by Derek Neal
The one regret of my life so far is never having seen Roger Federer play tennis in person. As Federer announced his retirement this year, I’ll never have the chance. The closest I came was the summer of 2017: I was in Italy and planned on flying to Stuttgart to see Federer play in a grass court tournament as preparation for Wimbledon. A few weeks before I was set to leave, I applied for a job at an English language school, largely at the behest of my girlfriend, who was unhappy with the fact that I was “studying” Italian in the mornings and flâning the streets in the afternoons, all while she spent long days toiling away as an unpaid intern in a law office, a common situation in Italy. I didn’t expect to get the job—I had little experience and no real credentials—but I would soon learn that neither of these things mattered, superseded as they were by my being a native speaker. I got the job and had to cancel my trip.
For readers who are not fans of Federer, my above statement may seem hyperbolic, but I am writing in earnest. Sports, and specifically tennis, being an individual sport, have the ability to become representative of something larger than themselves. In tennis, the great players embody a way of life through their playing styles. Federer, being the most graceful and beautiful player, makes us think that one can live a life in this way, moving through the world in harmony with our surroundings, never forcing one’s desires but letting their fulfillment come to us, and acting in accordance with what might be called the laws of nature. This is how Federer moves around the tennis court. At his best, he seems to be a Zen sage who has attained enlightenment. Rafael Nadal is the foil to Federer’s grace. Nadal shows us that anything can be achieved through hard work and perseverance. He plays with force and power, grunting as he hits the ball, bending the world to his will and conquering all that lays before him. Fans of Nadal, I imagine, have this worldview and admire him for its representation in his style of play.
Novak Djokovic, who will almost certainly finish his career with more major championships than both Nadal and Federer, and will consequently be considered the best player of all time, is a model of ruthless efficiency. Whereas Federer and Nadal seem to play with passion and inspiration, Djokovic plays in a way that views emotion as an artefact of a previous age. Djokovic calculates each move to maximize profit and minimize risk, like a technocrat who has come to an undeveloped country and has decided to impose “structural reforms” on the backwards ways of the people there. In describing Djokovic in this way, I’m thinking specifically of Lea Ypi’s memoir Free, which recounts her time as a child growing up in communist Albania and her disorientation upon its collapse and transition to a market economy. Part of the memoir tells the story of a World Bank official named Vincent Van de Berg, who comes to Albania to modernize the country and “foster transparency,” “defend human rights,” and “fight corruption” (these terms are put in quotation marks by Ypi).
Van de Berg is known at first as “the Crocodile” because he wears Lacoste shirts, coincidentally the sponsor of Djokovic, but he soon becomes described as “the poor man.” In one scene, Van de Berg attends a party held to welcome him to the neighborhood; at a certain moment, everyone gets up to dance to a beloved traditional song called the “Napoloni.” Everyone, that is, except Van de Berg. While the others at the party assemble on the dancefloor with “the kind of urgency one would normally associate with the need to find shelter after a natural disaster,” Van de Berg insists on sitting out the dance. When two men try to forcibly pull him out of his seat, he slams the table, knocks over a glass of raki, and exclaims “Look, I am free!…I am free!”
He doesn’t dance, and from this moment on, he’s known as “the poor man.” Djokovic doesn’t dance either, at least metaphorically speaking, because to dance has no utilitarian purpose outside of itself, and Djokovic plays tennis to win, not to entertain. Indeed, Djokovic rarely hits the crowd pleasing between-the-legs shot known as a “tweener,” a shot that Federer made his trademark when he hit it for a winner to set up match point against Djokovic in the 2009 US Open semifinals. Federer and Nadal would have danced the “Napoloni,” I’m sure, while Djokovic would have sat alone at the table, insisting to the crowd that he’s the best while wondering why no one loves him.
The toll of being unloved, of being “the poor man,” finally cracked Djokovic’s mask in the 2021 US Open final. He had won the first three majors of the year and was going for his fourth in a calendar year, a feat that hadn’t been achieved in men’s tennis for 50 years. In the final, he went behind two sets to none against Daniil Medvedev, and was then down 5-4 in the final set with Medvedev serving. The possibility of coming back from this deficit would have been close to zero for any player besides Djokovic, and even for him it seemed an insurmountable task. As he sat in the chair at the changeover, the commentator remarked that he showed “his first smile of the day” as the crowd started cheering him on in a way that has rarely happened in his career. Even though it must be conceded that Djokovic is the best player of all time, he’ll never be adored as Nadal or Federer are, and this is why he’ll never be the greatest, encompassing as this word does something ineffable, something that cannot be conveyed in statistics and data. On some level, Djokovic knows this, but as he was facing off against Medvedev, not Nadal or Federer, and as his defeat seemed assured, he suddenly became the fan favorite. As the roars of the crowd grew louder, tears came to Djokovic’s eyes in the middle of the match, and he buried his face in his towel. To reiterate: in the middle of the US Open final, the best tennis player in history started crying. In defeat, he became human. Standing on the baseline with red eyes, the commentator remarked “that’s what he’s wanted his whole career.”
