At the start of the 2010 season, I wrote an article about Roger Federer that I titled "The Afterlife." By that I meant that Federer, who at the time had 15 Grand Slam wins and was going to be 29 later in the year, would be entering a new phase in his career, one where he would essentially be competing against himself, rather than any historical records.
I thought it was going to be interesting to see how he maintained his motivation, because few if any players had ever experienced as much success as he had, seemingly with years still left to play. I speculated around that time that Federer had three more majors in him.
Since then, he's won one, which by his standards means that his trip to tennis heaven has thus far been a disappointment. But right now, thinking back over the last two years, and especially the way he finished them, Federer has been more impressive than I had imagined he would be in at least one way: He's had absolutely no trouble motivating himself.
There has always been a "how does he do that?" air of the uncanny to Federer. But that question usually comes up when we talk about his game: his smoothness, his seeming effortlessness, his steady health, his ability to watch the ball onto the strings and beyond, his ability to hit a tweener with topspin-his only blemish seems to be a spot on his face that pops up every couple of years.
But just as uncanny is Federer's immunity from burnout. There are a lot of ways in which he's unique, but this might the most important over the long run. When I try to think of other top players of the last 25 years who never seemed to lose their competitive desire or be bothered by the grind, I come back with a very short list. Jimmy Connors, of course, but few others. Pete Sampras needed time away, Andre Agassi needed even more time away, Rafael Nadal has said recently that he's had trouble firing himself up the way he once did, Novak Djokovic, even during his best season, wasn't as eager to get out there by the end of it.
What does Federer need to do to keep winning in 2012? The most heartening aspect of his end of year surge, I thought, was the way he hung in mentally in the last match, in London, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The past two seasons for Federer had been defined by his inability to hold leads, and it appeared that he was going to blow another one when he lost a match point in the second set against Tsonga and subsequently lost the tiebreaker. This time, though, Federer turned the momentum back around, something he'd been unable to do once things went south at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Federer said afterward that he realized that he had some issues mentally this season, that he had worked to combat them, and that the work showed in that last match.
No one would say that Federer's 2010 and 2011 have gone exactly the way he wanted them to. Yes, he finished strong, and yes, he scheduled himself well; but I'm pretty sure the plan wasn't to peak after all of the Slams were over. At the same time, he can be encouraged by the fact that he was close at the majors, and perhaps he'll continue to learn from those blown leads of the last two seasons. At the moment, anyway, where I had begun to see an inevitable, Slam-less decline for him, I can now believe that Federer really will get those two majors, or more, that I predicted for him in 2010-especially if his win over Nadal in London does anything for his confidence against his nemesis. If Federer does rise again, it will be an appropriate cap to the greatest career in tennis history. Even if he doesn't, the fact that he's still a threat, that he still wants to be a threat as much as ever, is going to make 2012 an exciting tennis season all by itself.
Instead of looking forward toward more of his afterlife, this time I'll finish by looking back. You'd think, after these years and all of his success, that we could learn something from Roger Federer, as we can from all the great tennis stars. From Nadal, we can learn the positive value of a realistic, even slightly pessimistic, worldview; from Djokovic, we can learn that it's never too late to clear away the obstacles in your mind and fulfill all of your potential. What I've learned from Federer may be counterintuitive for such a uniquely gifted person: It's the value of normalcy, and it's a big and underrated part of his worldwide appeal.
Outwardly at least, Federer is uncannily normal and sane. He's worked hard to control his famously hard-to-control emotions over the years, and that says something about why he's had such consistent success, and why we'll probably add longevity to his career legacy when he's finally through. The only problem for the rest of us who might want to copy his system is that it works both ways for him: You'd probably be happy and sane too if you were such an extraordinary athlete.