Commentary

Roger Federer's verbal volleys

Updated: August 25, 2011, 4:48 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Roger Federer just turned 30 a couple of weeks ago, and he's increasingly behaving the way a lot of people do when they get older and they've accomplished many things. He's more inclined to say whatever the hell he wants and feel no need to apologize for it.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Elsa/Getty ImagesHe may be in a Slam drought, but Roger Federer hasn't stopped competing.

This is a notable departure for tennis's gentleman champion, the most finely calibrated and elegant athlete of his generation. It hasn't quite gotten to the point where he's openly griped that the champagne was flat at the French Open or the strawberries tasted musty at Wimbledon, let alone screamed at linesmen like a certain mop-haired champion of yore who parlayed his anti-establishment cries from the heart -- "YOU'RE THE PITS OF THE WORLD!" -- into a pretty fine endorsement career for the establishment.

But who knew Federer had even a whisper of an inner McEnroe?

Examples of the crankiness Federer allows himself now are scattered in his wake as he pulls into New York looking like the most intriguing story in the U.S. Open. The usual trigger is people asking Federer impertinent questions that revolve around the same theme -- how much longer does he think he can hang on as a top player, and is he "OK" with the fact that he hasn't won a Grand Slam title in 18 months? To Federer, this is beyond tedious. And every now and then, he can't help himself.

Behold Roger Federer's "You Can't Be Serious" phase:

"You know, I don't go through days thinking like, 'My God, I haven't won a Grand Slam in so long,'" he zinged a questioner at Wimbledon.

A compilation of his other remarks this summer: "I don't need to get into all that fuss. I just need to straighten the record sometimes; otherwise people go in a direction that's just ridiculous. … I just struggle when [the talk] goes from one extreme to the next. … [Novak] Djokovic is having a great year. … I like great stories. It's nice to be talking about this rather than four of us 'saving' tennis. … It's nice to talk about something more positive than saying after a certain time or when you have kids you can't win anymore, like many people tend to say. … I feel I've played well for more than a year now."

Then there was this exchange initiated by a reporter two weeks ago in Montreal: "It's your first match since you turned 30. How did it feel?"

Federer: "It felt good. I'm still able to move."

Perhaps TMZ can work the phones and tell us whether Federer's peevishness is all just because, say, Vogue editor Anna Wintour chose 19-year-old American Ryan Harrison as one of her new tennis "It" boys for the September issue that's hitting newsstands now, just as Federer -- her longtime muse -- is pulling into New York with the rest of the tennis world for the last major of the year.

One of the great underplayed stories of Federer's career is how there's always been a healthy ego living inside those cream-colored dinner jackets he used to wear onto Centre Court at Wimbledon. He once admitted he liked to spend tournament mornings in London spreading out the many daily newspapers there, then reading what everyone was writing about him. So at minimum, he's justifiably proud.

Roger Federer
Mike Coppola/Getty ImagesThe competition keeps getting younger, but Roger Federer isn't interested in answering questions about aging out of championship play.

That said, the gracious champion label that Federer enjoys is not overblown. Being a jerk really isn't part of his DNA. He always has looked like the most balanced man in tennis, a sport not renowned for fostering such behavior. It's important to stress that Federer is still liable to deliver his zingers with a half-smile rather than a snarl these days.

But winning 16 major titles -- the most in men's tennis history -- is an inextricable part of who he is, too.

The fact that this threatens to be the first year Federer has not won a major title since 2002 is another reason he looks like the most intriguing story in the U.S. Open men's draw.

Djokovic -- who is having one of the best years in tennis history with a 57-2 won-lost record and nine titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon -- is expected to win the Open.

But Federer can win it. He's still the only man to beat Djokovic this year in a completed match. (Scotland's Andy Murray was leading Djokovic 6-4, 3-0 Sunday in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati when Djokovic abruptly retired because of a barking shoulder that he insisted shouldn't trouble him in New York.)

Djokovic was 43-0 and the talk of tennis before Federer snapped his winning streak in the semifinals of the French Open on June 3 with the sort of all-around brilliant performance he used to unspool regularly.

After serving out a taut fourth-set tiebreaker to win the match, Federer screamed at the top of his lungs and wagged his index finger as if to say, "No, no -- can't write me off yet" as he walked to the net.

