How Roger Federer Upgraded His Game

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Near the end of a conversation with Roger Federer earlier this month, in a small dining room that had been set aside for us off the lobby of the Mount Stephen Hotel in Montreal, I asked if he happened to catch the final poignant seconds of Usain Bolt’s remarkable career as a solo runner in the 100 meters two days earlier at the World Track and Field Championships. Bolt finished a disappointing third, behind his longtime rival Justin Gatlin and another American sprinter, Christian Coleman. “I meant to, but I missed it,” Federer said. “So I caught it on the highlights.”

What did you think, I asked him.

“Well, you know, it was maybe a pity that he didn’t win,” Federer said of his fellow GOAT (Greatest of All Time). “But at the same time, it doesn’t change anything in my opinion if he won the last race or not. I’m long past the thing that you have to end your career in a fairy tale. Everybody kind of wants this — mostly the press — and if you don’t win, it’s: ‘Ohhh, my God! The fairy tale didn’t happen!’ So for me, yes, it would have been nice, but this way is O.K., too.”

The next day, Federer would turn 36. For his fans — pretty much anyone who has ever seen him hit a ball — 2017 has felt exactly like a fairy tale. Even though he is nearly half a decade older than the age at which Bolt finally lost a step, Federer is in the midst of a late-career resurgence that is rare for any sport. And unlike Bolt’s labored last strides, it has changed everything.

After a six-month layoff in 2016 to rehab a balky knee, he arrived in Melbourne this past January for the Australian Open having played in only a single tuneup tournament and, wielding a remade stroke, won his first Grand Slam title since 2012, beating his archrival, Rafael Nadal, in the final. And then, after proving that that win was anything but a fluke by beating Nadal even more convincingly at Indian Wells, in California, and Miami, he repeated the previous year’s pattern, this time his layoff was the entire clay-court season before he came back to win his record eighth Wimbledon — and 19th major — without dropping a set.

Not only is Federer not acting his tennis age; observers as astute as Rod Laver, the all-time great from Australia, Mats Wilander, the eight-time Grand Slam winner from Sweden, and Brad Gilbert, the coach, commentator and former pro, believe Federer is playing the best tennis of his life. When the U.S. Open begins next week, he will be favored, despite tweaking his back and losing in the final of a warm-up tournament in Montreal, to win his third major of the year, something he last accomplished at 26. Consider: Andre Agassi won his final major at 32, Laver and Pete Sampras won their final majors at 31 and John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg won theirs at 25. When Federer triumphed at Wimbledon in July, he became the event’s oldest champion in the Open Era (which began in 1968), and the oldest to win any Slam since Ken Rosewall’s victory in the Australian Open in 1972.

Federer’s 20-year career has now traced the unlikely path of an inverted parabola: from unbeatable to unbeatable, with a seven-year stretch of eminently beatable in between. In his first bloom, from 2003 to 2010, he won Wimbledon six times (including five in a row), five U.S. Opens (all in a row), four Australian Opens and one French Open. (During that same span, he played in 10 consecutive finals and 23 consecutive semifinals in Grand Slam tournaments, DiMaggio-like records for consistency that are unlikely to be broken.) But after his victory over Andy Murray in the Australian Open final in 2010, his dominance in the slams skidded to a halt. Between the ages of 29 and 35, he won only a single major, beating Murray again at Wimbledon in 2012, in what were ideal conditions for his game after the roof was closed in the third set. Although he continued to reach the occasional final and semifinal, all signs indicated that he was gradually and inevitably succumbing to the forces that fell all athletic superstars: age, injuries and, in one-on-one sports, the cumulative trauma of agonizing losses. But while the world had little doubt Federer was done, Federer himself thought otherwise and plotted his return.

ACOUPLE OF hours after talking to Federer in his hotel, I watched him practice with David Goffin, a Belgian ranked No. 13, on a back court at Uniprix Stadium, the site of the Rogers Cup tournament. Two bodyguards were present, along with perhaps 500 fans, many of whom were peering through the only somewhat transparent green vinyl that covered the fence on three sides. In many ways, watching Federer practice exceeds the entertainment value of watching him compete. It’s pure play and even more of an improv showcase. Every ball is lathered with gratuitous action, spin for spin’s sake, spin as slapstick, and unlike Nadal, who rips violently upward on his shots to impart an ungodly number of rotations per second to the ball, Federer luxuriantly massages every shot as if to prolong the moment of impact and better feel the racket head moving over the ball, string by string. That day, every fifth shot, give or take, was a trick shot, and although Federer’s attempts at post-match awards-presentation humor have tended to fall flat — on one occasion, he told the spectators to let’s not forget the ball boys, because without the ball boys, there wouldn’t be any balls, and without the ball, we could not play — his on-court sleight of hand expresses a sly wit.