In Madrid, Federer revealed the conclusions of his tennis soul-searching. After analyzing all the elements, he found there wasn’t much wrong with him. “That wasn’t a bad tournament,” he said. “I played great. I could’ve been in the finals and had a shot at the title.” So he didn’t change much.
“Just little things,” he said; so little he can’t describe them, even when pressed. “I don’t even know what they are … Sometimes it’s just a mind-set.”
I asked Federer about his greatest weakness. He seemed confused by the question.
“I mean, I can’t cook or anything,” he said. He pondered the admission. “I guess if I would learn it then I could cook, you know? So it’s not even a weakness, it’s just something I can’t do.
“Do I have weaknesses?” he went on. “Sure. Many of them.”
I pushed him to name one, anything.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, I think you also have to be happy sometimes with what you have instead of always trying to look for more. I’m [more] a believer in working on your strengths than actually working on your weaknesses.”
In Madrid, Federer was in rhythm, seizing control of early leads, holding on and winning the tournament. His next stop was Rome, where he arrived with a niggling injury and clashed again with Djokovic. Despite Djokovic’s amazing ascent to the No. 1 ranking, Federer has been more effective against him than against Murray or Nadal. One reason is that Djokovic’s game is easier for Federer to read. He plays with a similar aggression, and for years Federer had a mental edge over him. Djokovic once retired against Federer because of a sore throat and dizziness. (“It’s not the guy who’s never given up in his career,” Federer once said.)
But in Rome, Djokovic beat Federer again, as he did weeks later in the semifinals of the French Open—Federer had been leading in the first and second sets but lost the match without putting up much of a fight. He then went on to a Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Halle, Germany, and made it to the finals, where he faded again, losing to a player who was older, not even ranked in the top 50, and who hadn’t beaten Federer in the past decade. How could Roger Federer lose a final on grass to Tommy Haas?
“He was maybe the more inspired player out there,” Federer said after the match.
When Federer first lost his No. 1 ranking to Nadal in 2008, the transition was not easy. “I just don’t like the ring of it when I’m being introduced on Centre Court saying, ‘and this is the No. 2 in the world,’ ” Federer said then. “It just sounds wrong. Either I’m No. 1 or I’m a Grand Slam champion, but I’m not No. 2.” At the Australian Open a few years later, he also noticed a change in the way he was introduced. Normally, the announcer Craig Willis would introduce Federer by reeling off his titles there. (He is the 2004 champion. He is the 2006 champion. He is the 2007 champion. He is the 2010 champion. He is … Rogerrr Federerrrr!!!) But one time Willis shortened the dramatic windup, introducing Federer as “four-time champion.”
Afterward, Willis told me Federer approached him.
“Hey, what happened to all the years?” Federer joked.
“Roger, it’s only the first week,” Willis said.
There’s more to life—even Roger Federer’s life—than tennis. Some have pointed out that Federer’s failure to close out tough matches has coincided with the arrival of Charlene Riva and Myla Rose, his twin daughters—he hasn’t won a Grand Slam tournament since they were infants.
And fatherhood has presented its own challenges. When his kids get sick on tour, he does, too. “I take the germs and I give them cuddles and I try to make them feel better,” he said earlier this year. “If I get sick as well, that’s too bad.”
The best in the world, for almost a decade, was who Roger Federer was. “I’m in this incredible situation where I achieved so much more than I ever thought I would,” he told me in Madrid. “Whatever I achieve now is just, you know, bonus.”
He does not mention more Slam titles, or regaining the No. 1 ranking. He talks about the big venues he plays in, the crowds that come to see him play his artful game. He likes signing autographs at 1:30 a.m. after a match. Annacone says Federer’s attitude toward fame is unique: “He enjoys who he’s become.”
“I think everyone likes to be popular,” Federer said. “I always play on Centre Court. They never bump me … All these things are something I’ve worked so hard for and to now say, ‘Okay, that’s fine, I’ve had enough,’ walk away, it’s so hard, because I love it so much.” He remembered the early years. “I know how hard it is to play on Court 25 with ten people at the fence. It’s not the same. That would be hard for me to go and play there now.”