If there was any question the Swiss star meant it that way, Federer's mother, Lynette, left no doubt at a victory celebration that popped up immediately afterward, though there was still the final against Rafael Nadal to be played. As celebratory drinks were being cracked open all around her, she told a New York Times reporter, "For me, of course, it's a great feeling because you guys, the press guys, all of a sudden say this guy is over and done with."

Now even Federer's mom is talking smack?

Federer played well but lost the French final to Nadal. He pulled into Wimbledon proclaiming himself on the verge of doing something "special" but lost in the quarterfinals to mercurial Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in another well-played match. The most significant thing about that loss -- other than Federer again failing to tie Pete Sampras' record of seven Wimbledon singles titles --- was Federer had a career record of 178-0 after seizing a 2-0 set lead until Tsonga roared back to beat him.

Roger Federer
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer traditionally has been calm and collected in the face of pressure.

Federer was gracious afterward anyway -- until someone asked him not only about the blown two-set lead but also for an explanation for his very mortal 16-13 career record in five-set matches.

Everybody duck.

Incoming!

What Federer irritably fired back was the equivalent of "Do you know who I am?" to a cop at a traffic stop: "When I was probably losing four matches a year, I wasn't even in fifth sets," Federer said.

In the weeks since as he's built toward the U.S. Open, it's been a sort of fascinating heat check on Federer's mindset to see how he's variously described and rationalized that Wimbledon loss away -- especially after Tsonga knocked him off again in their next meeting in Montreal.

At Wimbledon, Federer challenged the grim postmatch suggestion that Tsonga's win marked the end of an era (his) by saying, "No, I don't think so. Look, I played too well. It wasn't a shocker second-round loss in straight sets, some stupid match I played. It was a great match, I think, from both sides. … Jo played an amazing match."

By Montreal it had changed to: "I thought if he was going to play well again, [and] me not at my best, he could do it again."

And once in Cincinnati, this: "I didn't play [him] well in Montreal, and Wimbledon I should have never lost."

It's pretty obvious what's going on here. Federer is in a debate with himself at least as much as he's in a conversation with all the critics appraising him from the outside. Earlier this year when someone commended him for refusing to press the panic button in hard times, he shot back, "Well, definitely not going to do it in the press room."

Federer keeps saying he's interested only in correcting some misapprehensions about his talent. But what he also seems aggravated about is being underappreciated. He doesn't bleat "Do you know how hard it was to dominate?" as he did from 2003 to 2008, or when he and Nadal combined to win 24 of 28 Grand Slam titles that were contested from 2004 through last year's U.S. Open. He doesn't bellow that such dominance could never last, even for him.

He just argues that others have risen to meet him more than he's dramatically fallen back.

And his contention that his own game remains at a high level is true. To a point.

What's different now -- what he doesn't say -- is he may not sustain that level for an entire two-week tournament as he used to, and even within certain matches, he is not the lethal finisher he once was. He's also cited how court conditions and tennis balls have slowed down, which has negated a lot of his net game that he used to use to such devastating effect. "But I don't mind," he's insisted. He says he likes to grind out long rallies. He used to lose only to fellow heavyweights; now it seems that more guys who are merely having a very good day can beat him. That's a change, too. His fitness and mental game remain impeccable, but he sometimes can look physically overpowered.

Beyond all that, what's also annoying to Federer is this: Nobody likes to hear the violin music and requiems playing on his career when he's been called the greatest of all time, as Federer still is, and he's still ranked No. 3 in the world, and he just turned 30.

More and more people have come at Federer in the past two years citing the fact that male players rarely win more than one or two Slam titles past age 30 -- Rod Laver is the notable exception -- and Federer's armor has been another you-can't-be-serious retort.

"I don't want to say I see myself as sort of a special case," he told one interviewer. But, you know, Federer does.

Frankly, it's good to see the uncharacteristic sting or egotism now in some of Federer's retorts. It means that rather than drift off into his tennis dotage or live off the past, he intends to fight.

He was special against Djokovic at the French Open.

He's still good enough to beat Djokovic at the U.S. Open.

And if Federer does pull off the upset again, let him wag a finger and scream all he likes.

Federer's edgier attitude is new. But even at 30, winning never gets old.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.