Support for Roger Federer out in Flushing last week at the United States Open’s men’s final was mob-loud and unruly. There was raucous cheering every time Novak Djokovic netted a first serve, and calculated yelling when he was in his service motion. This owed something to the three-hour rain delay, which, to judge from the lines snaking from the alcohol concessions at Arthur Ashe Stadium, led many fans to tailgate, albeit with pink drinks.
I’m inclined to think the booze enabled the affluent thousands to express not only a deep-rooted anxiety for Federer but also — at the risk of freighting sports with too much meaning, a perilous undertaking — about themselves. Fed is aging: He just turned 34, late-middle age in tennis years. But he was still at it, battling and surviving, winning more often than not, and never showing fear, even as the players around him and the game itself kept changing. On the court, he was the urban professional in midlife that everyone in those courtside seats and corporate suites hoped to be: coolly thriving in a workday world of seemingly ceaseless disruption, intimidated by neither the youth gunning for him nor change, finding a way to balance work and life (four kids!), reveling in the provisional way of things now.
And doing what we tend to think only the young can do: innovating. This summer in Cincinnati, he introduced with a bull rush of a service return that was quickly called the SABR, for Sneak Attack by Roger. On an opponent’s softer second serve, he raced in, taking the ball on a half-volley at the service line and, when it worked, taking his opponent by surprise. After he used it against Djokovic in the final out there, pushing a volley winner past the world’s top-ranked player, Djokovic’s coach, the former champion Boris Becker, called it “almost” disrespectful, though he acknowledged there was no rule against it. (It is not unusual for a player to move laterally while an opponent is serving.)
At the Open, fans loved it. Fed got raucous midpoint cheers the half-dozen times he tried it against Djokovic in the final. It worked half the time. Twice, Djokovic lofted perfect lob winners over Fed’s head. But the crowd oohed and aahed regardless, and screamed for more. He was a guy with two sets of twins at home (when does he sleep?) and he had the new idea!
Federer has been loved by New Yorkers for years, of course. Just ask Andy Roddick, who heard the cheers for Roger when, as America’s best tennis player, he faced him (and lost to him) in the Open final of 2006. Federer was urbane, and has grown only more so. During his stay in New York for the two weeks of this year’s Open, he ventured from his suite at the Carlyle to attend a performance of “Hamilton,” view “China: Through the Looking Glass” at the Met and eat sushi at Kappo Masa. His tennis self, too, has always been debonair and, just as crucial (and sophisticated), open to reinvention. With a racket in his right hand, Fed is the on-court embodiment of that free-verse epigram from Frank O’Hara, the ur-New York School poet of contemporary cultivation, etched for eternity on his East Hampton gravestone: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”
Federer began his career in the late 1990s idolizing Pete Sampras, using the same small-headed Wilson racket Pete did, and playing his kind of tennis. The world got its first glimpse of just how good he was when, 19 and pony-tailed, he played Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2001, which Federer won in five sets of aces (25 apiece), service winners, serve-and-volley, points at net and passing shots.
But with the switch of grass types at Wimbledon and the gritting up of hardcourt surfaces, both of which slowed the ball, and developments in racket and string technology that allowed for greater topspin, the game soon changed — players were driven back to the baseline and kept there for long rallies. Federer played this kind of tennis better than almost anyone else, too, stepping inside the baseline the minute he glimpsed an opportunity and angling flattened-out forehands cross-court or inside-out to the far corners. Only Rafael Nadal came to dominate him, largely on the strength of an astonishing lefty forehand that sent the ball toward Fed’s backhand spinning like fluid in a centrifuge and bounding shoulder high, where, with his small-headed racket, he couldn’t get on top of the incoming ball to drive it back.
Federer eventually (but why not sooner?) switched to a racket with a larger head, which has improved that backhand considerably and also, as he has said, kept the pop in his pinpoint serve that age would have otherwise diminished. In recent years he has also, at the urging of his coach Stefan Edberg, begun coming to net again — not as often as he did in his early days, but often enough to shorten points, conserve energy and stay on the attack. If tennis was changing, he was going to be the change agent.
Fed lost the Open final, as he lost this summer’s Wimbledon final, to Djokovic in four sets. It’s the best rivalry in tennis, but it is one that Djokovic has come to dominate: 15-8 this decade. If Fed was crushed by the loss he didn’t show it: He was still standing, still ranked No. 2, still improving or trying to, and still loved for that. The biggest roar he heard all night? When, during the trophy presentations, he said he’d be back next year.
Gerald Marzorati, a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the author of a forthcoming tennis memoir, Late to the Ball.