u.s. open

Who IS This Guy?

A tantalizing forehand of spinning mystery.

Roger Federer wins too much. He wins Wimbledon, the French. He wins the U.S. Open so often that the last time someone else got to hold the big trophy was a half-decade ago. He wins so many trophies he could store them in an armory, and he cashes so many prize checks he doesn’t need to play the small tournaments on the tour like the other pro players do. He is endorsed by companies that pay him millions for the privilege of flying him around on their private jets and letting him wear their watches and clothes and shoes. He wins so much that people in his own country seem to have run out of ideas on how to celebrate his wins. The Swiss Post put his face on a stamp, which is something usually done for dead people.

It’s not fair. He knows. After his first U.S. Open match against the teenage American Devin Britton (“I’m going to have great dreams about [Federer’s] forehand, it’s so pretty”), Federer was introduced at the post-match press conference by the moderator.

She says: “Roger today became the first player to win $50 million in prize money. Just to let you know.”

The Fed smirks and hides under his baseball cap.

“No need to write about that,” he says.

There are reasons to stop liking Federer, or at least not to worship him so much. Like his record. Sure, he’s hailed as No. 1 on Planet Earth All-Time, but the fact remains that in matches against some other mortals, he has a losing record. Against the No. 2, Andy Murray, he’s 3–6. Against the No. 3, Rafael Nadal, he fares far worse; he’s 7–13. In the past two seasons, against the No. 4, Novak Djokic, whom he will play in the semifinals whenever the rain stops, he has an even record. So why are we still in awe?

It’s because he can’t be defined. While those aforementioned opponents are easily grasped characters — the fierce youngster, the never-say-die Spaniard, the slick playboy — Federer can’t be pinned down. He’s self-deferential in his off-court demeanor: “I was playing great, you know”; “There’s not much more I could do”; “It was dream tennis there.” And yet everything he wears is tattooed with his own specially designed logo. He’s a normal-seeming guy operating on an extremely unusual plane of existence. This week, one Fed fan, between bites at Sardo’s on the Upper East Side, looked over her husband’s shoulder and saw Roger and Mirka and their friends munching along. She watched in awe as the tennis god casually sipped a glass of red wine. Red wine before a match? He was playing Lleyton Hewitt later that day. When the bill came, everybody at Federer’s table casually chipped in. The $50 million man making his friends pay? The affect was distant: “He was there, you know, but he wasn’t there.” The artist’s mind at work.

Look at his serve: The same efficient motion every time, the balletic toe-touch but with different spins, placements, and speeds. Or the way the ball seems to stay on his racket a second longer than all other players’ — where will he direct it to go? These subtleties in Federer’s game are much like the subtleties in his personality. They are disguises. The more you look, the more you just don’t know where the ball will go. The more you study him, the more you don’t really know who he is.

If you watch him in person, you’ll notice: He doesn’t make any noise. You can’t hear him clomping up to net or hear his Nikes squeaking. He doesn’t move. As Jose Higeuras, the retired Spanish pro and coach Federer worked with last year, puts it: “He floats.”

Who IS This Guy?