Thursday, June 30, 2005


The Master
Three years ago, Roger Federer was a solid Top 10 player. Now some are calling him the greatest of all time. What changed?

by ANDREW CORSELLO | Jul 01 '05

AN ODD THING HAPPENED in the final of the NASDAQ-100 Open in early April—one of those subtle, spooky, turn-on-a-dime moments before which things are one way, and after which they are very much another. Up until the end of the third set, 18-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal was doing what rational people say cannot be done: beating the living daylights out of the great Roger Federer. Nadal was beautifully unconscious, leaping about, taking brazen risks, afloat, untouchable. He broke Federer twice in the first set, taking it 6-2, and won a second-set tiebreaker. Federer, for once, looked bewildered. Where the world's No. 1 usually struts through matches with the confidence of one who can see two or three shots into the future, who knows far in advance where the ball will be and positions himself accordingly, Federer seemed trapped in some kind of psychic goo, a whole second or two behind the reality his opponent was occupying. The champ kept staring dumbly, with slumped shoulders, at the spots where Nadal's winners were landing, as if to ask, Is this really happening?

If Federer and Nadal had been playing in, say, the 1998 NASDAQfinal, the crowd would have been treated to a ribald display of John McEnroe–style punkdom. “As a teenager, I was a terrible hothead,” Federer admits. “I screamed. I cried on the court. I couldn't control it. If I didn't make the shot I wanted, I would get angry. Then, when I missed a second shot, I would think, Now the racquet has to go .” Federer has often spoken of one incident during his teens when his father called from the stands for his son to cut the histrionics; Federer retorted that the old man should go get a drink and leave him alone. Pops responded later, quite reasonably, by shoving young Roger's face into a nearby snow bank.

But this was 2005, and even as Nadal whipped him around the court, Federer displayed the imperturbable dignity that has become his trademark. The racquet stayed in hand. He didn't bark or howl. He didn't upbraid the linesmen.

Part of Federer's quietude is simply the result of maturation. But part of it is also strategic. When asked what he does to get into the zone, physically and psychologically, he says, “I try to stay very much in the present tense. To think only about the moment that I am in a point, and to not even think about that if I can. It's no good if when I'm playing, I'm thinking ahead to the next match or the next tournament. And it's really no good if I'm thinking about the last point, what I did wrong, or the last match I lost. I don't let it stay with me. I tell you, I don't lose much now, but when I do, I don't think about it. By the time I get back to the hotel, I'm OK with it. On to the next thing.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “I think that I am now a very happy, very honest person.” Another pause. “I believe in my talent. I don't fear anyone anymore.”

There's nothing offhand or self-pleased in Federer's tone when he says these things; he's possessed of supreme confidence, but not conceit. (Conceit, after all, usually masks a lack of confidence, and Federer, who went 51-2 from the 2004 U.S. Open to Monte Carlo this year, proves the adage that it ain't bragging if you can back it up.) When Federer talks about his happiness, he's referring to the calm, clean feeling that comes to those rare individuals who have vast potential and tap it consistently. When a person is blissfully free of the could-haves and should-haves that haunt the rest of us, the kind of happiness Federer is crowing about is inevitable, and self-fulfilling. Some champs—Jimmy Connors, McEnroe, even Andre Agassi—have used their own complexity and inner conflict to fuel their motivation and intensity on the court. Federer doesn't truck in inner demons. Not anymore. He uses his psychic serenity to loosen his body and steel his will, which creates victory after victory, which in turn creates more happiness, until victory and happiness conflate in an upward spiral of utter dominance that daunts every other player on tour.

So it was that Federer kept his composure in the face of Nadal's onslaught. That is, until he didn't.

