Return of 
the King

The dethroning 
of Roger Federer 
did not go 
as planned.

Kent Black BNP, Tennis

Roger Federer: “I always know that after a match, win or lose, I go back to my family, Mirka and the kids, and that gives me a better perspective on my tennis career.”

The loathing began in 2004 when, as an upstart 23-year-old, he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. My negative view reached its zenith in 2009, when he reached the finals of the Aussie, won the French (on clay, supposedly not his surface), beat Andy Roddick in a marathon Wimbledon final (which, in my opinion, more or less finished the American’s career), then lost another marathon to Juan Martín del Potro at Flushing Meadows.

I hated Roger Federer.

Starting with Wimbledon in 2003 and ending with Australia in 2018, Roger Federer has won 20 Grand Slam titles. He is a five-time winner at the BNP Paribas Open. He heads into the 2018 edition ranked No. 1 ‚ the oldest player to hold that distinction previously held by Andre Agassi, who was No. 1 at 33.

He has won Olympic gold and silver medals, as well as six ATP World Tour titles, 27 ATP World Tour Masters 1000, and 19 ATP World Tour 500 tournaments. He has won Hopman and Davis Cups for Switzerland and held the number one spot in the ATP rankings for a record 302 weeks.

There were moments when his coat of invincibility did not seem completely impenetrable. There was a long, debilitating bout with mononucleosis in 2008, some off and on back issues, and, of course, the Slam drought from 2013 through 2016, but he rebounded from that like Prometheus reborn.

“I never expected to win the Australian Open [2018] and, much less, to win back-to-back titles in Indian Wells and Miami,” he told me in January. His comments on his resurgence were characteristically casual, and almost humble … a trait I once viewed as suspiciously disingenuous. “That truly surpassed my expectations that I was back in the top five so quickly.”

Hated him.

When I was growing up, it was all about the underdog in our house. I secretly worshipped the Yankees, but in my family, that was a love whose name could not be spoken. It was all about the earnest, but luckless, Angels. In golf, Arnie, Nicklaus, Player, Mickelson, and Tiger were all dismissed as “too dominant.” Watching college sports on Saturdays was a nightmare. If USC or Notre Dame were playing, my sister and I were encouraged to boo them mercilessly. It didn’t matter if they were playing West Covina Acupuncture College … any hapless goof leading an overwhelmed squad was a true hero. Let’s just say that if my father were still alive, the smell of Tom Brady’s burned effigy would be lingering in my nostrils.

When it came to tennis, in the pre-Federer era, Borg, Lendl, Connors, McEnroe, and Sampras were all vilified for their unseemly predisposition to winning. So the minute the young Swiss broke out of the juniors in the late ’90s, and observers like Johnny Mac were predicting greatness, I was hard-wired to despise the guy.

I might have divvied up this irrational anti-fandom among Rafa, the Djoker, and 
the Scot, had it not been for the monogrammed sports jacket Federer wore at 
Wimbledon in 2006. I was immediately struck by the symbolism of the gold on 
silver, a font that seemed to have been derived from an ancient royal crest. It seemed rather poor taste that this young champion had put himself in the role of The Man Who Would Be King.

Federer was impossible to read. I studied him as he sat and rested before the fifth set. I tried to read body language, expression, anything. All I got was … pensive.

I am in the minority. After losing last year’s Wimbledon final, Venus Williams noted in her post-match press conference, “I’ve always been a Federer fan. I think if you’re not, it’s kind of uncool.” A seasoned sportswriter whom I respect above all others once spent a half hour in my office rhapsodizing about Federer … and not just about the sublime nature of his game but about his superiority as a sportsman, gentleman, and family man. A friend who is as passionate a player and serious student of the game as anyone I know once described in detail the highlights of the famous 2008 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal. As he recounted the last few points, his eyes welled with tears.

The year 2008 was, in fact, the first time in half a decade that there was the least hint of fallibility in the player U.S. fans had taken to calling “Darth Federer.” A bout of mononucleosis at the start of the year ended his run of 10 consecutive Slam finals when he lost to rising star Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Though he got back to form toward the end of the year, he fell to Nadal at Wimbledon and the French. He ended the season on a high note, besting Andy Murray at the U.S. Open, but for his legions of stalwart admirers, that the king had shown himself to be mortal was as dismaying as finding out that the Patriots do not practice the dark arts or that Stormy Daniels isn’t a legitimate political consultant.

