The Sun Never Sets: On Roger Federer, Endings, and Wimbledon

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Early on in Adam Roberts’s 2014 meta-sci-fi submarine-disaster novel, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, a French nuclear sub called the Plongeur begins to sink in the North Atlantic. The startled crew tries to regain command of the vessel, but nothing works. The controls don’t respond. The diver who’s sent out to reconnoiter the exterior of the ship with a flashlight doesn’t come back. The Plongeur is built to withstand pressure to a depth of a thousand meters or so. Beyond that, it will be crushed. And even if it isn’t, even if it somehow holds together against what Roberts calls “the unspeakable pressures of the profound deep,” it will build up so much speed as it falls that it will shatter when it hits the ocean floor.

The needle on the depth gauge keeps sweeping higher. The hull groans. The men onboard realize they’re going to die.

Only then? Nothing happens. The Plongeur sinks past its safe depth, far past it, and keeps sinking. It sinks past where the bottom of the Atlantic should be. The men are baffled. Have they fallen into some undiscovered trench? The needle on the depth gauge sweeps all the way around, begins doing circles like the hand of a clock. The ship falls to a depth greater than the diameter of the Earth.

After days of this, it becomes hard to say whether the submarine is moving down or up, forward or sideways. Strange stars appear in the viewport, brilliant and blue-white, as if the Plongeur had slipped into some unknown cosmos of water. Bizarre creatures, part fish and part human, swim around the stars. We’ve entered another dimension, one man speculates. An officer sneers back at him: “This is the realm of Alice in Wonderland, I think.”

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot, especially as I’ve been thinking about Roger Federer playing another Wimbledon. Four years ago, trying to comprehend the phenomenon of Federer’s late career, which even then seemed like it had lasted an astonishingly long time, I wrote that the best athletes usually have a “still” phase. First they’re fast. Then they’re slow. In between, there’s a moment when they’re “still” fast — when you can see the end coming but can’t deny that, for now, they remain close to their best. Federer, I wrote, had spent longer in that “still” phase than any great tennis player I could think of.

Again: That was in 2011. Four years later, he’s still there. In fact, he’s ranked higher. His period of epoch-conquering dominance is years in the past, but he’s still a reliable top-five player, one who can compete for majors if the circumstances are right — especially at Wimbledon, where he’s won one title (2012) and reached another final (2014)1 since I wrote that piece. The slow-motion euthanasia that time inflicts on athletic talent is, for me, the hardest thing to watch in sports. But time is treating Federer with a tenderness that almost defies reason.2 He never hit the sea floor. He started to sink and discovered a whole other universe.

I’m less interested in the how of Federer’s never-ending ending — nutritional strategies, practice routines, racket changes, experimental elixirs made of powder from the rings of Saturn, whatever — than in what it means. Where is he taking us? What strange sea are we falling through with him? Because the truth is that while we talk about his late career as if it were a sort of beautifully written epilogue, a casual marvel, it has now lasted longer than his prime. Consider: From 2004 to 2006, Federer won 11 or 12 singles titles every year. In 2007, eight titles. In the years since, not counting a dip in 2013, he’s won around four to six titles a year. That’s four years of ruthless preeminence followed by eight years of being really, really good. Or take majors. Between 2003 and 2008, Federer won 13; in the going on seven years since, he’s won just four, and two of those came in 2009. So call it six or seven years of imperial control of the sport’s biggest stages, followed by another six or seven of being just another power at the table. And then ask what it means, in a sports culture whose obsession with legacy and dominance verges on the psychotic, for the greatest player in tennis’s history to have spent half of his career as a kind of Nike-blazered Prospero — still special, still magical, but from his old role atop the game, banished.

Previews: The Championships - Wimbledon 2015Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Four years ago, I wrote that there was “an aura of weird sadness” around Federer’s arrested decline.  Federer seemed invincible for so long — not just better than everyone else, invincible3 — that it was unnerving at first when he didn’t. He’d do all the same Federer things — blast that big, courtly cannon of a serve, skip-float to the net, catch the ball short with an acute one-handed backhand, wheel back to the center of the court for a blistering forehand putaway — the same things he’d always done, only now they didn’t always work. Now, against Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic or whomever, they would sometimes fail. Four or five years ago, this could put you in a strange place. He’d been so effortless once that then, when the ball missed by three inches, it felt like watching beauty succumb to death.

