Excerpts from Brian Phillips’ wonderful essay in Grantland
Four years ago, trying to comprehend the phenomenon of Federer’s late career, which even then seemed like it had lasted an astonishingly long time, I wrote that the best athletes usually have a “still” phase. First they’re fast. Then they’re slow. In between, there’s a moment when they’re “still” fast — when you can see the end coming but can’t deny that, for now, they remain close to their best. Federer, I wrote, had spent longer in that “still” phase than any great tennis player I could think of.
The slow-motion euthanasia that time inflicts on athletic talent is, for me, the hardest thing to watch in sports. But time is treating Federer with a tenderness that almost defies reason.
Because the truth is that while we talk about his late career as if it were a sort of beautifully written epilogue, a casual marvel, it has now lasted longer than his prime.
These days, though? Federer’s career doesn’t seem so sad. Partly this is because other top-rank tennis declines — specifically Nadal’s injury-aided shuttlecock dive to the bottom of the top 10, but also arguably including Andy Murray’s failure to emerge as a consistent threat after winning Great Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s singles title since the boyhood of Æthelred the Unready — have been so much more dramatic (and therefore so much more consistent with how tennis careers usually end, i.e., not gently and with years of further sustained success). But it’s also because Federer seems to be enjoying himself so much.
What you take from watching him now is not so much a sense of tennis, the abstract world of angles and pure calculation that he seemed to represent in his youth, but the sense of a life. You watch him, and even though his physical signatures are the same, even though he tucks his hair behind his ear with the same patient care and spins his racket with the same agitation and hops along the baseline with the same sprung tension in his legs, what you think about, because he’s been around long enough for you to know him better, is also what’s offscreen.
Read The Sun Never Sets: On Roger Federer, Endings and Wimbledon in Grantland. Thanks to Rossan for sending us the link.