One of Federer’s favorite games to play was a James Bond game. “He’d call me from his room and he’d say, ‘Come help me, I can’t get past this door.’ I was like, ‘Roger, if there’s anyone that can get past this door, you can.’ Sure enough, he’d call me an hour later and be like, ‘You’re right. I got in.’
“Every time he got a new game, he’d beat it in like two days,” Lundgren said. “He just had the kind of mind—he could figure anything out.”
To win on the professional tennis tour, Federer had to figure out his mind. At first, he couldn’t win. In one stretch early on, he lost in the first round in six straight tournaments. He came to New York to qualify for the U.S. Open and lost again, unable to get himself in the draw of a Slam he would go on to win five times in a row.
His ego took on a very singular form. “My dream was always not to be recognized as someone else,” Federer told me. He recalled the questions he used to get from fans.“ ‘Are you Carlos Moya?’ ‘Are you Tommy Haas?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no. I’m not that guy.’ You want to be famous for who you are, right? You don’t want to play like someone else. You want to be famous as your own person, right?”
One breakthrough came in Rome, in 2001, against the tempestuous Marat Safin. It was a close match. Afterward, Federer was in the locker room and saw the highlights on a television there. The commentators were not discussing his Houdini shot-making or the way Federer managed to edge out the higher-ranked Safin in a third-set tiebreaker. Instead, the post-match analysis was of the techniques both Federer and Safin had displayed in shattering their racquets. Federer was so embarrassed at the way he looked on the screen that he decided to stop acting out on court. Instead of releasing his emotions, he would conceal them. He was criticized for it. Some found his casual game face boring.
“When it’s going to be a full stadium, I will show more emotions,” he said back in 2002, as if trying to play the part. But acting up didn’t work. “I need to keep my emotions under control,” he told a reporter before winning Wimbledon for the first time in 2003. “I have the feeling if I show too much, you know, it might hurt me for the next match. The emotions left. I want to keep everything till the end.”
Winning with nonchalance was working for Federer, part of his winning formula. He eliminated other players from the equation, turning away from them after each point to focus. His calmness, or the veneer of it, was intimidating to other players: How could Federer play such artistic tennis and not show any emotion? “I think it’s an advantage,” he once said. “[My opponents] don’t know if I can pull off maybe a shot ten times in a row. Maybe it was the luckiest shot, you know? I don’t need to show them it was.”
After he figured out how to win, Federer had to figure out life. Months after winning Wimbledon, he decided to leave Lundgren and play without a coach. It was a curious decision to make then, considering he’d just won tennis’s most coveted prize and was playing better than ever. In hindsight, going without a coach was crucial for his self-confidence. There was nobody to look to for help, no face in his box to turn to. He was becoming a superstar, and he often booked his practice courts himself.
“I was in control really,” Federer said. “I think that was very important for me to actually learn about life, you know, how it is on the tour without somebody always telling you what to do.”
It’s not only age Federer has been fighting. It’s tennis itself. Over the years, he’s had to face increasingly challenging playing conditions, ones that favor his most dangerous opponents. (Nadal and Andy Murray have winning records against him, and Djokovic has beaten him six of the last seven times they’ve played.) With all the improvements in technology, tennis has become like a new video game Federer has been forced to adjust to. For all his élan and variety, Federer’s game is defined by relentless aggression. He prefers to catch balls early, on the rise, end points fast with winners, hold early leads with his reliable serve, and conserve energy. The modern game in which he now plays celebrates the opposite qualities: athleticism over talent, endurance over finesse.
“It’s really a whole lot harder,” he told me. “You neutralize the opponent and you sort of wear him down. Eventually someone is going to miss.” The game has become a war of attrition, gladiatorial tennis.