The Fed­erer Ef­fect

The plea­sure (and oc­ca­sional pain) of watch­ing the great­est ten­nis player ever

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Tim Lewis

On the eve of Wimbledon, the cham­pion’s ca­reer is pro­filed by hawk-eyed Tim Lewis

he changes his rac­quet af­ter the sev­enth game of the first set and ev­ery nine games af­ter that. This keeps him in sync with the sched­ule for swap­ping old balls for fresh ones (he, like tour­na­ment or­gan­is­ers, des­ig­nates two games’ worth of wear and tear for the pre-match knock-up). The method­ol­ogy he uses for switch­ing his rac­quet — el­e­gant, eco­nom­i­cal, like ev­ery move­ment he makes — varies very lit­tle wher­ever he is in the world, what­ever the stage of the match. It is one of the more niche plea­sures to be de­rived from watch­ing Roger Fed­erer on a ten­nis court — live ideally, in the round — but this per­haps is my favourite.

When a rac­quet is done, he un­zips the Wil­son-branded holdall be­side his chair and slips it in­side. Fed­erer then pulls out what it would be churl­ish not to call, in com­men­ta­tor-cliché, a new wand. Typ­i­cally, he goes onto court with nine rac­quets, enough to see him through the deep­est five-set­ter. These rac­quets are pre­pared by one of two men: Nate Ferguson and Ron Yu, co-own­ers of an itin­er­ant, spe­cial­ist string­ing com­pany called Pri­or­ity 1. Ferguson and Yu made their names, separately, work­ing on rac­quets for Pete Sam­pras and An­dre Agassi re­spec­tively, be­fore join­ing forces around the turn of the mil­len­nium. Fed­erer has been us­ing their ser­vices at ev­ery ma­jor tour­na­ment since the 2004 French Open.

Those nine rac­quets have 19 cross strings, made from tex­tured polyester, and 16 nat­u­ral-gut ver­ti­cal strings (the “mains”). This, Fed­erer finds, gives him op­ti­mal spin and power, greater feel though lim­ited dura­bil­ity (not a prob­lem when you’re only ask­ing for 30 min­utes from your rac­quet). When Ferguson and Yu are done, they sten­cil a red Wil­son logo on the strings, pack each rac­quet in a long plas­tic bag and tie the end with a strip of blue tape.

It is eas­ier to af­fect seren­ity and in­sou­ciance when you are win­ning. If you’re ranked num­ber 74 in the world, you don’t get to en­act a stylised bal­let with the ball boy when you want to change your rac­quet

Then each bag gets slapped with a large RF de­cal.

Now, this is the part I’ve grown to love dur­ing a decade of watch­ing Fed­erer at Wimbledon, beat-re­port­ing for a na­tional news­pa­per. He picks the rac­quet he wants, se­lect­ing from one of three dif­fer­ent string ten­sions. He stands up from his chair, pulls off the blue tape. Then, he goes over to the near­est ball boy or girl and, word­lessly, Fed­erer puts his hand in­side the plas­tic and holds the rac­quet han­dle. The kid whips off the plas­tic with a flour­ish and stuffs it in the bin by the um­pire’s chair. The ex­change, like a mar­ried cou­ple who know each other’s rou­tines too well, takes only a sec­ond or two but, as a piece of chore­og­ra­phy, it’s per­fect.

You can, of course, ap­pre­ci­ate Fed­erer through a high­light reel of his great­est shots: the cute bunny hop he does be­fore smit­ing down an over­head; the metro­nomic serve that is the most valu­able shot in all of ten­nis ever; those crazy squash swipes or the be­tween-thelegs trick shot called a “tweener”, which is now a pop­u­lar cross­word an­swer. But it was Mats Wi­lan­der, the seven-time grand slam win­ner from Swe­den, who noted that to re­ally un­der­stand Roger Fed­erer you have to watch him be­tween the points. Wi­lan­der es­pe­cially en­joys how Fed­erer re­turns a ball to the ball boys af­ter a missed first serve or the end of the rally. It’s never a sim­ple, util­i­tar­ian in­ter­ac­tion: in­stead, he’ll cu­rate a vi­ciously kink­ing drop shot that bounces into their hands or a ra­zored slice that makes a sat­is­fy­ing thwock into the can­vas be­hind the court. “No­body else does that,” Wi­lan­der said. “No­body else has ever done that. And he still does it. Wimbledon fi­nal — it doesn’t mat­ter.”

