This story appears in the May, 18 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.
The number that best summed up Roger Federer in his prime? There are plenty to choose from: the record 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, the 13 major titles, the 10 straight Grand Slam finals and 19 straight semifinals. But let's try this number: zero. Because the most astonishing thing about Federer's four-year run atop pro tennis, from February 2004 to August 2008, may be the difference between his exalted estimation of his own skills and what he actually did. There was none.
For those inclined to deflate the self-adoring, though, Federer didn't present an easy target. His offhand tone imbued the most conceited comments -- from the frequent "I was always so talented" to this reading of the crowd at his 2007 U.S. Open matches: "I have the feeling they're watching greatness" -- with genial detachment. Hearing Federer speak of himself was like listening to a professor describe, while paring his fingernails, the work of his most brilliant student.
And even if some were irked by such statements, could they really dispute them? Federer was only echoing the tributes of John McEnroe and Rod Laver, who hailed him as the game's new gold standard; Pete Sampras, who predicted that Federer would shatter his record of 14 major singles titles and finish with 19; and Andre Agassi, who in 2005 said Federer "plays a game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before." Everyone agreed: Federer would end up the best male player ever. His talent was indeed extraordinary. Greatness was exactly what we were seeing.
Then, late last spring, all that abruptly changed. Federer woke up in Paris on Sunday, June 8, with history in his grasp. Besides having won 12 Grand Slam titles, he was about to play his third straight final at the French Open, the lone major he had never won. If Federer's career had ended right there, before he faced world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, a convincing case could be made that he had already surpassed Pistol Pete, who never reached one singles final at Roland Garros.
But Federer's career didn't end there. By sundown that day he had suffered the worst loss of his 10-year career, a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 thrashing. Hardly anyone had seen it coming; though Nadal was the three-time defending French Open champion, Federer had beaten him on clay the year before in Hamburg -- by a score that also included a third-set bagel -- and had won the Australian Open, the last five Wimbledons and the last four U.S. Opens. "I can beat Nadal on all surfaces: clay, grass, indoor, hard," Federer said in the summer of 2007. "And once you beat a player three or four times, you know you can beat him every single time."
In retrospect that statement marked the first disconnect between the Great One's words and his deeds. Federer hasn't beaten Nadal on clay since. Worse, at last year's Wimbledon, Nadal beat Federer, winner of 65 straight matches on grass, on what amounted to his home court. "A disaster," Federer said after the epic five-set final. He salvaged his year -- and maintained a shaky dominion on hard courts -- by winning his fifth straight U.S. Open after Nadal was eliminated by eventual finalist Andy Murray. Then, on Feb. 1, Nadal beat Federer again, 6-2 in the fifth set, to win the Australian Open and raise the flag over Federer's last redoubt, asphalt. Federer wept at the trophy ceremony. "God, this is killing me," he said.
It was the tennis equivalent of the British surrender at Yorktown, where an empire retreated and a band supposedly played The World Turned Upside Down. In completing one of the great reversals in sports history, Nadal hadn't just dethroned King Roger, he had harried him all over the world and dismantled his mightiest weapons.
Nadal has now beaten Federer in five straight finals and 13 of their last 19 matches, and if they meet again in the final of the 2009 French Open, which begins on May 24, Nadal will be the prohibitive favorite. What was once a great sports rivalry has turned into a rout. How can Federer be deemed the best ever when he might not be the best of his own era?
But more immediate questions still haven't been answered. How did this takedown happen? What, exactly, did we just see?
It has the feel of classical myth. Twenty-eight years ago the gods decided to create the perfect tennis player, tall and lean and as light on his feet as a blown feather. They gave him everything: great hands, a stiletto serve, ground strokes that the sport's hero, Sampras, called better than his own. The perfect tennis player could speak four languages. He was polite to officials, patient with the media and so gracious in victory that opponents almost didn't mind losing to him. After a while, this began to gall the gods, who are, after all, capricious beings. They don't like to be bored. And, as always, they had given themselves an out.
They had left one small flaw in the perfect tennis player's game. Few could expose it. Indeed, years would pass before anyone realized it existed. The pro tour is dominated by righthanders, whose crosscourt backhands are incapable of generating the speed, spin and high bounce necessary to make the weakness plain; only a lefty's forehand could probe it consistently enough. But it was there, a place high on the backhand side where the perfect tennis player's normally impeccable one-hander, which could absorb the heaviest strokes and counter them with pinpoint accuracy, faltered enough to make him human.