Four-all in the third. Nadal's serve. Federer got a break point. He squandered it. Nadal battled back, held serve. And then Federer's inner teen punk emerged, like some alien beast. There was a primal howl, both guttural and whiny. The right arm went up; Federer tomahawked his racquet onto the court. The frame rose in a high somersaulting arc, landing in the alley. Could it be? Had the young Nadal caused the great Federer to lose control?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Look at what happened next. The two players held serve and went to a tiebreaker. But even as they did, and even as Nadal went up 5-3, a shift was taking place. One of those abstract psychological things that happen at the highest level of sport, a polarity shift, a momentum hemorrhage, whatever you want to call it. Though impossible to pinpoint, the effects were clear: The dreamlike bubble in which Nadal had been floating was ruptured, and it was Federer's uncharacteristic outburst that had ruptured it. Even as Nadal was two points from winning the match, you could see that he had become consciously and unbearably aware of the enormity of what he was about to accomplish, and that he found this sudden knowledge crushing . The whole attitude of his body and his face changed. He looked skittish and tense, like a treed animal. The exact opposite happened to Federer. He knew exactly what was going on, and what it would lead to. And as soon as Federer brought the tiebreaker to 5-all, any fool could tell: He was going to win the tiebreaker and cruise through the next two sets. And that's exactly what he did.

The match was a perfect illustration of what it takes, above and beyond physical skill, to be No. 1. Moreover, it was an illustration of the manifold nature of Federer's talent, of the way his arsenal contains psychological weapons that other players don't have. “I resort to anger very seldomly,” Federer says. “Usually I stay very neutral, especially now that I'm playing with the confidence I have. But sometimes, in rare situations, it can carry me through.”

It became clear in retrospect: That primal howl and racquet spike were not impotent gestures of surrender; they were the means by which Federer wrestled control back from Nadal. He used his outburst to disrupt Nadal's flow and to goose the crowd, then fed off the heightened energy. Eerie but true: He knew what he was doing.

How does Federer do it? How has this 23-year-old Swiss wonder, born and raised in Basel, come to dominate his sport to the degree that, as Marat Safin has put it, he seems to be toying with all the other players? Rod Laver and McEnroe have predicted he may become the best ever. Agassi has called him an “inspiration.” Pete Sampras has declared that Federer's only competition from now on is the record book—in other words, Sampras himself.

It's interesting to compare Federer to Sampras. Federer, like Sampras during the unprecedented six consecutive years he held the No. 1 ranking, is significantly elevated above his peers. But where the source of Sampras' dominance was easy to identify—the rocket serve and forehand that ended most points before they began—Federer's is more elusive.

He's correct when he describes his technique as “beautiful.” The enormous, perfectly round Os drawn by his groundstrokes have a kind of sculptural perfection. The movement of both his racquet and his body is so cleanly efficient, so rhythmically deliberate, that the man seems to be playing in ever-so-slight slow motion. This can sometimes create the (false) impression of indifference, or of his having just woken up. The efficiency and fluidity of Federer's movement is readily apparent when he plays against someone like Agassi, whom he's now beaten seven times in a row. Both men are remarkably fast, but where Agassi's is an agitated quickness, Federer never seems to scramble because he's never out of place; he sees early where he needs to be and moves there so fluidly that his motions appear choreographed.

Federer says that one of his shortcomings as a teen player was his artistic inclination to seek the most “beautiful” shot, rather than the most effective. Even now, he speaks fondly of the “fluid” and “perfect” nature of his strokes, which may explain his disdain for the drop shot. He calls it a “panic shot” and a “copping out.” When asked if it's the staccato of the drop shot that bugs him, the way it interrupts the lovely legato of his game, he says, “Yes! The drop shot—it is not me, you know? I feel like I am fooling around when I do it, and I am a person who doesn't like to fool around.”

