilic lingered in his chair well past the umpire’s signal that time was up and play was to continue, Federer took to the court and stayed warm. For the rest of the match he did his job, which was to win, and without too much deference to his opponent’s weakness. All the formidable weapons he has showcased over the 15 years and over the last two weeks held up yesterday. Early on he hit Cilic with the coldest drop shot:
His delivery was pitiless throughout: Federer won an otherworldly 78 percent of points on serve, compared to Cilic’s 54. On this early exchange, the only real highlight-reel fodder in the whole match, Cilic scrambles to the net to find a gorgeous angle, lands on his butt, only to realize Federer right there waiting for it with a rubber wrist, coolly flicking it back over the net with an inch of clearance.
Federer was always there, going nowhere, even as Cilic crumbled. He got his breaks of serve and coasted. Early in the match he might emit the occasional Swiss German exclamation, but both of the first two set points he converted without any fanfare or gesture—the first off a Cilic double-fault, the second off an ace—just a walk to the chairs in mute triumph. Only after he won that championship point, an ace down the T identical to the one that handed him the second set, did he unveil the familiar Federer 2017 victory posture: arms up and right-angled, pre-weepy face. The rout was smooth enough that for once—an unfamiliar feeling for me—you might be tempted to root for Federer’s perfection to crack, just to restore some element of competition to the match, to make it feel earned.
That perfection has its many charms: there’s the transcendence on court, his overall decency off of it, and, more recently, the late-empire dad appeal. (He takes goofy vacation selfies; his two sets of twins played with their own faces as he hoisted his trophy.) But after seeing Federer skewer a man seven years his junior, a man literally weeping for how much he wanted something that Roger had seven times over, maybe you start to question the whole enterprise. In tennis, a game of individuals, the zero-sum nature of sport feels starker still. There is no pre-retirement tour of duty with the Spurs to put a ring on your finger: Either you will yourself to it, or you don’t. For the players trapped in a post-Federer, post-Nadal generation—players like Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, all 20-somethings that Federer wrecked en route to the title—the window for anything major is closing fast. A new generation of talent is waking up and the old legends are in no hurry to leave.
Just like fellow lovable juggernaut Rafael Nadal ran through the French Open, Roger Federer won Wimbledon without dropping a set, becoming the first man to do that since Björn Borg in 1976. By claiming this eighth title he broke his tie with Pete Sampras in Wimbledon, and holds that record alone; he extended his lead over the rest of the entire men’s field to 19 majors. Roger Federer is nearly 36 and there is no more territory left for him to conquer. For the better part of my life, my mood has hung on his play, and now I can finally foresee a future me that is totally indifferent to Federer’s tournament results, that watches with contented detachment. It’s one thing to say that now, while freshly sated with a title, albeit a title won in mild anticlimax. It’ll be a much harder pose to sustain in the second week of a major when he has yet to drop a set. Twenty, you know, is a pretty round number.