The long autumn of Roger Federer

Roger Federer has spent longer as a “still” athlete than any great player I can remember. You could even argue that it’s one of the signs of his greatness. Other top players hit the “still” moment, hang around for a little longer, and then whoosh, they’re gone, broken up into memorial clips and Hall of Fame inductions, classic rock bands who’ve sold their copyrights. Federer, after three straight years of diminished results — 11 to 12 singles titles a year from 2004 to 2006, then eight in 2007, and four to five every year since — is … well, still really amazing. He’s still near his best, which means he’s still playing some of the best tennis the world has ever seen. If anything, he’s improved his serve to compensate for what’s maybe been a slight decline in his movement and shot-making — although, as McEnroe pointed out during the French Open, his movement is “still great.” Heading into Wimbledon, historically his best tournament, he warmed up at the French by sensationally ending Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak and playing as well as Paris has ever seen him play against Nadal.

But because he’s been “still great” for so long — because we keep seeing the end coming, even if it never actually comes — Federer has also acquired an aura of weird sadness over the past few years that’s hard to reconcile with the way we used to think about him. And even though that’s only been possible because he’s still so good, it’s a jarring development, because at his peak, Federer was probably the best athlete in the world at making greatness look utterly natural. Nobody seemed more effortless, or more graceful, or more beyond time than Federer from, say, 2003 to 2007. Now we’ve seen him lose 350 French Open finals to Nadal, fall hopelessly behind in their personal rivalry, and struggle to keep younger players like Djokovic and Andy Murray from overtaking him. Had his decline been quicker — had he spent less time in that slow glide down through “still” — a lot of that never would have happened, and we’d have gone on seeing him as the invincible icon he once was.15 As it is, he’s been on the precipice for so long that we’ve stopped seeing him and started seeing only the precipice.

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Most hated man in America:

The phone calls to my house were actually creepier. It’s a whole different fright machine when a human voice is attached to the madness and you think: “This person literally risked arrest to say this over a phone line!” You had to admire the balls – or insanity – of that.

But the worst moments were when people came on to our property. These individuals would just walk down the driveway, always looking like rejects from the cast of Night of the Living Dead, never moving very fast, but always advancing with singleminded purposefulness. Few were actual haters; most were just crazy. We kept the sheriff’s deputies busy until they finally suggested we might want to get our own security, or perhaps our own police force. Which we did.

We met with the head of the top security agency in the country, an elite outfit that did not hire ex-cops, nor any “tough guys” or bouncer-types. They preferred to use only Navy Seals and other ex–Special Forces. Guys who had a cool head and who could take you out with a piece of dental floss in a matter of nanoseconds. By the end of the year, due to the alarming increase of threats and attempts on me, I had nine ex-Seals surrounding me, round-the-clock.

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