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Roger Federer has aged more gracefully than anyone should

We've been talking about Roger Federer's imminent decline for half a decade now. And there he is, the No. 2 player in the world, prepping for yet another Wimbledon semifinal.

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Sam Querrey has played the entire point almost perfectly. The 27-year-old from Las Vegas has never lacked for ground strokes, and he is pushing Roger Federer around the court. With Federer stuck on the backhand side of the court, Querrey hits a pretty good approach shot to the forehand side. It probably sits up a bit more than he would prefer, but he's in good position at the net.

Federer is well behind the baseline, running nearly full-speed. It would be nearly impossible for him to hit an effective lob from this position, especially against the imposing, 6'6 Querrey. So his most realistic options are to shoot for a crosscourt winner or aim down the line.

This is, however, Roger Federer. He goes with option 3: an impossibly hard forehand, a four-seam fastball, right at Querrey's belly. It's going to handcuff him, and it will be difficult to handle no matter what. But as soon as it crosses the net, it vanishes, sinking to Querrey's feet and forcing a mishit. In both tennis parlance and metaphorical terms, Federer will soon break Querrey. After splitting the first eight games, Federer will win 14 of the final 18 games and cruise to the third round at Wimbledon.

If you attempted that forehand on the run, with that kind of spin, it would have sailed over the fence behind the court.

Time is cruel and undefeated. Granted, it is in its sixth decade of battling Herschel Walker to a draw, but it has never lost. It is reeling in Roger Federer, too. It has taken away some of his return prowess. And it has taken some of the spin off of his slice. It has left his defense -- always very good but never quite as elite as others' -- a few steps off from its peak.

But it has left the forehand intact, and it has left him nimble enough to use it. Even Time has been subdued by Roger Federer's offensive game.


A few weeks ago, I took up tennis again after more than a decade on the sidelines. Some combination of writing, lacking a playing partner, and having a kid meant my availability for heading to the courts was null. It's been a fun(ish) process, trying to put together each stroke manually. Ah, here's the forehand; good to see you, old friend. Yep, the slice backhand is still hanging out in this neighborhood. Anybody know where the flat serve moved? Can't find a known address. Would love to get in touch.

Getting in tune with my tennis game again has reaffirmed what I and so many others have believed for a long while: that Roger Federer is the tennis player's ultimate tennis player.

This isn't an original thought. Perhaps the most famous, most perfect tennis piece of all time was written with this premise. But it remains true.

Watch Novak Djokovic play, and you see a fifth-degree black belt at or near the peak of his power. He has learned the sport, he understands the sport, he can make every shot, and he knows when to use them. He is an incredible tennis player, the best in the world. He is a charitable, charming champion.

But in your head, you can almost talk yourself into becoming his approximation -- if I worked for 20 hours a day, got into superhuman shape, slept in a hyperbaric chamber, and gave up eating real foods in favor of gluten-free protein morsels, I could play a lot like him. This is patently untrue, of course, and you know it. But his game just makes sense to you. He has mastered the book, but his game is, in many ways, by the book.

The more you play, the more you hit, the less sense Federer makes. He is practicing Krav Maga in a karate competition. His game is, and always has been, focused more on offense than the games of other greats. And he creates offense in ways that few ever have. Tennis has become so athletic, so physical, so fast that the top level of talent is nearly homogeneous, with even the worst offensive players able to hit backhand winners and the worst defenders able to track balls down and hit a decent slice. But Federer still plays a different game than anybody else.

It's not necessarily a better game, mind you. But it's still different.

Granted, as he approaches his 34th birthday, Federer is still the No. 2 player in the world. That's not bad considering we thought he was rapidly approaching the finish line two years ago (and considering Grantland's Brian Phillips wrote a lovely piece about Federer's "long autumn" four years ago). But he got some rest for his ailing back and broke in a bigger racquet, and he's back near the top of the sport.

But after reaching 23 slam semifinals in a row between 2004 and 2010, he's 'only' reached five of the last 12. In that span, tracing back to the 2012 U.S. Open, Djokovic has reached 11. Despite a spell with injuries, Andy Murray has reached seven. Countrymate Stan Wawrinka has reached four and won two titles. Rafael Nadal has missed three slams with injury and has completely lost hope at Wimbledon, but he has still reached four semis and won three titles.

Be it age, the field catching up to him a smidge, or simply other (younger) players being better than he is in best-of-5 situations, Federer's chances of winning another slam, to go with the 17 titles he already owns, are slim. Even at Wimbledon, where he's won seven times in 12 years, he lost in the finals to Djokovic last year and will have to go through both Murray and, barring upset, Djokovic to win this year.


When you are capable of the beauty that Federer creates, you create unreasonable expectations. We're never content with a single glimpse at beauty; we want a relationship with it. We want to see it whenever we can. And by the time he was approaching his 22nd birthday, Federer was considered disappointing. A man with this offensive game had only been past the fourth round in two of his first 16 slams? What a waste.

In 2001, he reached the quarterfinals of the French Open, then knocked out Sir Pete Sampras to reach the quarters at Wimbledon. But he fell to Tim Henman in the next match, and the next year he crashed in the first round of both tournaments, losing in straight sets first to Hicham Arazi and then to Mario Ancic.

The greatness we assumed had gone from "when" to "if."

Like the stereotypical artiste who is capable of creating the greatest visions you've ever seen but can't be counted on to deliver it on deadline, those most capable of creative shot-making are often incapable of a sustained level of greatness. Just ask Grigor Dimitrov, the 24-year old Bulgarian who has been the "next Federer" for nearly five years but has reached only two slam quarterfinals and one semi and is just 5-3 at slams in 2015. Ask members of an entire generation of tantalizing French players with gorgeous strokes, creativity, and spotty mental fortitude -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, and Richard Gasquet (who plays Djokovic in Friday's semifinals, eight years after his last Wimbledon semis appearance).

It was therefore unfair to ask for Federer to sustain his aesthetic delight while also breaking through. It doesn't usually work that way. It was certainly unfair to ask that he become, at worst, one of the three or four best and most successful players ever. And it was impossible to ask him to continue delighting as he reached his mid-30s. He turns 34 in August. In Jimmy Connors' age 34 year, he won two slam matches. That's two more than John McEnroe (who had retired the year before) or Pete Sampras (who had done so nearly three years earlier). Andre Agassi was able to reach the U.S. Open finals at 35, but Agassi was the exception to a lot of rules. Federer isn't pulling a Serena here, but in discussing his imminent fade, we seem to have gone back from "when" to "if."

Federer plays Andy Murray in the semifinals on Friday. Murray is more of a Djokovic-style black belt than a Federer-style artist, but he's a delight in his own ways. He's a nerd, for starters. And the days of him feeling uncomfortable in his skin are long gone. He is confident and progressive, relaxed and ready. He has played frequently brilliant tennis of his own in 2015, and he has to be considered the favorite over five sets. And if Federer wins, then it's probably Djokovic on Sunday. The odds are long. He has to shrink points and avoid long grinds, and that's nearly impossible against defenders like Murray and Djoker.

And that's fine. Twelve years after his first slam title and three years after his last, the tennis player's tennis player still hits shots that baffle, creates winners from nothing, and knocks mostly unreturnable serves into corners of the box. In an age when Rafael Nadal is battling both injuries and confidence, when Murray has dealt with back injuries, and when many of the so-called next generation of potential stars have seen either injury or stalled development, Federer's mere presence is a wink from Father Time, a nod that even He appreciates aesthetics.