Now the gods just needed a tool. And in Rafael Nadal, they found it. As a 10-year-old in the town of Manacor, on the Spanish island of Majorca, the naturally righthanded Rafa had played two-handed off both wings. But his uncle Toni, a former table-tennis champ and club tennis pro who was also the boy's coach, suggested that he drop a hand while hitting off his left side and, while he was at it, why not just play lefthanded? Rafa liked being coached by his uncle. He did what he was told.
At first the boy hit his strokes fairly flat, and Toni soon realized he needed a bigger weapon. So, recalling his own spin-happy Ping-Pong days, Toni persuaded Rafa to develop what some players call a reverse forehand -- in which, instead of swinging the racket across his body and finishing above his right shoulder, he jerks the racket back after striking the ball and finishes above his left -- to impart extreme topspin. Thanks to his remarkable racket speed and to advances in string technology, Rafa was eventually able to hit shots that rotated at an unprecedented 3,200 revolutions per minute (compared with Federer's 2,500), fell inside the lines and, most important, bounced like a frightened jackrabbit, high and away from the perfect player's backhand. The stroke's impact? Eric Hechtman, a hitting partner for both players, says returning Nadal's forehand feels "like you're breaking off your arm."
In 2004 Federer had just risen to No. 1 when he faced the 17-year-old Nadal for the first time, in Miami. Nadal won 6-3, 6-3, and Federer walked off the court puzzled. "I couldn't quite play the way I wanted to," he said. "He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard; it's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce, bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it but kind of couldn't."
Nadal, in other words, was able to do what no other man could. He made the tour's most elegant player -- the one with the cream-colored Wimbledon sport coat and the just-so hair -- feel awkward. Nadal forced Federer's backhand far out of its wheelhouse, or what Andy Roddick calls the pocket. "It's a huge advantage for Rafa to be able to pull him off [the court] to his weak side," Roddick says. "And we're talking about a foot differential between being in his pocket and being out of it. Play that enough times? It makes a difference."
Nadal won five of their next six meetings, four of them on clay, and his unyielding nature and breathtaking defensive play lifted him to No. 2 in the world. It wasn't enough. "When I was a kid, I always thought about Wimbledon," Nadal says. "I love that atmosphere. In Wimbledon the Spanish players never did very well. It was a challenge for me." Anyone questioning Nadal's resolve stopped in 2006, after he won his second French Open. The next day he took the Eurostar to London, raced to the Queens Club and practiced two hours on the grass, his grunts resounding into darkness. There was only one man in his way.
"Without question he put a bull's-eye on Federer," says former world No. 1 Jim Courier. "Nadal was Number 2 for how long -- 160 weeks, the most consecutive weeks at Number 2 for any player? And he wanted to be Number 1. So he found a way to get there."
Toni and Rafa both knew that Rafa's forehand, whose height was lessened by grass and hard courts, couldn't do the job alone. Every dimension of his game had to improve. Toni would list his nephew's deficiencies, stroke by stroke, each time they faced Federer. "He's so much better than you," Toni would say, "but if you believe and work, you can win."
Indeed, it has been easy to reduce Nadal's triumph to mere belief and work, as if he were some implacable primitive: will personified. The truth, however, is that Camp Rafa is a fairly sophisticated operation. A Majorcan trainer, Juan Forcades, oversees Nadal's conditioning. Physical therapist Rafael Maymo spends much of his day taking notes on when and what Nadal eats; when he goes to sleep and when he wakes; how much time he spends hitting forehands, backhands and volleys. Toni, meanwhile, has harped on his nephew's weaknesses so effectively that even in the earliest rounds of last year's French Open, Rafa was scared of losing. Toni reassured him -- "You're Number 1 on clay!" -- but it didn't matter. "He never relaxes," Toni says. "He's so afraid for every match."
From mid-2006 through '07 Federer took five of his seven matches with Nadal, including both Wimbledon finals, and he seemed to have mastered his young rival at last. But Nadal took a major step by pushing Federer to five sets in the '07 Wimbledon final. As the challenger he had the psychological advantage of chasing, and unlike Federer he was determined to keep adding weapons. To beat Federer on grass and hard courts, Toni and Rafa were methodically upgrading Rafa's game, making it less reliant on defense and more geared to dictating play and conserving energy.