The au­thor David Foster Wal­lace be­came mildly fix­ated on the so­lic­i­tous at­ten­tion Fed­erer took plac­ing his “but­ter­milk-coloured” blazer on the va­cant court­side chair at the 2006 Wimbledon cham­pi­onships, smooth­ing it so there would be no kinks. “Some­thing about it seems child­like and weirdly sweet,” Foster Wal­lace wrote in his land­mark es­say, “Roger Fed­erer as a Re­li­gious Ex­pe­ri­ence”.

Gus­tave Flaubert may have coined the ex­pres­sion: “God is in the de­tail”; the mod­ernist ar­chi­tect Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe cer­tainly prac­tised and pop­u­larised it. But no one’s pro­fes­sional life has been such a struc­tured and de­ter­mined pur­suit of this ideal as Fed­erer’s. It ap­pears to mean as much to him as records, though he’s notched up plenty of those, too. And it is these mo­ments that make many of us love Roger Fed­erer.

for a long while, I was con­vinced that Fed­erer was a su­per­good-look­ing man, the sort who mod­elled for sculp­tors in 16th­cen­tury Florence. I re­mem­ber mak­ing this point early one Sun­day morn­ing in Jan­uary a few years ago, watch­ing the Aus­tralian Open on tele­vi­sion. My girl­friend’s nose scrunched. “You do know, ob­jec­tively, he’s not that hand­some, don’t you?” she replied. “I mean, he’s ‘nice’ look­ing. But he’s not like a Ryan Gosling.”

I looked hard at Fed­erer, as though for the first time, and re­alised she was right: the squishy nose; the goofy, un­even smile; the slightly dated sweep of Judd Nel­son-era fringe that flops in and out of his ban­dana. Ban­dana! And, as much as I’d make the case that Fed­erer is one of the most stylish men of re­cent times, he’s not un­fail­ing. He ar­rived on the scene, more than 15 years ago, with an egre­gious, hardto-de­fend pony­tail. Nike has put him in test­ing, di­vi­sive garb over the years, not least the croupier-style waist­coat, cricket slacks and mil­i­tary jacket with gold trim he busted out for Wimbledon 2009. (Amer­i­can Vogue ed­i­tor Anna Win­tour, his friend, took him aside and told him to tone down the gold ac­cents.) But one thing you have to give Fed­erer is he al­ways owns his look. And this swag be­comes com­pelling to on­look­ers, male and fe­male, but es­pe­cially men.

I’ve had man-crushes be­fore — one hol­i­day, I fell hard for the men­folk of Stockholm — but per­haps the rea­son Fed­erer has been such an en­dur­ing one is the old-world charm and ci­vil­ity that he rep­re­sents. He’s our gen­er­a­tion’s Jimmy Stewart. A decade ago, a Nike rep who was re­spon­si­ble for Fed­erer’s wardrobe dur­ing Wimbledon told me how he went round to the house Fed­erer rented dur­ing the tour­na­ment on the morn­ing af­ter he won the ti­tle. He walked in the front door, looked down the length of the house and saw Fed­erer in the gar­den. He wore a pris­tine white robe, was sip­ping a cof­fee and read­ing a news­pa­per, like the rep had walked in on a Ne­spresso ad Fed­erer was shoot­ing for the Ja­panese mar­ket. “What you imag­ine Roger to be like, he’s like,” the rep ex­plained. “There’s no ar­ti­fice.”

The glimpses we are al­lowed into his life, off the court, sug­gest this is true. When Fed­erer sus­tained the one se­ri­ous in­jury of his 20-year ca­reer to date — a torn menis­cus in his knee that ki­boshed his 2016 sea­son — he did it run­ning a bath for his two sets of twins: Myla and Char­lene, now aged eight, and the four-year-olds Leo and, unim­prov­ably, Lenny. “And since he is Roger Fed­erer,” wrote Brian Phillips in The New York Times, “we have to as­sume he was run­ning a gor­geous bath, pos­si­bly the great­est bath of all time, per­fect tem­per­a­ture, im­mac­u­late bub­bles, faint scent of laven­der, busi­ness as usual.”

