Roger Federer's secret sauce
Greg Garber | ESPN | Jan 14, 2017
Some great artists age exceptionally well.
Picasso worked well into his 80s. Jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal (86) and McCoy Tyner (78) still tour and record. Toni Morrison published her first novel at the age of 40, while Mark Twain wrote "Huckleberry Finn" at the age of 49.
Roger Federer, with his eternally breathtaking brushstrokes, falls into the same category. His exceptional vision, faultless footwork and even those butter-soft hands were all still on display in Hopman Cup play last week, six months after he withdrew from the remainder of the 2016 season, in Perth, Australia.
"At 35, I don't think he acts his age at all," said Mary Carillo, who will anchor Tennis Channel's coverage of the upcoming Australian Open. "Artists live by different rules and create their own environment. He's aware of the beauty he creates.
"The joy of Roger is that he plays the sport, but for him it's also a game. He's got a boyish attitude. That's why Rog can look forward to a great 2017."
"I am starting to feel the ball better and better, and I am just moving around the court better," Federer said to the press after beating Richard Gasquet. "I am happy with where my level is at. I am very pleased that it is already going so well."
The 17-time Grand Slam singles champion is coming off a year that included his first major surgery (torn meniscus, left knee) and, for the first time since 2000, zero titles in a single season. He has said he wants to play two or three more years. Can he, clearly past his prime, approach the form that has made him a major threat in recent years?
Because he is Federer, his performance suffers by comparison -- to himself.
Since winning his fourth Australian Open title in 2010, Federer has played 25 of 27 majors. He came away with only one title (2012 Wimbledon), but casual tennis fans might be surprised to learn that he also made four more finals and 10 additional semifinals. In the two majors he played in 2016, at the age of 34, he reached the semifinals in both, at the Australian Open and at Wimbledon.
Paul Annacone, who coached both Federer and Pete Sampras to their final Slam victories -- at the time of their respective victories, each had the highest men's total ever, a record Federer still holds -- said Federer's first goal is to stay healthy.
"Rog is such a meticulous prep guy," said Annacone, also a Tennis Channel analyst who will be in Melbourne. "He really trusts his process. Instead of setting result-oriented goals, he's trying to stay healthy and put work in. Results will take care of themselves.
"I went through it with Pete [Sampras] a little bit. The idea of them winning a major is not a huge problem in their minds. The bigger challenge is sustainability. How long can they play at a high level for an entire season? I know he'd like to win a major. He'd also like to play well for the entire year."
According to Federer's longtime agent, Tony Godsick, when doctors told the Swiss player he'd have to miss the Rio Olympics and the US Open, he decided to double the time off they recommended and sit out the rest of the season.
"The key thing was, he needed to take some time to rest his knee, instead of playing and rehabbing at the same time," said Godsick, president and CEO of TEAM8. "He needed to stop grinding on it. The time off gave him a chance to get fit in ways you're not able to do if you're playing 12 months.
"It was a long-term gain versus short-term success. This was something new for him. It might have given him that extra boost."
Once the knee healed in late October, Federer was reportedly diligent in his strength and conditioning work with Pierre Paganini. He live-streamed a practice session last month with Frenchman Lucas Pouille from Federer's favored off-season training venue in Dubai.
"I actually felt like I had my first comeback in April, when I came back in Monaco," Federer told the New York Times in a wide-ranging interview last month. "But this one feels bigger, obviously, because two months [off] is not like six months.
"Clearly, this comeback is going to have a different place in my career, for sure. I'm still hungry, and now I'm even refreshed and rejuvenated."
As Carillo observed, "I feel good about Roger's mindset, his sensibilities. His drive you never question.
"He can't wait to be Roger Federer again."
The Federer entourage has become a familiar sight at events around the world.
You can glimpse at 7-year-old twins, Myla and Charlene, sitting in the player box at Roland Garros, working feverishly on their coloring books or jumping in puddles on High Street in Wimbledon Village. The 2-year-old twins, Leo and Lenny, invariably are fussed over by a nanny or two, their mother, Mirka, and sometimes Federer's parents.
"He is a player that loves the lifestyle," observed two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst. "So many players stop because they don't. Roger seems to thrive in all of that. He's a hometown favorite wherever he goes, and everything just seems to wash off his back."
Godsick has seen the evolution of Federer as a family man.
"A lot of people get bogged down by the travel, but he's the opposite," Godsick said. "He embraces it and has friends all around the world. The kids have friends all around the world, and they look forward to revisiting those cities where they've been welcomed."
Tennis, of course, is the driving force.
"People look for answers, the secret sauce," Godsick said. "It's simple: He loves tennis. He hasn't won a Grand Slam for many years, and he's still at it. He's challenging himself. That's what motivates him, is the challenge.
"When his body tells him he can't compete at the level he's accustomed to, he'll probably start thinking about what comes next."
Australian Ken Rosewall won four Grand Slam singles titles after he turned 33, the last, the 1972 Australian Open, at the remarkable age of 37. More recently, Andre Agassi was 32 when he won the 2003 Australian Open.
"I do believe," Austin insisted, "Roger feels he has that capacity [to win a major]. "
Annacone, who has seen the fire in Federer's eyes from close range, goes further.
"Look, six, seven months ago he was playing in the semifinals at Wimbledon, being far from 100 percent," Annacone said. "I feel he can definitely win another major title for sure. It's not a question in my mind. Whether he does remains to be seen.
"What he'll do is try and get to the Australian Open 100 percent healthy. Then it's about management of the year. Yes, seven matches at a major, best-of-five, that's a big ask.
"The fact he's done it -- done it 17 times -- that helps him."
Australian Open - Roger Federer's secret sauce