To understand the depth of the fear and trepidation, you need to go back to the late ’90s, when Federer was a phenom in the junior ranks. (True aficionados religiously follow the progress of juniors, trying to identify those who might be a couple of years from a surprising run at a Grand Slam — somewhat akin to spotting the next Clayton Kershaw in high school.) In 1998, Federer won juniors at Wimbledon, lost the U.S. Open final to David Nalbandian, and ended the year ranked the No. 1 junior player. It can be a dubious honor: Tennis history is littered with onetime standouts such as Kristian Pless (Denmark), Bjorn Fratangelo (U.S.), and Daniel Elsner (Germany), whose careers fizzled as they exited their teens.

Tommy Haas, the 39-year-old German tour veteran and current tournament director for the BNP Paribas Open — who shockingly bested Federer at the Stuttgart Open in 2017 in the midst of the Swiss’ extraordinary comeback year — recalls hearing about Roger when they were both promising adolescents.

“Back in 1997 at Gstaad, I was scheduled to play Roger. It would have been his first ATP match on tour. I had the stomach flu and had to withdraw, but I’d definitely heard of him. He was speculated to be the next big player coming out of Switzerland. I knew he was very, very talented.”

In the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1999, when Federer was 19, he played his childhood idol, Pete Sampras, the four-time defending champion and all-time Grand Slam winner. In an epic five-set match, the Swiss teenager stunned the world by coming out on top. Though he lost to Tim Henman in the quarterfinals, he made it loud and clear that he was one champion who would not be headed to the Junkyard of Junior Prodigies.

It was hard to miss him in 2003–2004. There was the first Slam victory over 
Roddick in the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2003, when everyone was banking on 
the Yank taking the reins of American dominance from Sampras and Andre Agassi. It was not to be. Though legendary now as a singles player, Federer and Max Mirnyi were a pretty formidable doubles team. They lost in the finals at Indian Wells in 2002 but captured Miami a year later. Of course, nothing could have compared to the trajectory he made in singles. By the end of 2004, when he won the Australian, Wimbledon, Indian Wells, and the U.S. Open, racking up 11 titles with a 74-6 win/loss record, he was the No. 1 player in the world.

And then it happened. the world’s 
into an 

Of course, it didn’t end there. Let me put it this way: 2006 and 2007 were not the years of the underdog. They were the years of the Swiss Overlord. In both seasons, he won three Slams and was in the final of the fourth. He took the title at Indian Wells in ’06 but got knocked out the next year before the finals by an Argentine, Guillermo Cañas, who was later nabbed for doping. Federer won so many tournaments, I got out the bong and started watching curling.

I perked up a little in 2008, when there were rumors of his demise, but they proved premature. Then 2009 showed that the previous year had been a fluke, and Federer was still on his way to being the GOAT. I almost took out a subscription to a crossword-puzzle magazine and turned my DirecTV dish into a bird fountain. Yes, I subjected myself to the 2009 Wimbledon final against Roddick, only because the American was such an underdog. Though many people cite the 2009 U.S. Open as the Swiss’ great match of that year — the one where, on double match point, he hit a tweener cross court to thoroughly crush Djokovic’s spirit — I have to disagree. That fifth Wimbledon set with Roddick was one of the great nail-biters of all time. I sensed in the moments before Federer prevailed 16-14 that Roddick’s own belief was waning, and the entire universe (except for me) was willing Federer to break Sampras’ Grand Slam total of 14 titles. I guess, from that point of view, it was never in doubt.

I won’t do the full chronology. There were some ups and downs the next couple of years, with Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and Stan Wawrinka showing their stuff. Federer stole Murray’s thunder at Wimbledon in 2012; a couple of months later, Murray stole it back to claim Olympic gold. But Federer ended the year at No. 1, and every pundit on earth believed he could sustain it.

And then it happened. Age and vulnerability. The blossoming of Djokovic. The dominance of the Big Four restored a semblance of democracy. Federer’s back caught up to him in 2013, and for the first time, the peasants began to mumble, “The king is dead.” Whereas before, experts had used terms like “immortal,” now they were saying, “age catches up to us all.” Worst of all, he got knocked out of Wimbledon — the tournament he owned — in the second round, by a qualifier named Sergiy Stakhovsky, who for all anybody knew might have been ranked 19, 756th.

An unfamiliar sensation came over me, an unexpected change of heart as the world’s greatest metamorphosed into an underdog.

I no longer hated Federer. Now, I wanted him to get back on his feet and kick his longtime rivals’ asses. To my astonishment, I found myself rooting for him.

Long a model of durability on the tour, he had nagging back injuries at the beginning of 2013 that resulted in zero appearances in any Slam finals that year. His sole title was at the Gerry Weber Open (aka Halle Open), an event he’s won multiple times before and since, though he lost in 2012 to his pal Haas. His ranking dropped to sixth by the end of the year when, hoping to find a strategy to return to the top of his game, he hired former champion Stefan Edberg as his new coach.