Federer is certainly a powerful player, but he rarely overwhelms his opponents by overpowering them. He simply out plays them. He will serve and volley if it suits him, but he's also content to rally at the baseline and wait for the right opportunity to present itself. Fact is, it's difficult to pin down Federer's game because Federer doesn't really have a game. He has games . He's the most whole player the sport has ever seen. Depending on his opponent and his mood, he might decide to play a strictly north-south power game, or he might slow it down and play the angles. Indeed, we haven't seen angles this perverse since McEnroe was carving them with his Dunlop Maxply. When Federer puts away a half-court halfvolley that cuts across the north-south of the court at a 120- degree angle, a spectator has a complex, evolving response. One first thinks, How'd he do that? Then one replays the shot or two that preceded the putaway, the slow, sure advance Federer made to midcourt, and realizes, He was planning that putaway four or five strokes before he actually hit it . Then one comes full circle and thinks, once more: How'd he do that?

“I do sometimes feel that time is kind of altered when I play,” Federer says. “Like the other guy is slowed down and I can see what he's going to do a long time before he does it. It's a feeling that I can rely very much on my footwork, that I'm moving very smoothly. People, when they see my beautiful technique and talk about it, a lot of it has to do with the footwork.”

What they may not be talking about is the man's uncanny vision, the way Federer can fix his eyes on the point of contact—regardless of whether he's at the beginning, middle, or end of his stroke. “Believe it or not, it used to be even more extreme,” he says. “I would hit a slice and almost look backward. Somehow my head is always looking at the ball for a long, long time.”

Most tennis players, despite the advice drilled into their heads from the time they pick up a racquet, don't truly keep their eyes on the ball, at least not in the way Federer can and does. With those deep-set peregrine eyes—on and off the court, the man has a habit of pinching the bridge of his nose two or three times every minute, as if to make sure the line of his vision is trued—he never stops looking, never loses his visual grip on that ball. Asked if he sees what happens at the instant he strikes the ball, he says, “Oh, yes.” Asked, incredulously, if he really sees what happens during the microsecond in which the blunt force trauma of his strings flattens the sphere into an ellipsoid, he says, again, “Oh, yes.”

I knew years ago that I was capable of playing as well as I am playing today,” Federer says. “But I thought that at best I could keep it up for maybe a week at a time. I did not know that I would be able to do it over the course of a season. I had no idea that I could be so consistent.”

If Sampras is right, and Federer's only competition for the foreseeable future is the record book, consistency is the object. One would think that to stay in the zone in a consistent way, Federer would endeavor to turn his mind into a cool, antiseptic space, empty of worries, empty of what has happened in the past and what may happen in the future, empty of everything except the strategy for today's match. One would be wrong. “There needs to be uncertainty,” he says. “I want to be nervous before a match. When I walk on the court, I want my hands to feel cold with sweat. And the most important thing for me is not to tune out the crowd. I may have my eyes on the ball, but I like to be very aware of my surroundings. I like playing in a big atmosphere. I always look around quite a bit between points. It helps me to see what's going on, how many people are there, what they're doing. If they cheer for me, I can feed off of that. And if they boo me, I can feed off of that, too.”

As stoic as Federer is on the court, the Nadal episode notwithstanding, he revels in the drama of his own performances. At the same time he sees the ball in microscopic detail, he sees himself as most of us see him—from afar, through the lens of the TV camera, as an otherworldly figure to be marveled at. This acute sensitivity to drama may explain the way he's able to elevate his game on big points. You can see it in his body language, the same way you used to see Michael Jordan deciding, with six minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Bulls down by 10, OK, it's time to take over now .

“I usually play best in the most important matches,” Federer says. “I play best in a big stadium, when I'm against the other best players in the world.” He continues. “Sometimes, I am able to step out of myself. I am in the moment, in my body playing the rally, but I'm also watching myself as I do it, thinking, That was great! How did I hit that shot ?” Another pause. “A lot of people have been comparing me to the all-time greats. I love that. It's proof that I've made it. But after a while I don't necessarily like being compared to somebody else. I don't want them saying, 'He's the next Rod Laver' or 'He's the next Pete Sampras.' I just want them saying, 'Ah, he's Federer!' I am the first Federer. I want to be remembered only as Federer. I want to get to the place where I won't be compared with anybody anymore.”


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