Roger Federer had just suffered one of the toughest losses of his career, only minutes removed from an agonizing (and at times heated) 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 defeat at the suddenly healthy hands of Juan Martin Del Potro in Indian Wells. The defending titlist saw three championship points evaporate into the desert sky in the third set of the final, and seemed as puzzled as the rest of us.
Federer hadn’t lost in 2018, after all, having at age 36 surged to a career-best 17-0 start to the season, one that included his record 20th Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne.
“You’re always going to go through ups and downs in your career, or as a person for that matter,” said Federer. “Not every day is the sun shining.”
Then he added: “It hasn't always come easy for me. People like to see the easy part, you know, how I make it look easy. It’s not always like that. For nobody it’s like that at the top.”
It was a rare glimpse of vulnerability from a player who’s become synonymous with the ever-yearned-for yet unobtainable concept of perfection. Federer is the epitome of Swiss timing, isn’t he? Not a hair out of place, a winning-is-easy balletic grace, husband and family man, polyglot, philanthropist, product endorser for everything from coffee makers to private jets. But this brief, Tony Soprano-to-Dr. Melfi-like confession just moments after a stinging loss was evidence that Federer, like the rest of us, has both his good days and bad, that even life in Roger World comes with its occasional setbacks.
“We all watch him and we think it’s so easy for him,” observed commentator Patrick McEnroe earlier this year. “That's partly true. But it’s also true that he’s really mastered how to pace himself, to take care of himself, train for tennis in a way that is absolutely brilliant, and also train his body and his mind.”
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Federer will pardon us if we’ve grown accustomed to the closest thing to perfection the sport has ever seen. Take his achievements at the US Open. Federer reeled off five straight titles in Flushing Meadows between 2004 and 2008, a feat unmatched in the annals of the game. And at an age when most players are considering second careers, say that of tournament director or coach, Federer seems as youthful and match-ready as ever.
A knee injury in 2016 caused him to drop out of the Top 10 for the first time in 14 years, the first real physical setback of his career. That in itself is remarkable, given the punishment these athletes endure in an age when the game is as physically demanding as it’s ever been. He would go four years without any Grand Slam hardware, and many began to wonder if his career was winding down. But Federer was back in the winner’s circle at a major in 2017, and earlier this year became the oldest No. 1 in the history of the game when he regained the top spot in the Emirates ATP World Tour Rankings.
“Let’s just continue to appreciate this guy,” urged McEnroe “The fact that he’s still able to play at this level, quite frankly, I think it’s just one of the most amazing feats I've ever seen in any sport. [Pete] Sampras won the  US Open and walked away, but up until that time he wasn't even in contention at a major for a while. He caught lightning in a bottle for two weeks. God bless him, he’s an all-time great. But Federer is just a guy who is always there. I think he’s got a God-given gift in what he does. He’s also been extremely smart about taking care of himself. What he does with his training doesn’t get spoken about a lot, but he works his butt off. He’s changed the way he’s trained in the last five or six years to give himself more longevity.”
Roger Federer practicing in the Grandstand
As Federer prepares for his 18th US Open, an event he last won a decade ago, this is certainly among his greatest assets: his ability to read his body, to know when to train, to compete, and when to shut it down, in order to prolong his career. Take his choice to sit out the 2018 clay-court season, including Roland Garros. He certainly caught some grief for his decision, including comments from career-long rival Rafael Nadal, who said, “There [are] tournaments that I can’t imagine missing on purpose, because [they are] tournaments that I love to play. I don’t see myself missing Monte Carlo on purpose. I don’t see myself missing Wimbledon on purpose, or the US Open, or Australian, or Rome. These kinds of events, I don’t see missing.”
But by the summer even Nadal, on the heels of winning Toronto, announced that he would forgo the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati for “no other reason than personally taking care of my body.” The fact is, as age creeps in, the Federers and Nadals of the world need to adjust their schedules accordingly, and by skipping the clay campaign Federer knew he was acting in his best interest.
Federer was quick to establish his game upon his return to the court in mid-June. He downed Nick Kyrgios and Milos Raonic en route to the Stuttgart title in his very first event of the summer. But his results since then have been mixed, at least by the Swiss’ own lofty standards. He fell to Borna Coric in the Halle final, then was shocked by Kevin Anderson in an epic, five-set Wimbledon quarterfinal, surrendering a two-sets-to-love advantage to fall, 2-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11. The eight-time champion hadn’t lost a set at the All England Club since 2016, and he had never dropped a set to his South African foe in four previous head-to-heads. Then there was the Cincinnati final; Federer was simply outmatched in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, by a player who until recently seemed a lost soul — Novak Djokovic.
But sitting in that post-match presser back in Indian Wells, the gathered media hanging on his every word, Federer may have revealed the intangible that sets him apart more than anything else: his ability to handle, to compartmentalize, the real-world ups and downs that come to us all; a perceived perfectionist dealing with life’s inevitable imperfections.