"I had to improve," Rafa says. "Sure, having in front of me one guy like Federer, one complete player, it's always pushing me. But I always believed. I thought, I am young, I can improve a lot of things. Without that, I am Number 2, so if I improve I have a chance to be in the top position."
These days it's fashionable to say that Nadal has climbed inside Federer's head. But he needed a ladder to get there. The first rung: consistently staking out an offensive position, or, as Nadal puts it, "always trying to go more inside the court. That gives me more control of the point, no? Before I was maybe one meter behind the baseline, two meters behind." The second rung: a better serve. In his early years on tour Nadal won most of his points with preposterous saves and sterling shotmaking; his serve was strictly a point starter, a predictable slice on which bold returners such as James Blake feasted. Nadal ranked 51st on the ATP tour in serving in 2004, winning just 77% of his service games. After Roddick beat him in straight sets at that year's U.S. Open, the American star walked off the court thinking, He's not going to crack the top five if that serve doesn't improve.
It did. Nadal's serves, which were then clocked at an average speed of 99 mph, are now traveling an average of 16 mph faster -- and he regularly hits the upper 120s on the radar gun. But it wasn't just a matter of hitting the ball harder. In fact, Toni says, one reason Federer had the upper hand in 2007 was that he pushed Rafa to serve with too much velocity, and the speed of Federer's returns threw off Nadal's timing. "So we had to learn other things," Toni says. According to Roddick, Nadal now hits to both sides of the service box on his first and second deliveries. "He can kick it, he can slice it," Roddick says. "You don't really know what's coming." Nadal finished last year ranked No. 1 in the world -- and fourth in serving, winning 88% of his service games.
Nadal also greatly improved his backhand. He flattened out the two-hander and sharpened his one-handed slice, learning to use it for defense, changes of pace, approach shots and drop shots. Mesmerized by what Courier calls Nadal's "brutish" style, commentators still portray Federer-Nadal matches as beauty versus beast, matador versus bull. But Nadal's devotion to craft belies that caricature. No one can match Federer for artistry, but Nadal has two attributes just as valuable: imagination and the audacity to use it. "He's by far the smartest player of all," says seven-time Grand Slam champ Mats Wilander. "He's not afraid of changing. With a mind like that? There's no limit."
The results have left Federer demoralized. "To Roger, Nadal's tennis is unorganized: big, loopy topspin forehands, that slice serve, now he's slicing his backhand, he's lefthanded -- [it affects Roger] mentally," Wilander explains. "When Roger's in his comfort zone, he's a serious fighter. But when he's not in it, he's not able to fight."
The moment when that became clear couldn't have been bigger. Serving for last year's Wimbledon championship at 8-7, 0-15, with night falling, Nadal ventured as far out of his own comfort zone as possible. He had stunned everyone by outserving Federer throughout the fifth set, but now he took it a step further. Nadal serve-and-volleyed. Then he did it again, and again, winning two of his three approaches to the net, beating the ultimate all-court player at his own game. Against such nerve Federer crumbled. His final forehand fell short. An era ended.
Strangely enough 2008 might have been Federer's greatest year -- better than his 92-5 run in '06, better than the three years in which he won nine majors --because he battled his body from start to finish. A bout of mononucleosis in late 2007 had enlarged his spleen, ravaged his powers of recovery and ruined his off-season training; from the '08 Australian Open on, he played a step slow, which threw off his timing and sent his confidence tumbling. Yet Federer still made the Australian Open semifinals and the French Open final, labored back from two sets down to lose the longest Wimbledon final ever by the slimmest of margins, and won the U.S. Open -- Hall of Fame stuff for anyone else.
"Federer was ill all season long, and the story was completely missed," Courier says. "He hid it from everybody because it's his responsibility to not show weakness, and he played through it because of his commitment to the tour. Which was a mistake. Mario Ancic [the Croatian once ranked No. 7] missed more than six months on the tour with a mono bout; it's a serious illness for a high-level performance athlete. Roger needed to get off the tour and get healthy again."