The results the next couple of years were mixed. He started 2015 strong, taking the Brisbane International. The tournament marked his 1,000th win (just behind Lendl and Connors) and 15th consecutive year with at least one title. He and Djokovic traded wins and losses, but it seemed the Serb was invincible when it came to the big tournaments. In 2015, the man from Basel was looking more and more like a “former.” He hadn’t won big since 2012. He changed coaching teams again.

Federer failed to defend Brisbane against Milos Raonic at the start of 2016, then lost to Djokovic in the semifinals at the Australian. These weren’t fluke-ish Stakhovsky losses; it felt like the young guys were pounding on the veteran. I briefly considered hating him again, thinking it might turn his luck around, but now I was firmly in the underdog camp.

"There were 
some tough moments, like when I was 
in New York just before the Open, and I couldn’t play. 
But at the same time, I was able to lead a totally 
normal life.” Roger Federer

And then came the injury that seemed to portend a Federer-less future.

It didn’t occur during an unsuccessful lunge after a shoulder-high forehand from Nadal. Federer explains the less-than-glamorous truth behind his self-inflicted wound. “It was just such a freak accident. I turned to draw the water for my daughter’s bath and heard something snap in my knee. I did not think it was too serious until much later.”

Arthroscopic surgery in early February caused him to miss the 2016 BNP Paribas in March. A premature comeback at the Monte Carlo Masters resulted in some back issues, and after 65 consecutive Slam appearances, he withdrew from the French. His early rounds at Wimbledon that year made it seem as if he’d been smart to rest up, especially when he beat the always formidable Marin Čilić in the quarterfinals. Though he lost in the semis to Raonic, it seemed as if a mini comeback might be possible.

It was not to be. During that Wimbledon semifinal, he re-injured his knee and subsequently withdrew from competition for the rest of the year, foregoing a chance to compete at both the Olympics and the U.S. Open.

“There were some tough moments,” he recalls, “like when I was in New York just before the Open, and I couldn’t play. But at the same time, I was able to lead a totally normal life with Mirka and the kids, and that was wonderful.”

Mirka is the former Miroslava Vabrincova, who immigrated to Switzerland from Czechoslovakia when she was 2 and, after meeting Martina Navratilova at a tournament when she was 9, took up tennis. Her peak years were 1999 to 2002, during which time she teamed with a young Mr. Federer for the Hopman Cup. A foot injury ended her playing career in 2002, and she transitioned to the role of Federer’s public relations manager. They married in 2009, and later that year, she gave birth to twin girls. In 2014, she and Roger became parents of twin boys.

For years I’d read about how Federer was just a regular Joe who revels in life’s simple pleasures. This is a down-to-earth guy who lives in a quiet (even for Switzerland) town not far from where he grew up and, from all accounts, cares nothing for extravagance. A big night at the Federer household consists of watching movies with happy endings and playing with the kids. He sometimes practices on public courts in his town. When he isn’t training, he likes to take the occasional hike.

After reading an account like this for maybe the 15th time, I couldn’t help but think of the famous Mexican wrestler El Demonico Azul. When I met him at his manager’s office in Mexico City, he was wearing a light-gray Ralph Lauren suit, black Ferragamo loafers, and his blue demon mask. He explained to me that all his neighbors thought he was just a boring computer salesman with a wife, two kids, and a dog. Every morning he’d get in his car and seemingly drive to work. When the coast was clear, he’d turn into a deserted alley, don his mask, and become El Demonico Azul.

I suspect the same may be true of Der Schweizer Dämon.

Evidently, this apparent normalcy is one of the keys to Federer’s power. Haas tells me, “You look at all the top guys — Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, etc. — they all have that little extra something.” True, Connors had his anger. McEnroe had his temper. Lendl had his stony impenetrability. Borg and Edberg were the emotionless Swedes. Federer, well, he has diapers to change and bedtime stories to read before he can watch Good Will Hunting. He’s no longer allowed near the bathtub. That would be living on the edge.

“I think it has made me mature overall, on and off the court, hopefully making me a better person in everything I do and in my approach to life,” he says. “I always know that after a match, win or lose, I go back to my family, Mirka and the kids, and that gives me a better perspective on my tennis career.”

Cynics may be rolling their eyes (I would have before my conversion), but Haas confirms the picture. His wife and Mirka became friends as they followed their husbands from event to event, and when the kids came along and play dates ensued, the sometime opponents became off-court pals. “Back in 2007 is when it really started to click, hanging out with each other’s families and kids, being at tournaments, going out for dinners,” Haas says. “We also had the same manager for years. He is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever come across.”

