When people talk about Roger Federer, the idea of ease will inevitably crop into the discussion. Roger Federer makes excellence seem easy. Or: Look at how effortlessly he uses that backhand to return a serve! The man doesn’t seem to sweat, and he doesn’t grunt either. “It can be hard to see past the legend, even on the court, if only because his play is so beautiful,” read one story in the New Yorker from 2017. David Foster Wallace’s famous meditation on the man is titled, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.”

This caricature—the perfectly coiffed Swiss hellbent on a quiet perfection—has always felt forced to me. In that essay, Wallace says that beauty is to sports what valor is to war. When Foster wrote that, Federer was invincible; that year, he won an otherworldly 92 matches, only dropping five (four of which were to Rafael Nadal). But in this latest period of his career, Federer’s reign has been anything but easy. Over the last ten years, his play has started and stopped, he’s dropped in the rankings and risen, he’s been injured and broken, only to come out on top again. Federer’s recent play has proven that the most beautiful part of sports isn’t always grace. For him and so many others, it’s been a decade defined by grit.[1]

This wasn’t a time when new stars leapt onto the scene and dominated headlines. These were old characters writing epilogues that matched their previous exploits. The last ten years, which I will humbly call The Joey Era, redefined our concept of an athlete’s second act. There was Serena Williams, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Abby Wambach. There was Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. There was LeBron James. For a brief moment, Tiger Woods joined that list, and who can forget Novak Djokovic and Nadal, too.

But more than anyone, it’s Federer who represents this new, elder statesman of a sports star. His victories at Wimbledon in 2012 and then in 2017 weren’t comebacks or last gasps; these triumphs weren’t Jack Nicklaus winning The Masters in ’86. Instead, they showed us someone who had previously been unstoppable, then lost a step, hurt his back, and saw the game shift around him—and instead of displaying a long, slow fade like so many other athletes, he used his experience and will to remain at the top of his profession. This was the era of GOATs, but curiously, the one thing all of them shared is that they excelled while showing us their vulnerabilities. They also played with a new level of confidence, one that allowed them to toy with sports’ possibilities in a way I can’t recall ever seeing before.

I’m thinking back to Wimbledon in 2012. Federer, 30 at the time, was already being written off. When he lost 6-1 in the 4th set of the 2011 French Open, the press rolled their eyes when Federer told them that he thought he was, “very close” to competing at the top level again. It had been two years since he had won a major, and in tennis, the end comes even more quickly than in the NFL or NBA. Neither Bjorn Bjorg nor John McEnroe won a Grand Slam after their 25th birthdays. That Federer was still competing at all was viewed as a major accomplishment.

Federer was struggling in general—but especially when facing Djokovic. Prior to 2012’s Wimbledon, Federer had lost six of his previous seven matches against the Serbian. One particularly painful loss came in the semifinals of the 2011 US Open. Federer was up a break, and then he launched a brilliant kick serve, surely a winner. But Djokovic ripped a shot right back, past Federer. The momentum shifted Djokovic’s way, and he’d go on to win the match.

When they met again at the semis of Wimbledon, Federer was wearing a back brace as he launched a serve to the same location where Djokovic had previously returned the winner a year prior. Djokovic’s ball landed out of bounds, long. Federer hit the next serve in the same exact spot with the same exact movement, tempting him one more time. Now, Djokovic’s return landed in the net. Federer would go on to win the match and later, the tournament.

“It’s not possible to do the same each time,” Federer said to the press after the match, “And I wanted to see nonetheless if he could do it again.”

There’s something in that response that I’m convinced comes as close as anything to unlocking the mystery of sports. I wanted to see nonetheless if he could do it again. Who do you think he’s talking about there? Djokovic or himself? It’s that wry type of curiosity that Federer, and so many others, unlocked over the last decade, that subtle wink and nod to the sports gods. He not only won at Wimbledon; he discovered some cosmic truths in the process. He had already conquered his sport. Over the last 10 years, Federer wanted to discover its limits.

[1] And more recently, Gritty.

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