One night, at a hotel in Tokyo, Roger Federer woke up and had no idea where he was. He jumped out of bed, screaming and cursing, and started to move about the dark room. Earlier, Federer had admired the room’s wood-and-stone scheme (“I’m very interested in interior designing”) and toilet (“a spaceship”), but now in the dark, he banged his leg hard on the bed’s sharp-edged wooden frame. His leg was bruised. He had a match the following day. He needed ice.
Mirka, his girlfriend (now his wife), woke up and found him shaken. She hugged him, trying to calm him down. Federer was scared. He’d never woken up in shock like this before. He wondered why it was happening to him. “Mirka thinks I have been playing too much tennis,” Federer later recounted. He was in the midst of his invincible period, losing only five or so matches a year. He had different ideas about the roots of his nightmare. “I think it might have been the Sake Bomber I had during the shabu-shabu dinner.”
It’s been Roger Federer’s blessing to be saddled for most of the past decade with mastering an anxiety of a specific kind. He even has a name for it: “the monster.”
“I’ve had it for a long, long time,” he once said. “Winning every other week, you know, lose a set and people say I’m playing bad. So it’s my own mistake, I guess.” Federer dominated tennis for so long and with such authority that a loss could trigger bewilderment. After he failed to reach the Master’s Cup final in China in 2008, a reporter remarked, “I think this is not enough for you.” By then, Federer had broken so many records he’d stopped keeping track. “What’s enough for you?” he snapped back. “You tell me. I’ll do it next year. Win nine? I’ll do nine next year. Eight, whatever.”
Now, as he enters the twilight years of a historic career, Roger Federer has been wrestling with a different sort of anxiety. Many insist his problem is age (Federer turns 31 this August), and mental fatigue from playing just over 1,000 matches. But Federer’s problem lately is not only that he’s been losing big matches; it’s the way he’s been losing them.
His skid started with a drop shot. At the French Open last year, Federer had put an end to Novak Djokovic’s white-hot streak in the semifinals and was manhandling Rafael Nadal in the final, taking an early lead, only to end a dramatic rally by attempting a dazzling backhand slice drop shot to win the set. Walking to check the mark, the umpire ruled the ball out by less than an inch. Federer seemed flustered after missing the shot, and Nadal won the game, then the next six, and eventually the match. At Wimbledon—Federer’s favorite tournament, partly because the faster grass surface favors his aggressive style of play—he was up two sets against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but lost the match. This had never happened to Federer before; his record after having won the first two sets was 178-0.
Then it happened again. In the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year, Federer was somehow in the same situation, up two sets against Djokovic, who was playing erratically—whereupon Federer lost his rhythm and Djokovic climbed back. In the fifth set, Federer fought his way to two match points. On the first of them, a Federer first serve wide to the forehand side, Djokovic rose up with a mixture of desperation and faith and appeared to hit the serve back harder than it came—a cold winner. Djokovic won the crowd with the shot, and the match was essentially over.
Afterward, Federer was annoyed with the shot, which he believed to be lucky given that Djokovic was “mentally out of it.” Federer wondered if that shot was somehow divine punishment from the tennis gods for all he’d achieved. “Maybe you’ve already won so much that it evens it out a bit sometimes,” he said at the time.
Now, at Wimbledon, Federer has a chance to atone for those disasters. In the third round, he almost lost to journeyman Julien Benneteau, losing the first two sets before clawing his way back—a near-death experience, one that revealed once again his tennis mortality. But even so, he’s had an impressive year. If he wins the title at Wimbledon, he will not only equal Pete Sampras’s record but could also reclaim the No. 1 ranking. And immediately following Wimbledon, there are the Olympics, and a chance to claim the one individual honor that’s eluded him: a gold medal in men’s singles. At the end of August, he’ll also come to New York for the U.S. Open.