- Peter Bodo, Tennis
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If you didn’t know better, you might be convinced that these are the best days of Roger Federer's life.
The way he's been telling it, winning 17 Grand Slam titles is nice, but how can you compare it with the fun of trying a new racket? Being the guy who steps into the locker room and causes a hush to fall over the place is kind of cool, but it just isn't in the same league as being a guy who fits in -- a schmoe who loses a lot of matches, just like everyone else.
And shattering all those Grand Slam records? Sure it's a good feeling. But challenging the record book is like tilting at windmills. Why bother, when you can play for yourself and your loved ones and leave it at that? You know, do your own thing, live by your own lights, and to heck with what the world says about it.
Legions of the Federer faithful have been tearing out their hair and running their fingernails through the flesh of their cheeks as they've watched their hero slide to No. 8 in the computer rankings. But the icon himself claims to be loving his new life as an also-ran's also-ran, and acting as though he's got all the time in the world to add to his trophy collection.
"Now my situation is comfortable, too," Federer told reporters at the beginning of this week's tournament in Dubai. "I feel like I am enjoying myself out on the court. I don't get too carried away or too nervous necessarily every single match. I don't get stomach cramps like I used to when I was younger. It's a bit more enjoyable now these days."
Imagine if Federer had arrived at this place a few years ago. For one thing, this column probably would be about Rafael Nadal's quest to equal Pete Sampras' Grand Slam singles title record. What we have here is a New Age Federer -- or is it just a newly aged Federer?
Whatever the case, Federer doesn't appear to have a care in the world. And the really scary thing, at least for those who will come up against him in the weeks and months to come, is that this indifference to what some would describe as the death spiral of his career seems genuine.
This isn't a guy who's just whistling past the graveyard. He's either figured out how to accept the first, major obstacles that lie on the far side of the peak of his career, or he's as good a liar as he is a tennis player.
"I feel as if I'm in as good a shape as I have been for a year, so that's very encouraging," he said. "I feel my best tennis is around the corner. I know I've said that a few times, but this time I really feel it's the case."
Give me a break. Federer even admits that he's made comparably rosy diagnoses of his chances in the past, only to see them discredited, and he seems OK with it. He seems to think we ought to be OK with it, too. What's this world coming to?
I don't know what's going to happen to Federer in the coming days, but I do know this: This man is 32 and writing the book on aging gracefully in tennis. There was a time when he won more tournaments in a month than he has in the past two years, but he's so levelheaded and emotionally strong that he makes it sound as if the trials he has faced lately have just made his life more interesting.
Federer also has backed up his attitude with some clever strategic thinking. Now that his Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka is No. 3 in the world and a Grand Slam champion, Federer's appetite for Davis Cup has been miraculously rekindled. He may not be able to cross the finish line first at a Grand Slam ever again, but he has figured out that together with 28-year-old Wawrinka they could bring home to Switzerland the team championship. It would increase Federer's status as a national treasure. And did you notice that it also would fill the only glaring hole in Federer's résumé?
When Federer was asked if it was important to him to win one more Wimbledon title, which would make him the only player to win the event eight times (one better than his pal Sampras), he replied: "That's not what I'm playing for. I'm playing for myself, for my team, for my country, you name it."
It was an interesting choice of words, saying "you name it." It suggests that he knows deep down that you need to play for something, but just what that something is may be immaterial. That's a real bit of wisdom, and a wise man can be a dangerous one. Maybe these really are the best days of Roger Federer's life.