Roger Federer is not stressed out. Stress is not an emotion he spends a lot of time with. He can drop the first set in a fourth-round match at Wimbledon, take his time, preserve the equanimity of his facial expression, and wreak unholy vengeance on the opponent who made him drop it, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Mikhail Youzhny can hustle like an orphan, heroically take the lead, and then do a triple-three submission-fold without either looking cowardly or increasing Federer’s heart rate. This is because Roger Federer is not a stress-prone person.
I’ve finally figured out what I find most impressive about Federer in the early rounds of majors. It’s not that he’s too good for his opponents, or that he always plays superior tennis. It’s that he’s so utterly, gently, affectlessly cool that he almost ceases to exist. You’re not watching Federer-Youzhny. You’re watching Youzhny against a ball that somehow just keeps coming back. Youzhny hits great shots, and makes mistakes, and has a haircut, and screams with pride or frustration. The other end of the court? It’s a serene blank. There’s nothing over there. But the ball keeps coming back.
This isn’t exactly how Federer plays against Nadal, or even against Djokovic. One of the signs that the top competition has caught up with him is that now, the best players have the ability to make him look, not just fallible or human, but present — as if he’s actually a tennis player doing his best against circumstances. Against early-round opposition, though, he sort of fades out of the frame and lets his imperfect adversary endure the spotlight. It becomes less a tennis match than a test, one against which Adrian Mannarino or David Nalbandian or Mikhail Youzhny attempts to prove his worth. Federer, by his sheer inevitability, becomes the index of the humanity of his opponent.
Admittedly, that happens only because he’s really good. Federer isn’t an idea, he’s a 29-year-old man who, when he rushes the net, can absolutely go 1-2-1 with you in an exchange of rapid-fire, short-distance volleys, then finish you off with an over-the-shoulder backhand that you couldn’t even guess how to practice. Federer’s skill, combined with his preternaturally calm demeanor, makes him seem weirdly impersonal, as if the forehands shearing down on the corners were fired by some long-distance drone.
This was especially obvious against Mikhail Youzhny yesterday because, unlike Federer’s first three opponents, Youzhny actually stood up for himself. Tennis players give up all the time. That is, they don’t walk off the court, but they visibly, painfully buckle; it’s just the nature of the game.1 Youzhny was comprehensively outplayed by Federer from the start of the second set on. But he kept fighting, kept making good shots, and actually seemed to relish throwing himself at the immovable object. The crowd got behind him, and his loss, in its small, unexceptional way, was kind of inspiring.
In just about every other sport, athletes can look to someone for support — teammates, coaches, Jack Nicholson, etc. In tennis, the players can maybe make eye contact with their coaches, but beyond that, there’s no one to steady them when they start to fall.
Where Federer’s abstract quality really shows up, though, is in the contrast with Rafa Nadal. If Federer’s deep calm is a weapon that puts the spotlight on his opponents, Nadal’s entire game is based on totally owning the spotlight. Nadal’s style confounds Federer’s style by saying, essentially, the brighter and hotter the better. When Federer turns translucent, most of his opponents get anxious: Who, me? All alone here? Nadal says, “Fine then, go.”
I don’t want to overlook the tactical differences between Nadal’s baseline-spin-and-rip game and Federer’s all-court angles, but aesthetically, it’s as if Nadal — with his compact mass, his weird arsenal of sneers, and that shocking forehand snap — counters Federer’s detachment by being twice as intense. In the Round of 16, while Federer was silently overwhelming Youzhny, Nadal dispatched Juan Martin del Potro in a big, blues-shouting, fist-pumping match in which he injured his heel, dropped the second set, hit the ball like he was trying to murder friction, and roared his way to victory in two high-pressure tiebreaks.
Nadal now plays Mardy Fish, the perpetual last American, while Federer plays Jo-Willie Tsonga. For all that Andy Murray is unpredictable and Djokovic is amazing, it’s hard to hope for anything but a quick Nadal recovery — the MRI today came back clean — and a Federer-Nadal final. Nadal is Federer’s toughest foil because he somehow manages to pull Federer part of the way back into being. Which is why, as great as Federer is, in his saddest moments he seems like he’s only half there.
Brian Phillips writes about soccer for Slate and edits The Run of Play. You can find him on Twitter: @runofplay.