Roger Federer: A Formula One car with a Rolls-Royce gearbox
Modern tennis is hard on the body. Roger Federer has stayed on top by not being a modern tennis player
In the British TV series Black Mirror, journalist Charlie Brooker explores dystopian futures in which the world has been ruined by technology. It is twisted and thought-provoking, dark and depressing—and the only way to get through some of the episodes is to tell yourself that however bleak the future looks, chances are that Roger Federer is somewhere there, on his way to winning a Grand Slam.
Earlier this week, Federer notched up Slam No.20 with a win over Marin Cilic in the Australian Open final.
He started off like it was 2002, wrapping up the first set in 24 beguiling minutes. Cilic hit back, and, in his own words, Federer “froze” in the second-set tie-breaker. He had been nervous all day, he said later—what if I don’t win? what if I win?—and it showed as Cilic powered through the fourth.
Federer conquered early nerves in the fifth, however, and the match was in the kitbag. This wasn’t quite the epic battle against Rafael Nadal in last year’s final, but it was equally emotional—Federer breaking down in tears during the post-match ceremony, weeping so hard he couldn’t see Rod Laver clicking pictures from the stands.
As an achievement, this is not just remarkable, it borders on the ridiculous. He’s closer to 37 than he is to 36 (which technically means that he has been eligible to play on the International Tennis Federation’s veterans’ tour for a couple of years).
Just for context, Pete Sampras retired at 32.
Novak Djokovic, six years younger than Federer, has been struggling with an elbow injury.
Andy Murray, six years younger than Federer, is currently contemplating hip surgery.
Nadal, five years younger than Federer, was forced out of the Australian Open quarter-final with a problem in his right leg. “Somebody who is running the tour should think a little bit about what’s going on. Too many people are getting injured,” Nadal was recently quoted as saying. “I don’t know if they have to think a little bit about the health of the players.”
Modern tennis is hard on the body; Federer has stayed on top by not being a modern tennis player. Where his compatriots charge around the court, Federer glides. Where they groan and grunt, he whispers gentle forehands. Where everyone on the tour chased power—just think of all the young guns with “heavy forehands”—Federer’s obsession was always timing.
In a world increasingly driven by shrill arguments and loud opinions, Federer is a gorgeous misfit.
There was a period, between 2012 and 2017, when Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all seemed to have found an extra gear. Through this period, there were numerous calls for Federer to retire, calls that Federer himself brushed away saying he was having too much fun to call time on his career.
“Don’t you understand that playing tennis is great fun?” Federer told The Guardian in an interview two years ago, when he was still in the middle of his Slam-less slump. “I don’t need to win three Slams a year to be content.”
He has now won three of the last five, and has not even needed an extra gear to do it. He has just worked out a way of moving through the gears he already had more smoothly—a Formula One car with a Rolls-Royce gearbox.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa.
He tweets at @deepakyen