These days, though? Federer’s career doesn’t seem so sad. Partly this is because other top-rank tennis declines — specifically Nadal’s injury-aided shuttlecock dive to the bottom of the top 10, but also arguably including Andy Murray’s failure to emerge as a consistent threat after winning Great Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s singles title since the boyhood of Æthelred the Unready — have been so much more dramatic (and therefore so much more consistent with how tennis careers usually end, i.e., not gently and with years of further sustained success).4 But it’s also because Federer seems to be enjoying himself so much. Who knows what goes on in any athlete’s head, but he comes across as someone who has genuinely found a way to solve the three brutal overlapping problems that come for any really great athlete late in his or her career. Namely, how to (a) keep up the phenomenal and borderline terrifying level of motivation required to commit to nonstop training and preparation after you’ve already realized all your goals, while (b) making peace with the fact that you not only aren’t as good as you once were but in fact are doomed to get worse, while (c) maintaining a realistic, evolving sense of what you can do so that you know how to plan and when to feel proud, frustrated, optimistic, etc. The worst-case scenario for tackling these problems may be Tiger Woods, who seems to have lost all perspective on his own abilities while going to pieces within a sport he visibly hates;5 the best is Federer.

A result of this, and also of the fact that people who go to see him now are going to see their memories of him as much as to see him play live, is that he’s become more of a character than he ever used to be. His earnestly arrogant answers to questions — the not to downplay any of my past accomplishments; the hopefully I gave them something to tell their grandkids about after, like, a quarterfinal in Belgium — are gleefully passed around online. His two sets of twins are cooed over.6 His smiling-ambassador-luxury-Dubai-string-quartet persona somehow coheres into a personality, albeit one that makes white leather seem tasteful and that favors a one-handed backhand less for sporting reasons than because it’s what the Hapsburgs would have done.

What you take from watching him now is not so much a sense of tennis, the abstract world of angles and pure calculation that he seemed to represent in his youth, but the sense of a life. You watch him, and even though his physical signatures are the same, even though he tucks his hair behind his ear with the same patient care and spins his racket with the same agitation and hops along the baseline with the same sprung tension in his legs, what you think about, because he’s been around long enough for you to know him better, is also what’s offscreen. Federer joking with reporters in a press conference. Federer signing autographs. Federer leaning back in a (white leather!) seat on an airplane. Federer with wife and entourage and luggage and babies in tow, sweeping into a hotel suite. Federer texting the director of a tournament. Federer waking up to train, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. And all of this, this background of daily existence, feeds into and informs what you do see on court, so that when he’s beaten and leaving the stadium with tears in his eyes and one hand raised to the crowd, you understand why the moment doesn’t exactly feel bad, even though it hurts.

He likes doing this; that’s the point. Being on tour, being competitive, being celebrated: This stuff feels more satisfying to him than the lonely relishing of some legacy in which he had a better head-to-head record against Djokovic. So why not keep it going as long as he can? And not to get too dogmatic about what’s basically the story of a person liking his job, but isn’t that the model of grown-up maturity that we should want from an elite athlete? So often, great players in their late careers wind up eclipsed by their own narratives, their choices constrained by a whole complex of considerations involving memorialization and pride and morning-sports-zoo yell. Think about, say, the question of Kobe’s retirement — how free does that decision feel? There’s an entrapped feeling around Kobe that Federer seems to have sidestepped. And fine, maybe he wouldn’t have sidestepped that so gracefully if his decline hadn’t been so gradual, but then, that’s also part of the point. He’s living the life he actually has, not some portable-across-platforms version of the athlete’s journey.

In America, at least, how we read any great athlete’s ending still seems influenced by Michael Jordan’s merciless stage-managing of his own second retirement. (The “real” one, not the baseball one.) Hit the last shot, seize the title, never lose, never show weakness, end on a big banging chord that the audience remembers forever; then you’re a champion for all time, in the same way Cheers never closes. That this is, actually, such an impossibly grotesque and dehumanizing approach that not even Michael Jordan could resist coming back to screw it up should possibly tell us something. But there it is, an ideal that every generational-apex-type star has to contend with on some level.7 Any concession to the imperfect human process of finding your way toward what you want has to be understood in terms of the toll it takes on the memory you leave behind.

I can’t speak for you, but me? I’ll take Federer’s version. Before we even get to the question of whether being no. 2 for a long time and winning minor tournaments enhances or damages the résumé of someone who was once no. 1 and winning majors, what I find most admirable in Federer’s late career is simply the vision of freedom it implies. The idea that you can make your own way. That you don’t have to give up what you love simply because you’re told to. That what hurts you might also fulfill you, or even make you happy, because life is not simple. Even sports are not simple, unless you force them to be.

Which all sounds very wise and safe, but what’s moving to me about where Federer is right now is precisely that it isn’t safe. Remember the unspeakable pressures of the profound deep? He won the grass-court warm-up tournament in Halle, as he always does,8 and he says the extra week between Roland Garros and the All England Club has done wonders for his preparation. All of which seems huge right up until the first serve of his next match. I’ll be shocked if he wins Wimbledon. He’s too vulnerable over five sets to the other top players. But I’ll watch every second he plays. Who knows where he’ll end up going? I’m excited to watch him make his way, exploring deep water.

Filed Under: Tennis, Roger Federer, Wimbledon, 2015 Wimbledon

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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