While these three greats—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic—embody certain truths about the world, they’ve also had to evolve and adapt, to become someone different from who they are to reach their greatest heights. In 2017, Federer entered the Australian Open, the first major of the season, as the 17 seed. He’d ended the previous season in the Wimbledon semifinals, forgoing the final third of the season to rest his surgically repaired knee. At this point, already 35 years old and with an ailing body, it was doubtful whether he would ever win another major. Nevertheless, he arrived in the final to face Nadal, the 9 seed that year. This was the first time in many years they hadn’t been either 1, 2, 3 or 4 in combination with Djokovic and another player, usually Andy Murray, but it seemed at this point that both of their careers were in decline. The fact that Federer went on to win three more majors and Nadal has won eight would have been unthinkable.
The match was tied 2-2 after four sets and Nadal then went up 3-1 in the fifth set. The writing was on the wall. Watching in the wee hours of the morning, as anyone in North America must do for the Australian Open, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. Federer’s grace was no match for Nadal’s ruthlessness, and Nadal’s power would overwhelm Federer’s subtlety. To oppose strength and grit with style and skill was futile, this match told me. The commentators, Chris Fowler and the McEnroe brothers, began to talk about the match as a foregone conclusion. The stats flashed on the screen: 62 winners for Federer to Nadal’s 30, and yet Nadal was winning because Federer’s attacking, flamboyant style led to him making errors. When Federer held serve to make it 2-3, Fowler mentioned that he was applying “scoreboard pressure,” but the implication was that the match would end with a respectable score line, and the winner was not in doubt. Then a curious thing happened; Federer wins the first point of Nadal’s service game on the longest rally of the match, 18 shots, and Patrick McEnroe mentions that he “dug in,” while his brother, John, notes that the point “says a lot about what Roger needs to do and what he seems willing to do.” They are both surprised, it seems, that Federer has played a long, tactical point, instead of going for a flourishing winner. Nadal is surprised, too, because he then starts going for winners, playing more aggressively, and he makes errors which eventually give Federer the game. It’s now 3-3 in the fifth and final set. Game on. “He had to do it the hard way,” says John.
Federer holds serve in the following game and then goes up 0-40 on Nadal’s serve. He’s flying now, and we’re up there with him. The crowd can sense Federer’s victory. With one more point, Federer will lead 5-3 and have the opportunity to see out the match on his own serve, meaning that Nadal’s chances of coming back are slim. Then Nadal wins the next three points. It’s suddenly 40-40, and Nadal’s perseverance seems like it will win out yet again. Federer was willing to suffer before, to use Nadal’s own tactics against him, but can he do it once more? The next point is 26 shots, replacing the 18 shot rally as the longest in the match. During the exchange, Federer has multiple chances to finish the point—hit a winner, paint the line—and take control of the match. But he doesn’t. He probes instead, playing conservatively, daring Nadal to hit the winner, which would be against Nadal’s nature. There’s a moment when Federer sends Nadal to the corner with a deep drive and then takes a step in towards net, planning to end the point with a volley. But he suddenly stops and retreats to the baseline, seemingly remembering that Nadal could send a passing shot whizzing by his ear, as he’s done so many times in the past. Let’s play the point a little longer, Federer says. The rally continues for a few more shots until Federer is presented with a new opportunity to finish the point. This time the risk is lower, the chance for success higher. He takes it. “You gotta love this!” exclaims Fowler, as the crowd erupts.
The original clip is no longer there, but there was a YouTube video of the last five games of the fifth set, and in the comments section there was deep, intense discussion about this very point and Federer’s decision not to approach the net at this pivotal moment. Now a new video has been uploaded of the final five sets—I encourage you to watch it; I do so a few times a year—but the comments are missing.
Federer goes on to win the game and then the match. On the final point, he hits the line with an unnecessarily risky shot directly after his serve, reminding us that even if he knows how to play like Nadal, he’s still Roger Federer. Patrick McEnroe sums up the match by saying “he out-Rafa’d Rafa”—a strange yet fitting description of the fifth set. This match is, perhaps, the greatest of Federer’s career because he had to combine his style of play with that of Nadal’s in order to beat him. For fans of Federer, it showed us that his style was the right one, but it needed to occasionally be tempered with other qualities.
It’s impossible to write about Federer without mentioning David Foster Wallace’s New York Times essay on him, wherein he posits that “high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty” and that this beauty has to do with “human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” I agree with Wallace, clearly; I also think this is why sports are so popular, and it’s why I’m dismayed any time someone whose intelligence I respect acts as if sports are beneath them. It’s the same response I have when someone dismisses art or movies—to my mind, they are all just different expressions of aesthetics, and to fail to appreciate any of them is to reveal oneself to be lacking in a fundamental human quality, that of the appreciation of beauty. Fans of Federer do not lack this quality, and we await the next tennis player who will take up his mantle.