Published On: Sun, Jan 28th, 2018

Roger Federer just keeps showing up for work

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If it sometimes seems like Roger Federer is unflappable and doesn’t get nervous, his fourth set against Marin Cilic in the Australian Open final offered a reminder that he is, if not physically human, then at least possessed of human sensibilities.

Up a break, and just three games from a 20th Grand Slam title, Federer started thinking about the finish line, and promptly lost faith in his groundstrokes, started short-arming his serves, and dropped five straight games to get pushed to a deciding set.

“During the match I constantly thought about the fact that I could reach 20,” Federer told SRF’s Svenja Mastroberardi after the smoke had cleared. “I was nervous the whole day. I thought about what would happen if I lose, if I win.”

If you were wondering whether Federer deals with nerves like other humans, the fifth set offered an answer. Having let himself get dragged into what looked, for a moment, like it would be a dogfight, Federer saved a pair of break points in his opening service game, held with a wickedly angled backhand that clipped the sideline, broke Cilic the following game, and turned the deciding set into a rout.

Meanwhile, Cilic – who’d played such potent, gutsy tennis to get himself back into the match – provided a good point of comparison. He couldn’t hold it together in the fifth, especially after dumping a second-serve return into the net on break point in that opening game. He collapsed from there, double-faulting twice in the following game to get broken, spraying errors all over the court, and never threatening again. He hit just four winners in the set, compared to 16 unforced errors. After giving Federer a good scare, he graciously got out of the way.

“I think experience helped me there a little bit, and also a little bit of luck,” Federer said after the match. “I felt like I needed a little bit tonight.”

Before imploding, Cilic had Federer sweating. The smooth-moving Croat took huge cuts on returns, cracked ungodly forehands on the move, and relentlessly attacked the Federer backhand. He’d found himself down a set just 24 minutes into the match, but managed to rebound from that disastrous start and play himself into a beautiful rhythm, to the point that he looked like the favorite heading into the final set.

But Federer came up with the answers. His backhand held up, and he rediscovered the range on his serve. He got into Cilic’s service game with his wild aggression on returns, some of which he took from just behind the service line. He upped his intensity to match the moment, bellowing after winning big points and firing up the crowd. It was a welcome change from the pair’s last meeting at a Slam, in last year’s Wimbledon final, when Cilic was hampered by blisters and couldn’t put up any kind of a fight. This time, Federer had to get his hands a bit dirty. This time, he had to grind.

All of which is to say, Federer wasn’t at his best in this match, and didn’t have to be; he only had to be good enough. The performance itself was not extraordinary. What is extraordinary is that for Federer, in his age-37 season, in his 20th year on tour, there’s still a “good enough” that means being the last man standing at a Grand Slam.

Most of the other members of his age group are long retired. The era with which he’s now more closely and commonly associated is made up of guys who are five and six years his junior, and yet it’s they who are now breaking down physically, while Federer fights on to defend their kingdom from the hungry-eyed young invaders. That six-month hiatus that helped launch his stunning resurgence and was supposed to become the new blueprint for aging stars? It hasn’t quite worked out the same way for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, or Stan Wawrinka so far. A few years down the road, after there’s been a transition of power, you can almost imagine Federer still lingering in the castle, part of the next ruling class with the likes of Sascha Zverev and Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov.

You can attach some caveats to his latest triumph – he didn’t play any other member of the Big Five, didn’t have to face a top-15 player until the final, saw his semifinal opponent derailed by a blister, and got bailed out by Cilic when he was on the ropes – but the fact remains that Federer just keeps showing up, at tournament after tournament, major after major, and playing better than anyone put in front of him. It’s true he needed a bit of luck in the final, but nobody wills his own luck into existence quite like Federer does. In the end, Cilic collapsed and Federer did not. Sometimes it’s that simple.

So now, after a half-decade-long Slam title drought that for a while felt permanent – and at one point had people literally calling on him to retire to preserve his legacy – he’s won three of the last four majors he’s played. His late-career renaissance gets more ridiculous by the week, and even he seems awestruck and disbelieving about the whole thing.

“The fairy tale continues,” he said in his champion’s speech, before breaking down into sobs.

What stands out about late-career Federer, on top of his continued success and the aw-shucks sincerity with which he marvels at it, is how much this still so obviously means to him.

I mean, look at this goober:

It was such a raw emotional display, from a guy who’d been there and done that so many times before, that people started to wonder whether there wasn’t something else going on. Was Federer weeping out of pride, or were these the tears of a man who’d seen the breadth of his domain and realized there were no more worlds to conquer? Was he preparing to hang up his hankie?

So pervasive was this feeling that Federer was actually asked in post-match press why he hadn’t mentioned anything in his speech about being back in Melbourne in 2019. He flatly denied there was any significance to it. No, it seems Federer was just emotional about … well, everything.

“When I start thinking about what I was going to say, every subject I touch actually is very meaningful and very emotional,” he explained. “Thanking your team, congratulating Marin, thanking the people, thanking the tournament. At the end it’s like one big party.”

Sometimes it seems like the secret to Federer’s success is exactly this: his ability to find joy and meaning in almost every aspect of his job, from the sport of tennis itself, to life on the tour, to his interminable post-match repartee with Jim Courier, right down to the minutiae like thanking the damn tournament directors.

“I enjoy practice,” Federer said, when asked how he maintains his motivation at this stage of his career. “Not minding the travel. Having a great team around me, they make it possible. At the end it’s seeing that my parents are incredibly proud and happy that I’m still doing it. They enjoy coming to tournaments. That makes me happy and play better.”

Federer, particularly this late-career version of him, seems wholly within himself, almost impervious to existential crisis. Maybe physical longevity is easier when you expend so little mental and emotional energy on self-doubt.

At the end of the day, Federer is just a guy who loves his job, and happens to be better at it than just about anybody is at anything.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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