Don’t let Roger Federer’s elegant, insightful, funny, inspiring, and unflappable game face seduce you. Underneath the charm machine, somewhere, is a ruthlessly competitive soul. When he first came on the tour, the Great Fed was so obsessed with winning he would destroy video-game consoles if a game of video hockey with former coach Peter Lundgren didn’t go his way.
Federer, who plays Tomas Berdych tonight at 9 p.m. weather permitting, is quite probably the greatest tennis player of all time (most artistic, too), but perhaps his most impressive achievement throughout his historic career has been converting raw, natural anger into effective, positive energy. He’s part tennis yogi, part alchemist. Only very rarely does the old Fed come out in public — like at last year’s U.S. Open, when he’d clawed his way back into a dramatic fifth set in the semifinals against Novak Djokovic, and was serving for the match.
“I had it,” Federer said then. “Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go.”
Ahem. Lucky shot?
After serving for the match, Federer didn’t even move to catch the return. He probably didn’t even see it. Nor did Djokovic, who hit the shot with such power (and seemingly with his eyes closed) that he shocked the crowd and stunned Federer with the cold winner. Federer was so dismayed he ended up double-faulting the critical service game away, then the match, and then accused Djokovic of committing a tennis felony.
“This is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point,” a testy Federer said. “I never played that way. I believe in hard work's gonna pay off kinda thing … maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal.”
When I met with Federer in Madrid earlier this year, the anger was gone. Federer had a different opinion of that slapshot winner. It wasn’t so “lucky” anymore.
“Look, he played great on match point,” Federer told me about Djokovic. “I knew it was tight. I broke him. I couldn’t believe it — I was in the situation all of the sudden.”
Now, in a strange way, Federer has Djokovic to thank for his lucky shot. It’s proven lucky after all. Perhaps inspired by losing in such infuriating fashion, Federer has gone on the kind of tear that should have Sports Illustrated editors thinking Sportsman of the Year. After losing in last year’s Open, Federer has won so many tournaments and so many matches that he improbably reclaimed the No. 1 ranking (in dramatic fashion, by winning Wimbledon for a record seventh time); piled on the records by surpassing Pete Sampras for holding the No. 1 ranking for longer than any other player; and he did all this before turning 31 earlier this month and beating Djokovic to win another title in Cincinatti. Oh, and between all his winning, Federer started his own management company.
With so many matches and such a phenomenal year already behind him, you would think that Federer would forget all about Djokovic’s lucky slaphot winner last year.
Not Federer. In his last outing, Federer was in such control over Fernando Verdasco that the most entertaining moments of the match were witnessing all the creative ways that Federer could hit so many different shots precisely back to the ballboys between points: between the legs, behind the back, over the shoulder. And there he was, about to serve for the match, when the memory of the slapshot returned.
“It’s funny I thought about it in a third-round match,” Federer said.
I asked him what triggered the memory.
He thought it might have been the time of day, the reaction from the crowd when he took the court. Could have been the same end of the court he was serving on. “Doesn’t matter whether you think about it or not,” Federer said. “But I’m happy I survived it.”