By Joseph Epstein | Newsweek Web Exclusive
As a boy tennis player who was more interested in style than in victory, and as a tennis fan of nearly 60 years' standing, I can think of no greater delight than to watch Roger Federer at play. Soon to be 28, Federer was, between 2004 and 2008, the No. 1-ranked player in the world. During much of that time he was without near peer; dominating tennis, he won 13 Grand Slam championships. It was only a matter of time, or so everyone thought, before he would close in on and surpass Pete Sampras, who in his career won 14 Grand Slams—more than any other player in the history of the game.
Now it looks, alas, as if Federer may not make it. He looks the same, hits the ball with the same intensity, has the same on-court elegance of bearing. Something vital, though, is missing. Federer is currently ranked No. 2 in the world, behind the Spaniard Rafael Nadal, whom he seems unable to beat. Lately, he's losing to people you've never heard of—this week, in the third round at Monte Carlo, in straight sets to a fellow Swiss player named Stanislas Wawrinka. It is painful, if inevitable, to watch; even more painful to ponder why it's happening.
Federer's grandeur has never been about statistics; it has been about perfection, about playing the game more perfectly than anyone had hitherto imagined it could be played, and doing it over and over again through a long stretch of top-level competition.
Sampras had a more dominating serve, as does Andy Roddick today; Donald Budge and the Australian Ken Rosewall had more accurate backhands; John McEnroe was more adept at volleying; Nadal has a more devastating forehand. While not supreme in any of these discrete elements, Federer nonetheless has performed them all with an unmatched combination of grace and efficiency that could only have encouraged a feeling of utter hopelessness in those up against him.
He is 6 feet 1, perhaps 180 pounds, an impressively average size in a game with more and more male players of over 6 feet 4. He does not avail himself of a coach, part of the retinue of the contemporary successful tennis pro. And Federer doesn't argue; he doesn't throw tantrums on court. He doesn't, as Nadal and so many other players, male and female, do, grunt orgasmically as he strokes the ball.
Roger Federer's sang-froid and good manners have gone a long way to retrieve tennis from wretched excess and to revive it as a game of tactics, skill and elegance. A small corps of elite athletes have rendered esthetic pleasure of this kind. In boxing, there was Sugar Ray Robinson and, later, Muhammad Ali. In baseball, there was Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays; in football, Joe Montana. In basketball, Julius Erving did so, as did, more emphatically, Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods does it for people who watch golf, Pelé used to do it for soccer fans. All these figures add a touch of poetry to the games they play, and thereby elevate their sport to something greater than itself.
Apollonian is the way I think of these artist-athletes. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysius are the sons of Zeus, with Apollo the god of the sun, lightness, music, poetry. Apollo typically represents wholeness and civilization, as opposed to Dionysius, who represents individualism and primal nature. In style and manner, Federer is the pure type of the Apollonian, while his great adversary, Rafael Nadal, is Dionysian. Or, if one prefers to come down from Olympus, Federer is Athens, Nadal is Sparta.
And, of late, Sparta has been beating the hell out of Athens. True, Federer appeared in three Grand Slam finals in 2008, and won one of them (the U.S. Open), which for any other player would be a glorious year. He is still capable of supplying what the late novelist David Foster Wallace, a Federer admirer, called Federer Moments: "These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're OK." But recently Federer Moments seem fewer. He has not won a Masters ATP tournament in the past two years. Ordinary human mistakes in his game are now more common. The number of his unforced errors sometimes exceed those of his opponents. Something strange is happening.
Neither age nor injury appears to be Federer's problem. Throughout his career, he has never had to "retire" from a match owing to injury or exhaustion. Nor does his having had so much success—having grown complacent on victory and spiritually fat on money—seem likely. His recent marriage to his longtime lady-friend and manager seems unlikely to have had much to do with his downward slide.
Might it be that Roger Federer, having attained perfection, has nowhere to go but down? Can anyone concentrate on one thing—in this case, year after year being the last one to return a small fuzzy ball within the lines of a tennis court—for as long as he has? His confidence is on the run; his aura of invincibility, shattered. Upstarts, sensing the weakness of the grand lion who once led the pride, are closing in. In a recent match against Novak Djokovic, the even-tempered Federer, in a moment of angry frustration, smashed his own racquet against the ground.
Perfection in sports, or any other realm, for that matter, has been given to few, and even then it is never an outright gift but more on the order of a temporary loan. Athletes may hold it on the briefest terms of all. Although I hope that I am completely wrong, and that Roger Federer comes roaring back to win many more Grand Slams, my ineluctable sense is that, for this great athlete whose skill has given me so much pleasure, the loan is due and payback time, sadly, is at hand.