Last October, Federer conceded at last, retiring from a tournament for the first time in 763 matches because of lower back pain. It has continued to bother him, but history won't care. Nadal "shot him through the heart by winning Wimbledon," Courier says. "Roger was not at full tilt, but it doesn't matter, because it changed the energy between them -- possibly for the rest of their careers."
Federer's breakdown just before Nadal received the '09 Australian Open winner's trophy was the most obvious sign of the shift, but there had been earlier indications. Asked the day before the final whether he relished another shot at his archrival, Federer said, "Honestly, I preferred the days when I didn't have a rival." Nadal had exhausted himself in a five-hour, 14-minute semifinal the day before, but as soon as the final began, Federer seemed out of sorts. Worse, unlike Nadal when he was No. 2, Federer didn't commit himself to attacking his rival, to shaking him out of his comfort zone. Twice Federer ran around his backhand and staggered Nadal with forehand winners, but he never did that again. "Twice in 4½ hours?" Wilander asks. "Why not show Nadal something different?"
The answer lies in the regal language always used to describe Federer. Born to rule, he has never been interested in fighting for power; that's why in his current exile he looks less like Napoleon plotting on Elba than like the puzzled Czar Nicholas II waiting for the world to right itself and restore his throne.
This attitude perplexes even Federer's staunchest admirers. Former players, coaches, peers: They all accept that his talent is, as Wilander says, "crazy," but his passive response to Nadal goes against what they've been taught a superstar does when he's down. Muhammad Ali came up with rope-a-dope, an aging Michael Jordan perfected the fadeaway jumper: The great ones adjust, sending a signal not only to their rivals but also to all the newly emboldened. It's no shock that following Nadal's trail, No. 3 Andy Murray has won six of his last seven matches against Federer, and No. 4 Novak Djokovic has won three of their last five. "What makes me scratch my head," Courier says, "is how Roger doesn't shift."
The remedy most often prescribed for Federer's ailing game is hiring a coach such as Darren Cahill, who once counseled Agassi. Federer toyed with the idea in the off-season, but that he didn't follow up seemed further proof that he's not hearing alarm bells. Others suggest that he serve-and-volley more, or play more doubles to replicate the Olympic preparation that helped him win the gold medal in doubles in Beijing and the U.S. Open singles title last September. But if Federer insists on staying back and winning rallies from the baseline, the consensus is that he must shorten points to save energy for the decisive third and fifth sets he has lately been losing: He has to hit more low, short slices to throw off Nadal's rhythm, and he must put more bite on his flatter strokes.
Federer did that in the Australian Open final, but only when desperate; the instant he felt he had gained the momentum, he went back to the game on which he built his empire -- and that Nadal solved long ago. "Roger still feels he's just better [than Nadal]," Courier says. "And, frankly, he's not."
On March 30, at the Sony Ericsson Open at Key Biscayne, Fla., Nadal beat 74th-ranked Frederico Gil 7-5, 6-3, walked off the court and disappeared. Maymo waited in the locker room until Nadal showed 15 minutes later, steaming from a sprint on the elliptical trainer. "I wasn't happy with my play," he said, "so I punished myself."
The next night Federer, soon to be married to his longtime girlfriend and manager, Mirka Vavrinec, with whom he is expecting a child, downplayed the idea that he needs to adjust his game. He said he felt fresh, back in shape at last. "That's been my problem, not really Rafa or Andy or Djokovic," he said. "I feel like I'm about to turn the corner."
Four days later Federer lost to Djokovic in three sets, but more notable was how, down a break in the third, his forehand -- once the signature shot of the men's game -- deserted him. He danced forward as he had so often, an easy approach shot waiting for him at the T, swung ... and dumped the ball into the net. Federer stared at his racket a second, then smashed it on the ground. It made all the highlight shows.
But as the losses piled up over the spring -- to Stanislas Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, to Djokovic again in Rome -- another image from Key Biscayne came to mind. Following Federer's last win there, after he fielded questions in English, then Swiss-German, someone asked if he could answer a few in Spanish. This is part of tennis's law of succession: The new No. 1's mother tongue becomes a tour lingua franca. Nadal had deciphered the language of Federer's game, but those waiting to see if Federer has the stomach to respond in kind would find nothing encouraging this day.
"I'm not there yet," Federer said, trying to grin. "Maybe in the next life."