Of course, it is eas­ier to af­fect seren­ity and in­sou­ciance when you are win­ning. If you’re ranked num­ber 74 in the world, you don’t get to en­act a stylised bal­let with the ball boy when you want to change your rac­quet. You just pull off the plas­tic and stick it in the bin — all by your­self. You can dick around be­tween points as much as you want if you’re go­ing to win in straight sets any­way.

Fed­erer does some­times be­have like the well-trained dog that still has a bit of wolf in him. In the early days of the Hawk-Eye line-calling sys­tem, he of­ten re­acted petu­lantly to its ver­dicts with “do-you-know-who-I-am?” flounces. In the 2007 Wimbledon fi­nal, which he squeaked through in five sets against Nadal, he claimed Hawk-Eye was “killing me” and asked the um­pire to turn it off. (The um­pire, rightly, re­fused.) When, af­ter years of dom­i­nance, he started los­ing to Nadal and Djokovic, he could be­come tetchy in post-match in­ter­views. Af­ter a galling semi-fi­nal de­feat by Djokovic at the 2011 US Open, he said, un­gal­lantly, “It’s awk­ward hav­ing to ex­plain this loss, be­cause I feel like I should be do­ing the other press con­fer­ence.”

The Serb, match-point down, had had the temer­ity to un­leash a freak shot to pull him­self back from the abyss. No, no, no, re­play the point. That’s what Fed­erer does to other peo­ple.

for fed­erer ad­mir­ers, this pe­riod was the most test­ing of a long, monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ship. It’s cu­ri­ous to re­flect on those years now that we are bask­ing in the Sec­ond Com­ing of Roger Fed­erer. But no doubt, these were chal­leng­ing times.

The First Com­ing ran from roughly 2003 to 2010. In these years, he claimed 16 ma­jors; in 2006, he won an as­ton­ish­ing 92 matches on all sur­faces, los­ing just five (four to Nadal, one to Andy Mur­ray). He reached a pre­pos­ter­ous 10 con­sec­u­tive grand-slam fi­nals, made 23 semi-fi­nals in a row. His record against the best play­ers of this era was em­bar­rass­ingly lop­sided: Lley­ton He­witt and David Nal­ban­dian beat him a few times early on, but Fed­erer worked out their styles and heaped de­feat upon de­feat on them. Andy Rod­dick won just three of their 24 matches, and never in a grand slam. Fed­erer was im­pe­ri­ous, un­touch­able. At the same time, he could also come over as some­thing of a Euro douche; his post-match vic­tory speeches, at times, chan­nelled Derek Zoolan­der. This was prob­a­bly un­fair on a man speak­ing in his fourth lan­guage, but cer­tainly Fed­erer didn’t do self-dep­re­ca­tion very well, or in­deed at all.

The Fall, from 2010 to 2016, was awk­ward for ev­ery­one. Mal­colm Glad­well, the au­thor of David and Go­liath, his book on “mis­fits and the art of bat­tling gi­ants”, says that if you have a shred of em­pa­thy you should never root for the un­der­dog. The un­der­dog, he rea­sons, doesn’t ex­pect to win and will not be that dis­traught if he doesn’t. The swag­ger­ing al­pha male, mean­while, will be de­stroyed if he loses. “They go home dev­as­tated,” Glad­well said re­cently in a promo for his “Re­vi­sion­ist His­tory” pod­cast. “They wan­der off into the desert with­out wa­ter or food. Their lives are liv­ing hell.”

Does “liv­ing hell” sound too ex­treme? Watch­ing Fed­erer on court at Wimbledon, or on tele­vi­sion when he played else­where, there was some­thing gut-wrench­ing about this pe­riod. Cer­tainly, it was both sad and painful. In 2016, an in­jury-plagued Fed­erer went the whole year with­out win­ning a sin­gle ti­tle. Fed­erer also dropped out of the Top 10 rank­ings for the first time since 2002.

His matches against Rafael Nadal be­came es­pe­cially dispir­it­ing. While Nadal has al­ways been def­er­en­tial to Fed­erer — he once said, “If some­body says I’m bet­ter than Roger, I think they know noth­ing about ten­nis” — theirs be­came a prob­lem­atic archri­valry. Their matches be­came grown-up ver­sions of the ten­nis you played as a child: hit it to his back­hand! Hit it to his back­hand! At one stage, in 2014, Nadal had won 23 of their con­tests, Fed­erer just 10; on the big­gest stages, the Grand Slam fi­nals, Nadal’s ad­van­tage was six to two. This be­came an un­solv­able log­i­cal quandary: how could Fed­erer be both the best ten­nis player who’s ever lived and also clearly not even the most dom­i­nant in his own gen­er­a­tion?

