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