It’s counterintuitive, this image of a nice guy finishing first. The notion of the superiority of the tortured genius is pretty common. I have always been fascinated by Nadal’s quirks: the tics, the too-tight shoes, the positioning of the water bottles — to me, all indicators that the key to his genius is this drop or two of pure insanity. If Nick Kyrgios ever gets it together and starts winning the tournaments that have long been predicted for him, we’ll all nod and say, “See? His demons finally aligned.”

Of course, at the end of 2016, all of 
Federer’s emotional balance and normalcy simply added to the consensus that this was a guy who’d probably find a way to enjoy his impending and inevitable retirement.

Yeah, hold that thought.

“When I was away for six months,” he says, “I realized how much I love tennis, and that was the best motivation for me. I did not come back to prove people wrong or prove something to myself. I worked hard to play again because I love this game, and I knew I had something left in me.”

“I did not 
come back 
to prove 
people wrong or prove 
to myself. 
I worked 
hard to 
play again, because 
I love this game.”Roger Federer

Given his tough draw at the Australian to start the year, many predicted an early exit. Wrong. The 35-year-old vanquished some of the biggest names in the game: Tomáš Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Mischa Zverev, 
StanWawrinka, and then, in an epic final, Rafa Nadal. It was his first Slam win against the Spaniard since 2007.

If observers thought this was an anomaly akin to Connor’s legendary run at the 1991 U.S. Open, they had only to wait two months to witness Federer taking out Nadal and Wawrinka again at the BNP Paribas. He beat Nadal at the Miami Masters but then (in a Battle of the Aged) went up against Haas and lost.

“I think for me in Stuttgart, the stars were aligned,” says Haas. “I probably had no business winning that match, to be honest. 
Somehow I got a little bit lucky. I made some good shots. I was able to save match point to beat him. Just to beat him on grass, the greatest player of all time in my book, in front of my daughter. It was one of the moments where I thought, ‘Maybe I should retire now.’”

At Wimbledon, Federer settled old scores with Berdych and Raonic before dominating Čilić in the final. A back injury hampered him at the U.S. Open, where the always-dangerous Del Potro stopped him in the quarters. Still, one of the highlights of the end of the season was the inaugural Laver Cup, an event dreamed up by Federer in which the cream of European players take on the world. Fittingly, the Cup was decided in the final match between Federer and Kyrgios. The former saved match point and went on to win.

2017 is now known in tennis lore as the Federer Renaissance.

Federer started 2018 with his second win in a Hopman Cup mixed doubles final, partnering with relative unknown Belinda Bencic. Next up: the Australian Open.

For those of us who watch every match, it was like he was 26 again. He played flawlessly, brilliantly, almost effortlessly. Berdych, with his huge serve, was predicted to be a tough quarterfinal match, but Fed didn’t drop a set. His semifinal was a letdown, when the young Korean sensation Hyeon Chung retired with blisters.

The battle with Čilić in the final promised to be more problematic. Even though the Croatian has beaten Federer only once in 10 meetings, he is seven years younger and was serving his way through the Aussie like he was swatting flies. Through the first sets of that final, it was unclear who would dominate. Then, when Čilić won the fourth, the momentum seemed to be all his. He seemed totally in control. He was comfortable yet intense. He was poised to win his first Slam.

Federer was impossible to read. I studied him as he sat and rested before the fifth set. I tried to read body language, expression, anything. All I got was … pensive.

Have you ever watched a long-distance track race in which, during the last lap or two, there is a small group of leaders who are bunched up and looking for just the right moment when they’ll execute their kick? And then suddenly one of them (the Kenyans are brilliant at this) will go into a high gear no one thought existed. The other runners can’t respond because they realize at that moment that they don’t possess that extra level. The guy disappearing into the distance is the only runner that day who possesses that special gear … and he is gone, gone, gone.

That’s exactly what happened in the fifth set. After two games, Čilić clearly recognized that Federer had kicked into just such a high gear. The Croatian fought hard, but it was really over after Federer broke his first service game. Federer went into a mode that no player on the planet could have resisted. It wouldn’t matter if his opponent were half his age. The ease and power he displayed was irresistible. I felt bad for Čilić, because he’d played a great match, and it must’ve been soul-crushing to get so close, then feel this unbeatable force come at you like a steamroller, and all you can do is get out of the way and try to walk off the court with your head held high and smile through the ceremony even though that nice guy next to you just beat your brains out with a mallet.

I haven’t given up on underdogs. But I will forever be a Federer fan. It’s not about the titles, the 20 Slams, overcoming age, his appeal as a normal family man and movie lover, the sartorial swagger, or the most astounding comeback of all time.

It’s about this game, this beautiful game. The man from Basel plays it almost flawlessly. And I believe he is able to achieve that, to switch on that impossibly high gear, because he loves the game perhaps more than any person who has ever played it.

So, yes, I now bow to the king. All hail the king.