A few times Fed­erer broke down in tears af­ter tough de­feats. These should have been the worst, most up­set­ting mo­ments, but per­son­ally, they weren’t. Mod­ern men cry at ev­ery­thing from cat­food ad­verts to the grandma dy­ing in Moana. Fed­erer’s lin­ger­ing demise fell into the cat­e­gory of qui­eter, more pro­found grief: the kind you ex­pe­ri­ence when you re­alise your fa­ther isn’t in­fal­li­ble. When he spoke about the brick walls he was com­ing up against, Fed­erer’s re­sponse was stoic, hubris­tic: he was play­ing well, he’d tell us, he could beat any player on his day. There was some­thing de­luded about his ob­sti­nacy, and it made me both des­per­ately want him to change, but also wish that he would stay the same. Lat­terly, Arse­nal fans prob­a­bly know what that feels like.

At press con­fer­ences, jour­nal­ists — who have never gone to any length to hide their pro­found love for Fed­erer — would ask again and again, over and over, when he was go­ing to pack it in. This, I’m con­vinced, is be­cause they found watch­ing him lose ev­ery week al­most un­bear­able. No one talked about the el­e­gant dance he’d go through to change his rac­quet dur­ing this pe­riod. In fact, the only dis­cus­sion of his rac­quet was why he stub­bornly re­fused to up­date the one he’d used through­out his ca­reer, which had a head size of 90sq ins, for a larger “97”, with a more for­giv­ing sweet spot, as used by his ri­vals. When he did fi­nally switch, in early 2014, that too felt like the de­press­ing end of an era.

Ev­ery sports per­son de­clines and the speed at which they slide is of­ten dra­matic, alarm­ing. Few of the greats re­tain any con­trol over their exit. Ali didn’t. Woods hasn’t. Beck­ham had the good sense to slope off to an­other con­ti­nent. Jor­dan maybe did, but there were a few wrong turns on the way. Part of the sad­ness with Fed­erer was that it felt like there was more at stake than the fate of one multi-mil­lion­aire tax ex­ile. He, with his courtly man­ners and lan­guorous one-armed back­hand, rep­re­sented beauty in the bat­tle against func­tion, por­trayed here by Nadal and Djokovic, men who rarely made mis­takes, who mer­ci­lessly ground down their op­po­nents. Of course, beauty would even­tu­ally al­ways be crushed, but this was a stark way for the point to be made.

The Sec­ond Com­ing has proved ev­ery­one wrong — ex­cept per­haps Fed­erer. It started, aged 35, at the Aus­tralian Open in 2017. He en­tered the tour­na­ment as num­ber 17 seed, as close to un­der-ther­adar as Fed­erer has been since the turn of the cen­tury. But Djokovic and Mur­ray lost early, and Fed­erer snuck through in five sets against Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. Nadal was wait­ing in the fi­nal, but their match didn’t fol­low the usual script. Fed­erer’s re­con­structed back­hand was solid, res­o­lute; the Spa­niard kept whip­ping his top­spin fore­hand to the “ad” court, but this time Fed­erer didn’t shank it into the stands. This match, too, went to five sets, and Fed­erer’s serve was bro­ken early on in the de­cider. It looked like the end. Be­cause he doesn’t sweat and he doesn’t grunt, it can some­times seem Fed­erer isn’t killing him­self. This match, though, was dif­fer­ent. He was tena­cious, even desperate. And he pulled through.

Ever since, watch­ing Fed­erer has been a sim­ple, un­com­pli­cated joy. His legacy is se­cure. De­feat on any day is not the end of the world. It’s slowly emerged that he ac­tu­ally does have a sly sense of hu­mour. And he’s kept on win­ning: Wimbledon 2017, with­out even sur­ren­der­ing a set; Aus­tralia 2018. He’s up to 20 ma­jors now. He’s won five matches on the spin against Nadal. On the verge of turn­ing 37, re­tire­ment will hap­pen at some point, but mainly there’s an ac­cep­tance that we’re all just supremely lucky to bear wit­ness to his un­prece­dented longevity. Don’t jinx it. To put this in some con­text: Björn Borg and John McEn­roe didn’t win a Grand Slam af­ter 25.

