I watched the Wimbledon final in the Minneapolis airport last Sunday, sitting at the Houlihan’s bar just outside security next to an older woman who was certain that if Andy Roddick could just get his first serve in every time, he’d have no trouble with Roger Federer. Roddick managed an envious 70%, and lost.
Roddick entered the tour at age 18 as the heir to Pete’s throne, but was more Canon Rebel Andre. He wore his hat backward, yelled at chair umpires, broke rackets. And he was good, very good. But not great, and someone for only firm patriots and 14-year old junior players to root for.
Roger Federer had turned pro two years earlier as the epitome of grace. He knew who Bill Tilden and Pancho Gonzalez were, he never cursed or tossed his racket (of course, he rarely had occassion to), seemed humbled when he won, showed reverence on the rare occasions he lost. He didn’t show off, didn’t boast, didn’t party. He simply played the most beautiful tennis the carbon racket era has ever seen.
Then, he wore this:
It should have been a signal. We all should have known better. We should have known not to expect Invincibility from anyone, perhaps especially an athlete. Success, money, fame, glory: they go to anyone’s head. But Invincibility is another beast altogether. It drives a man to wear white pants, white shoes, a white blazer – monogrammed – and a white headband just big enough to contain his expanding skull.
The white blazer was the first sign. But this interview with Dick Enberg, after Federer won a Nadal-less French Open, that blew away the facade (Enberg’s question at 3:50, Federer’s jaw-droppingly cocky answer peaks at 4:50). It was now clear:
Roger Federer may be the cockiest athlete of this generation.
This is not to say he isn’t deserving of some self-aggrandizement, or even a lot. Anyone able to coax this out of David Foster Wallace has done many things right. Federer is a genius, a master, a legend, or as Wallace’s bus driver puts it, a “bloody near-religious experience.” In the mind of a tennis purist, there was no question: there was Federer the artist, Nadal the powerful brute, and everyone else.
Which brings us back to Wimbledon. Roddick had turned his cap to the front. He was not cursing, and his racket stayed in his hands all match. He had the cold look of an assassin, with none of a teenagers snark. Federer, meanwhile, had added gold trim to his white warm up. Suddenly, as Joe Posnanski notes, Andy Roddick was oddly compelling:
I have never had many feelings about Andy Roddick…All of that changed on Sunday, though.
He wanted to win Wimbledon. I mean, yes, of course he wanted to Wimbledon, but you could see from the first point on that he WANTED to win Wimbledon, that it was hugely important to him, that it was everything to him.
On Sunday at Wimbledon, he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together.
Andy Roddick will be – will only be – the greatest American men’s tennis player of his generation. The greatest since Pete and Andre. Perhaps one of the five best of the past decade. Roger Federer will go down as probably the greatest in history, with the records to justify it. He could certainly be considered among the greatest athlete in history, perhaps only topped by his friend Tiger – an athlete who can be called “immortal”, yet whose blood red attire and boisterous celebrations come off not as cocky but as simply doing business.
At Wimbledon, as Roddick joked through what was clear pain in his post-match speech, and Federer told Roddick how terrible the loser must feel, it was clear that their career trajectories had crossed. Andy had matured beyond the expectation of Invincibility. Roger had embraced it (Tiger, for his part, never seemed to acknowledge it).
Perhaps Federer has always been like this. Perhaps it is, as it seems, a recent transformation. Regardless, the Aura of Roger Federer could do to hire an image consultant before he completely engulfs Roger Federer the Tennis Player.