Knowing the limits of his own body, the competition against him, and the changing nature of the game, Federer believes this summer is his best chance to win another Slam and cement the argument that he’s the best player ever. Preparing for these big matches has not only been a physical grind. It’s also about self-discovery. And like everything else with Federer, it’s not a science.
I met Federer during the Madrid Open in May. By the time his private jet landed, Federer was tanned and rested after a vacation on the beach in the Caribbean and a five-week break from the tour, one of the longest in his career. In Madrid, he’d been hitting lightly on the practice courts, testing out the controversial blue clay the tournament had experimented with. Nadal and Djokovic found the clay almost unplayable, and said so loudly; Federer, as he always has, took the obstacle in stride.
We sat in the corner of an austere conference room. In person, Federer appears bigger than his six-foot-one-inch frame. He sat in a small plastic chair, one leg crossed over the other just so, his arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t squirm around in the chair to get more comfortable, or gesture with his hands.
Even though he’d been off for weeks, sleep was on his mind. “I did sleep in the last couple of days,” he said. “For me that’s a big part of the puzzle: to be coming rested into these tournaments.” Federer likes to sleep ten hours a night, more if he can get it, so that his muscles have time to relax and recover. “There’s nothing worse than feeling great for 90 percent of the time but then not when it counts the most—the last 10 percent when you’re like, Ugh. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to feel that way. I want to feel like so excited, like I want to jump out of my skin.”
He’s already had an amazing year, winning six of nine tournaments since the U.S. Open, a romp that’s felt like revenge for that crushing loss to Djokovic. “I knew it was tight,” he said of that match. “I broke him [in the fifth set]. I couldn’t believe it. I was in the situation all of a sudden. Even though we should maybe go back a set or two. I was up two sets to love, so it should never have been me being in such a tussle.”
With distance, Federer has more understanding of that loss. “He had confidence on his side,” he said. “Confidence is sometimes forgotten. When you have confidence like I have now, you don’t second-guess yourself. You just do it. And you’re like, ‘That was normal.’ And then you look back and you’re like, I can’t believe I just did that. I think that’s kind of what happened to him—which was an unfortunate situation for me.”
Paul Annacone, Federer’s coach (he also coached Sampras and Federer’s friend Tim Henman), thought that loss at the Open last fall wasn’t emblematic of a real problem with Federer. The slap-shot winner from Djokovic was “cliché,” Annacone told me, considering how reckless Djokovic can play and how dangerous Federer still is. “He’s pretty damn good in the big moments, and when you’re on the wrong end of it, it sucks. But that’s sports. These kinds of losses happen.”
Federer was more introspective. “I definitely did go back to the drawing board,” he said in Madrid. “I was like, How come I lose these tight matches? Because I did lose a tough one at Wimbledon, I did lose a tough one at the French, and I did lose a couple of other tough ones. Was it mental? Was it physical? Was it a preparations thing? Where was my mind wandering?”
On court, Federer has been known for his focus, that emotionless gaze that is often mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm or intensity. He seems in his own world, making his shots for himself alone, so watching him seems like a privilege. But the gaze is really more like a mask he puts on to dam the torrents of rage that destroyed his ability to win matches early in his career. Federer jokes now about how he used to throw racquets and lace into himself in self-loathing monologues, but his inability to control his emotions were a serious issue for him. Early on, he was once sentenced to wake up early, which he hated, and clean the bathrooms as punishment for throwing his racquet and destroying a curtain. He was once fined for not playing a match hard enough. Crowds sometimes booed him; his parents refused to speak with him. “I was never this megatalent like a Tiger Woods or a Martina Hingis,” Federer told me. “I was famous for being talented, but you never knew where the talent was going to take me.”