The idiomatic nature of language is a funny thing. Roger Federer can probably attest to that more than just about anyone since it seems he speaks about a thousand languages – he actually speaks four fluently and bits of others. Federer has mastered his languages much as he has mastered his play on the tennis court, with a grace and panache that is generally found at a cocktail party, not a sporting event. Federer’s poise has the remarkable ability to humble fans while at the same time endearing them to his manner. It would take a thorough review of a thesaurus to make a comprehensive list of the glowing adjectives used to describe Federer throughout his career, yet perhaps the one word (and its many variations) that best describes him and his success is: spoiler.
Federer cemented his place in the tennis world with a great big spoiler. Then a 19 year old up-and-comer, Federer defeated four time defending champion Pete Sampras in the quarters of Wimbledon 2001. Looking back at that match, it seems scripted that the greatest grass court champion of his generation, Sampras, would lose and in many ways pass the torch to the man, Federer, who would go on to break Sampras’ own record of all time Grand Slam titles. It wasn’t until 2003 that Federer broke through for his first title at the All England Club, which was also the first of the record 17 Slams, but that spoiler against Sampras remains one of the most iconic moments in a dazzling career.
Over the next decade Federer didn’t do a whole lot. He only broke or tied just about every single Open Era record that tennis has to offer. He only completed a career Grand Slam, and was only the most dominant man in sports. There were points when that dominance was borderline boring. He spoiled fans and for that we became complacent. Rafael Nadal entered to provide a rival for Federer, but even the greatest clay court player of all time could only slightly slow Federer from plowing through the record books with more verve than James Bond.
2003-2013 should forevermore be declared the decade of Roger. So complete was his mastery (and spoiling) of his sport that fans and media actually began to act entitled when it came to his success. His recent “decline” is the most indicative pulse of that achievement. For the first time in his career the tennis world has questioned Fed. He is out of the top four in the world rankings for the first time since the Wimbledon title in 03. He has only one Slam title since the beginning of 2010 (Wimbledon 2012). He lost in the second round of Wimbledon this year, his first lost before the quarters of a Slam since 2004, a streak of 36 quarterfinals. He only has one individual tour title all year (Gerry Weber Open). Yet despite all that perceived decline, Federer still finds himself a Top Ten player (7th) and in good health for his age.
Often taken for granted over Federer’s run, was that health. The man – besides a case of mono – never seemed to miss any time on the court. In fact he barely ever saw a trainer. That itself spoiled us. Nadal brings a lot to the table, but coming off a seven month lay-off for his knees, many already question how long Nadal can keep it up. Having recently turned 32, Federer looks as if he could keep playing at a high level – not by his standards, but by mortal ones – for at least a few more years. It’s unclear whether he might hang up the racket early if he isn’t achieving his desired success, but Federer has always been hyper competitive and has a love for the game that seems unmatched, so I wouldn’t bet on him retiring any time soon.
Coming off that disappointing defeat at Wimbledon, Fed finds himself with much to prove at this U.S. Open. He arrives at Flushing Meadows with the role of spoiler back on his shoulders – not the spoiler of fans, as he was for his decade, but once again spoiler of the draw. Not many pundits are not giving the Swiss legend much of a chance, but the man is still the gold standard for the “golden era” of men’s tennis. The fact that Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Nadal are still in the primes of their respective illustrious careers doesn’t give many other men much of a chance, but Fed is not another man, he is a tennis demi-god. Until that gorgeous one-handed backhand, that impeccable court movement, that flair for creativity, and that overbearing forehand retire from the game with him, Fed will continue to spoil in every way. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, but with Federer it isn’t hard to see we’ve got a legend. Keep spoiling us with your tennis artistry, Roger, we promise to enjoy every moment.