At the French Open this week, much of the talk will revolve around the holy trinity of the men’s draw.
While Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are the clear favorites to meet in the final, the father of the group, Roger Federer, continues to be, in many respects, the most intriguing.
This was made clear to me recently at a family gathering. My 72-year-old mother, born and brought up in cricket-centric Mumbai, India, shared a common experience with my wife’s 86-year-old grandmother, born and brought up in France. Earlier that morning, both had busied themselves with distracting activities one taking a long walk, the other going out for pastries so as not to get too blue after Federer dropped the first set against Tomas Berdych in the finals in Madrid. That afternoon, the two started an animated discussion about being unable to tolerate watching Federer lose, a conversation they could have with ease because Federer came back and won the next two sets.
This was not just a simple moment of avoided heartbreak that often accompanies sports fandom. These two women, from very different places in the world, felt a genuine, visceral sense of loss at the prospect of Federer losing. My guess as to why? In some ways, Federer is their perfect son: seemingly humble, always graceful, absurdly successful, and ever so manly in pink. I felt a tinge of jealousy, not only for Federer’s forehand, but also for his ability to alter my mother’s moods.
Djokovic and Nadal remain ultimately athletic phenomena. Most fans are interested in them as great tennis players. But Federer is both an athletic figure, and just as important, a cultural phenomenon.
This does not mean that Djokovic and Nadal have no cultural resonance. Both men have international endorsements and fervent fan bases — Djokovic with his Serbian roots, Nadal with his boyish fieriness born for clay by way of Majorca, Spain. But they do not have the resonance in the broader sense that Federer has gained in his decade-long dominance. While his story doesn’t possess the same metaphoric layers as Tiger Woods’ ascent (and fall), for many fans Federer remains the most alluring of the tennis threesome.
And this despite the fact that Federer has actually made for some really bland copy. While Nadal is charming and genuinely lost in translation at times (“No?”), there is nothing lost in translation when Federer assesses his wins. Speaking recently about tying Jimmy Connors for most Grand Slam match victories, Federer said, “Look, I obviously love the big tournaments. I have been so successful for such a long time, and to already tie that record [at] 30 years old is pretty incredible, so I’m very happy.” He starts off sounding humble, but quickly ends up somewhere far more brash. His clothing combinations seem far too planned (remember the Wimbledon jacket?), his hair cut too perfectly, and the Rolex is barely on the understated side of bling during trophy ceremonies.
And yet Federer remains beloved.
In a time when a supermodel in large sunglasses is an important accessory in an athlete’s entourage, Federer has been with the same woman since he began winning big. Mirka is always there as fan, wife, business partner and the mother of his twins. Federer has gone from being a hotheaded teenager to a responsible family man, and she has been looking on for most of that time, from Indian Wells to Monte Carlo and every tournament in between.
Starting in 2003, Federer piled up Grand Slam titles and quickly became both the consistent and hot young thing. But he has not won one since early 2010, marking his entry into the later stage of his career. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were here: champions who gobbled up victories in their 20s, but were replaced by younger versions of themselves when they hit their early 30s. Federer has now gone from being an object of awe to being an older, sympathetic figure who has had difficulty closing out big matches.
His 16 major championships are an undeniable marker of his legacy. But if he were to win a Grand Slam when two exceptional younger players are guarding the gates, 17 would become a mythic, poetic number in the Federer universe.
In 2006, the late writer David Foster Wallace, known for his maximalist style, made an equally maximalist pronouncement: Watching Federer was akin to a religious experience. In articulating Federer’s grace and beauty on the tennis court in this way, Wallace described the act of watching Federer as not just a simple moment of spectatorship, but as an exalted moment. In many ways, Wallace consecrated Federer’s play.
Perhaps what makes Federer’s appeal the greatest is nostalgia for a time when athletes didn’t have tattoos, weren’t accused of abusing steroids, were graceful in victory and defeat, and remained true to their wives. We see him in the way that we see the world through the Instagram photos that have become so popular: grainy, stylized, vintage, classic. Would it surprise any of us if he showed up at Wimbledon this summer in pleatless white trousers? Perhaps not.
The real surprise, of course, would be Federer holding the winner’s trophy at the end of the two weeks on Parisian clay.
I know of at least two women who would be delighted.