To have and have not: Roger Federer – a (grudging) appreciation

Roger Federer at the Australian Open earlier this year. Photograph by Peter Myers.

Roger Federer at the Australian Open earlier this year. Photograph by Peter Myers.

All biography – Alí, one of the tennis players in my new novel “Water Music,” notes – is selective history. And all history is selective truth. 

The accomplishments of those we love shine brighter than the achievements of those we don’t. Yet there is a common, middle ground in which we can assess those we dislike, or at least there should be.

So I’ve come not to bury but to praise Roger Federer, subject of a glowing cover profile in October Town & Country and, in analyzing him, to understand something of myself.

The subtitle of the article by Ed Caesar is “The Romantic Comedy Life of the World’s Greatest Tennis Player.” (Really, Ed? Greater than Rafael Nadal, who dethroned him? Or Novak Djokovic, who beat both to become No. 1?) Understand that Town & Country is a luxury magazine. Luxury magazines are in the business of selling luxury. The interview took place “in the high-ceilinged Directoire drawing room of Moët & Chandon, for whom (Federer) works as a brand ambassador.” Enough said.

The picture that emerges is that of a genius and attractive elder statesman – comfortable with being in “the fifth set of his career,” gracious in both victory and defeat – who willed himself through sheer discipline and hard work into being the Fed we know today and not the “mess,” as one sports psychologist told me, he was as a teenager.

We read how he was a late bloomer compared to his contemporaries – Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin. We hear how he maintains “a daunting equipoise” in matches, in stark contrast to his real rivals – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who let you see them sweat. We learn that “Nobody is a better loser,” according to his longtime agent, Tony Godsick.

And the reason for all this? The joy of victory. Not for him the observation of Andre Agassi – whose hilariously bitter autobiography, “Open,” is must reading for tennis observers – that the sport is a kind of “solitary confinement.”

“For me it’s the only right thing to do – to be happy, feel happy, and also share that with the people,” Rog tells T & C in trademark noblesse oblige manner. “It’s very important to me.”

To which I would respond: You’re lucky, Feddy Bear. You’re lucky that you were born in a wealthy country that has not known war in centuries to solidly middle-class parents who didn’t apply pressure on you to be their meal ticket. You’re lucky that you have a wife, Mirka, who has given you four children and has enabled you to have a career with family on the road. You’re lucky that your contemporaries lacked your “equipoise” of talent and temperament and that the rivals who figured out how to beat you came along too late. (Rafa is five years younger; Nole and Andy, six.)

Others haven’t been as fortunate, and if we’ve seen them sweat and heard them groan it’s because they’ve had to claw from a young age for what they have. 

We’ll leave aside the description of this year’s Wimbledon final against Nole, in which “despite delivering shots of almost unimaginable finesse and despite the roar of a crowd that is almost entirely rooting for him – (Federer) narrowly loses to his younger rival.” (Turn it around: Given that Nole was playing against a god and his loving court, how much greater then was his achievement.) We’ll leave aside the idea of a gracious, selfless champion, who has called his opponents wins lucky, implied it was his compatriot Stan Warinka’s fault once when they lost a key Davis Cup match and then blamed the press for misinterpreting his French comments. (We can only hope that “Federer’s Switzerland,” as the adoring New York Times calls it, will triumph in the Davis Cup finals Nov. 21-23 iagainst France so poor Stan won’t have to hear about it.)

We’ll leave aside the self-centered musings that have made PseudoFed and Jimmy Fallon’s impersonation possible.

What’s dangerous here is the subtext that you can triumph through sheer will. People are what they are. They don’t change. They become more of what they are. You cannot become that which is not already inside you unless you’re a psychopath. The young Fed was like any other hormonal teenage boy. He grew into the man who was always the perfect balance of tennis talent and temperament. 

This is not to suggest he didn’t work at it. Clearly, he did. But he had the tools to begin with and the environment and opportunity in which to learn how to use them to succeed.

Having said all this, I have to mention two things that set Federer apart that are sub-themes of this article, both “e” words. The first is his elegance. He doesn’t have Rafa’s animal magnetism, Nole’s edgy beauty or Andy’s boyish charm. But they don’t have his élan. They wear clothes. Federer inhabits them. No one is more graceful, still or in motion. That combined with a certain aloofness helps explain why he’s earned $40 million in endorsements (half of what he’s made in prize money) from luxe companies like Moët, Mercedes-Benz and Rolex. He looks and acts luxe. Not for him the bare chests of Rafa, Nole and even the ornery Andy.  So when you come across a rare picture of him en déshabilléoh, what the hell – his handsome sexiness, like a young Olivier, is all the more striking, because he doesn’t trade in it. Like his youthful  passion, it’s become integrated into who he is.

But Federer’s real gift to tennis and “the people,” as he calls us, is his endurance. He understands that while champions come and go, we remember those who, though they may not always win, remain to engage in the fight. I think that’s something that Rafa, Nole and Andy are learning from him.

Federer’s secret is not his joy in victory. It’s his realization that sustained excellence – not perfection in a moment – is the real triumph.