WHEN HE LAST left the grass at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, his seventh Wimbledon title and 17th grand slam championship in hand, Roger Federer had not broken new ground so much as solidified his place as the best tennis player who ever lived. Having crushed Andy Murray's heart to do it, he stood at the center of an emotional scene, Great Britain appreciative of his greatness but also heartsick for its Scot, who wept in defeat.
Federer now returns to London for the Olympics, bearing the Swiss flag, as someone who's ostensibly accomplished it all. He's captured more slams than any other male. He's No. 1 in the world again and has broken Pete
What Federer doesn't have, however, is an Olympic singles gold medal. He won doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka at Beijing in 2008, but the singles title is the only meaningful achievement that eludes him. Of course, if he comes up empty, it will surely mean more to him than to his legacy; his place in history is secure. Still, for those fascinated by the athlete's mind -- the confounding distance between those who win and those who do not -- they should enjoy watching Federer walk onto the Wimbledon courts for the Olympics.
There are a handful of athletes who make you laugh with incredulity at their achievements. Take a look at the Babe Ruth entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia, the numbers in bold denoting a category in which he led the league. The bold is overwhelming. The same holds true for Wilt Chamberlain and Wayne Gretzky, titans who stood statistically beyond even their most talented peers. Federer is the titan of our times.
But while his numbers are terrific, the best way to view Federer is not through the record books or by comparing his accomplishments with those of his two chief rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. (He dwarfs both of them in major titles.) The best way to view Federer is through the only lens that is finite, watching his artistry as it's happening. There will come a point when he will be reduced to folklore and stories, statistics and videotape. For now, however, he still commands the stage and a certain degree of awe for his shot-making -- for the half-volley winner against Murray from the baseline, for the footwork in the Wimbledon final that allowed him to slide and backpedal to his left and hit a crosscourt forehand with so much sidespin that it bounced barely over the net for a winner, producing a despairing face
There is, in the world of heavyweights Isner and Raonic and Karlovic, the smooth and perfect Federer serve, effortless in its mechanics and deadly in its variety. But the psychology of his game is just as compelling as the physics of it. During the tournament -- whether his back ached and he fell behind or he smelled an opportunity, pushed aside his ailments and pounced -- the poetry of his game fell secondary to a different thought: There isn't a shot on a tennis court with which he has difficulty or a situation that breaks his concentration. Nadal owns a vicious, punishing forehand but a defensive backhand and solid but not dominant serve. The Djokovic backhand just might be the best in the game, but he struggled for years with his serve. Both Nadal and Djokovic can be prone to certain distractions (such as the politics of blue clay), while Federer goes undistracted, always.
It's true that the younger Nadal and Djokovic have often turned Federer into the underdog. That has only added poignancy to his victories, the beautiful strokes fueled by grit. And so as he fights his one unbeatable opponent, the hourglass, with London perhaps being his last Olympics, the Federer gifts need to be savored. The multiple components of his greatness -- technique and creativity, toughness and desire -- remain on display in full dimension. But they will not be there forever.