Roger Fed­erer’s legacy is se­cure. De­feat on any day is not the end of the world. It’s slowly emerged that he ac­tu­ally does have a sly sense of hu­mour. And he’s kept on win­ning

I had to find out. That ex­change with the ball kids at Wimbledon, with his rac­quet sleeve, that’s “a thing”, right? So I placed a call to Sarah Gold­son, a PE teacher from Bas­ingstoke, who for the last six years has been in charge of train­ing the ball boys and girls (or BBGs, as they are known) for Wimbledon.

The BBGs, it turns out, start their boot camp in Fe­bru­ary, al­most five months be­fore the tour­na­ment starts. There are 700 ap­pli­cants from lo­cal schools; these are whit­tled down to the best 160, who are bol­stered by 90 boys and girls from pre­vi­ous years (the “re­calls”). The ab­so­lute best of the best are put into four elite squads of six that are re­spon­si­ble for Cen­tre and No 1 courts. These 24 ball-hunt­ing nin­jas (av­er­age age: 15) work one hour on, one hour off.

Ev­ery­one in­volved with Wimbledon has the dis­cre­tion of a royal equerry, and when I tell Gold­son I want to talk about Roger Fed­erer’s rac­quet un­sheath­ing, she replies with a cau­tious, “Ahhh, yes.” In re­cent years, it has emerged that Wimbledon keeps se­cret dossiers on the top play­ers: who, Goran Ivaniše­vić-style, likes to re­use the same ball that has just won them a ser­vice point (Dustin Brown, Andy Mur­ray some­times); who wants their towel with­out ask­ing, and so on. So, does Fed­erer’s rac­quet switch fall into this cat­e­gory of idio­syn­cratic foible? “Dur­ing train­ing, we have these ‘what ifs’,” Gold­son replies. “‘What if the um­pire drops a pen­cil’ or, ‘what if a player asks you to put some­thing in the bin’. So they are aware that those things hap­pen, and yes, Fed­erer re­mov­ing his rac­quet, there is an ex­pec­ta­tion that they would spring up and get the plas­tic and put it in the bin for him. It’s part of their role.”

I don’t know how to feel about this an­swer. Was I hop­ing Gold­son would say it was an or­ganic, in­stinc­tive in­ter­ac­tion? Of course, it is a staged, prac­tised act. Fed­erer — the man, the ten­nis player — is clearly an ar­ti­fi­cial con­struct. As much as he looks deeply com­fort­able re­clin­ing on, say, a white leather arm­chair, he didn’t have an es­pe­cially priv­i­leged up­bring­ing. His par­ents, Robert and Lynette, worked for a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany. And like­wise, as un­flap­pable as he ap­pears on the court now, he fa­mously was a whiny rac­quet-tosser, who’d cry when he was los­ing.

But in his late teens, Fed­erer rein­vented him­self. Then he worked out that even mun­dane acts, such as chang­ing a rac­quet, can be made an aes­thetic plea­sure. The main dif­fer­ence be­tween Fed­erer and ev­ery one of his ri­vals is that he seems truly, un­com­pli­cat­edly happy on a ten­nis court. It’s a strange thing to say about some­one who has dom­i­nated a sport for two decades, has won ev­ery­thing go­ing, but when you dig down, he’s a guy who goes to work, loves what he does, takes pride in do­ing some­thing to the best of his abil­i­ties. That when you find your­self in a hole, some­times you come out the other side. That when ev­ery­one tells you you’re wrong-headed, some­times you just need to hold tight to your prin­ci­ples, ride out the storm and you’ll be proved right.

Pre­vi­ous pages: Roger Fed­erer holds the win­ner’s tro­phy aloft af­ter beat­ing Marin Cilic in the men’s sin­gles fi­nal at Wimbledon, July 2017Be­low: Fed­erer play­ing in a Davis Cup sin­gles match at Zurich which saw the round fin­ish Switzer­land 2 Aus­tralia 3, Fe­bru­ary 2000

Be­low: with the as­sis­tance of a ball boy, Fed­erer un­wraps a fresh rac­quet dur­ing the men’s sin­gles fi­nal — which he lost to No­vak Djokovic — at Wimbledon, 2014

Be­low: Fed­erer salutes spec­ta­tors at the ATP World Tour fi­nals at Lon­don’s O2 Arena af­ter a shock loss to Bel­gian David Gof­fin, Novem­ber 2017

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