Sporting Life

At 35, papa Federer has earned his fairy tale

God, whichever one is in charge of tennis, loves Roger Federer. There is no other explanation. Nothing human can account for what is going on. Look at it this way: There are only that many fairy tales in sport and they're rightly reserved for certain kind of folk.

Like boxer James Braddock, who worked in the docks and then won the heavyweight title. Like fellows such as Muhammad Ali who were banned for years because they stood for a cause and then returned to greatness. Like drivers such as Niki Lauda who crashed and burned and were read the last rites and then came back to win an F1 title.

So how did Federer - 35, resting for six months, and now winner of the Australian Open and Indian Wells - ever qualify for a fairy tale? His whole life has been one. No?

His opponents like him, for god's sake. Foreign crowds want to adopt him, for heaven's sake. His life has such immaculate balance that only he could have twin girls and twin boys. He had 17 Grand Slam titles before 2017, no mid-career injury interruption and more followers than some religions. For him a hard time has probably been finding rooms for his trophies.


Swiss legend Roger Federer holding his trophy on a confetti-strewn court in Indian Wells, California, after beating his countryman Stan Wawrinka.
 PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Still he gets a fairy tale?

But of course we know why there's been a 2017 fairy tale for Federer. It's a long-service prize for being so terrifyingly normal despite being terrifically talented and for saying excruciatingly rational things like he needs very little to be happy.

 

"I'm just happy being surrounded by family and friends. That's good enough for me. Not lying, winning helps to be happy, because losing ain't fun when you travel around the world and you play a shocker match and you're, like, 'Now what?'... But other than that, I'm just really happy with very little. It could be anything. Could be dinner with friends. Could be ... reading a book to my boys and my girls."

Federer has earned his fairy tale because he doesn't throw tantrums, hasn't been caught with drugs or porn stars, isn't a racist or a cheat, leads his sport with distinction, is admired by genetically sceptical journos, and at the Australian Open in 2007 when asked about the adulation of commentators, replied "What means adulation?" He was told it means "almost drooling over how good you are".

Did I mention he plays somewhat stylishly?

Federer has earned his fairy tale because he doesn't throw tantrums, hasn't been caught with drugs or porn stars, isn't a racist or a cheat, leads his sport with distinction, is admired by genetically sceptical journos... Did I mention he plays somewhat stylishly?

He deserves his fairy tale because he loves tennis, a man of gentle conceits but with a genuine affection for angles. On Sunday he hit a half-volley forehand drive and followed it with a low backhand drop volley. I'll bet people in at least 45 nations gave him a standing ovation in their living rooms.

He's reaped the fairy tale because he's plain greedy: The greatest modern player who still wants to be greater. A man with all the shots who wants even more shots. So first the older Federer tried the SABR, which was a silly acronym (Sneak Attack By Roger) for a helluva idea which isn't used that often. Now he's improved his backhand.

Great athletes tinker because they're insecure, hungry - Tom Brady eats avocado ice-cream - and smart. Ali couldn't dance any more and learnt to take a punch. Michael Jordan couldn't muscle his way in and added the fadeaway jump shot. Federer, in his athletic dotage, has turned a relatively diffident shot, which his rivals aimed at, into a dangerous one.

In the Australian Open final, he didn't just slice or block his backhand, he slapped it and cuffed it. In Indian Wells, Rafael Nadal down 1-3, break point, Federer steps into the tramline and slugs a backhand winner down the line.

Even in the first game of Sunday's final, Federer was belting backhands. It wasn't quite a stand-out shot in a slightly flat match but it is an assertive stroke, hit on the rise, that suits him so well that you wonder why he didn't do it before.

"All my coaches," he said "throughout my career have told me to go more for the backhand, but I used to shank more. So maybe deep down I didn't always believe that I had it in the most important moments. But I think that's changing little by little, which I'm very happy about." Of course he is. If it stays in working order, his backhand will be a rather fine weakness to have.

Meanwhile, not only is Federer's injured back just fine, but the bodies of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray aren't. Federer didn't play either one in Melbourne, or an in-form Nick Kyrgios in Indian Wells, and also faced a Nadal in Australia who had a day's less rest and had just gone 15 bare-knuckle rounds with Grigor Dimitrov.

It seems like a heavenly chessmaster is moving the pieces, but this is sport, this is how it abruptly turns, this is how luck arrives, this is how adeptly champions grasp it. Already Federer is rising in the rankings, already you wonder if he'll skip the French, already in March on hard court there is talk of him on grass in June. Fairy tales after a while are prone to breed fantasy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'At 35, papa Federer has earned his fairy tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe