It’s one of the great clichés in sports: The one rival that no athlete, no matter how great, can ever beat is time. That might be the case, but on the eve of the Australian Open, Roger Federer and time are at a set apiece, with Federer up a break.
At the age of 36, Federer is the favorite to win the men’s singles title in Melbourne. It’s remarkable. It seems impossible. It’s downright freakish, a word not ordinarily applied to model citizen and paragon of classical tennis Federer. But there you have it.
Federer’s major rivals, from world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic right down to fellow Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka, are still struggling with injuries, which could make it impossible for them to last the fortnight in Australia.
“I work hard in the offseason to create a base that serves me well throughout the season, and then I rework the base time and time again throughout the season,” Federer said to the press Sunday. “I think that’s very important.”
Federer is waving his racket like some magic wand and clearly relishing the chance to add to his Grand Slam title count of 19. Gil Reyes, the trainer and mentor who guided Andre Agassi to the No. 1 ranking at age 33, calls Federer the “perfect athletic mechanism.”
What is it that keeps him that way after all these years? Here are some clues:
This word invariably comes up in any conversation about Federer’s game. But there are different kinds of efficiency, some more taxing than others. Federer’s brand of efficiency makes him deadly and also spares him a lot of wear and tear. In a narrow sense, he gets to work less — and win more — than his rivals.
“This is a guy who plays in a relaxed way,” ESPN analyst Chris Evert said in a phone call this week. “There’s no strain. He doesn’t muscle anything. He kind of glides around. … And that style just doesn’t result in a lot of injuries.”
Federer makes it look easy. He appears to win while barely breaking a sweat. That’s the payoff for the work he does with his trainer of almost two decades, Pierre Paganini. The unassuming, owlish Paganini might be the best kept secret — and secret weapon — in tennis.
While neither man divulges much about their overall template, there are a number of videos of Federer-Paganini training sessions on YouTube, including one narrated by Federer himself.
Paganini’s mantra is that a player doesn’t just need to move fast; he needs to move correctly and in a tennis-specific way. That helps explain his abundant use of reflex drills, many of them involving tennis balls but not rackets. Those drills are part of Federer’s typical warm-up for a practice session.
More importantly, Paganini has shied away from overemphasizing strength and stamina, even as Djokovic cultivated his “Ironman” image and Federer endured a five-year Grand Slam title drought.
“Some guys [trainers as well as players], the natural reaction to frustration is to think, ‘Maybe I need to work harder,'” Reyes said. “But that may not be the solution, especially when a player is older. The challenge is to figure out how to work differently.”
One thing the two high-performing 30-year-olds, Federer and Agassi, had in common is rock solid, trusting relationships with their trainers.
“[Paganini] made fitness workouts so enjoyable, if they ever can be,” Federer said in an interview with the New York Times. “I just follow his beat. Whatever he tells me, I’ll do it because I trust him.”
Federer’s swashbuckling, aggressive style gives him an advantage in a game that now features a surfeit of punishing baseline duels.
“Fed is [the] only guy with a low slice who can get an opponent moving,” said Spencer Segura, a former pro whose father, Pancho, developed Jimmy Connors’ game. “He hits the low ball, and he comes in to cut off the reply. He also knows how to use the short angles. A lot of the other guys have good forehands, but the low ball really gets to them and makes them uncomfortable.”
Federer’s decision to embrace and hone an attacking style accounted for his win over rival Rafael Nadal in last year’s Australian Open final — the match that provided Federer with rocket fuel for all of 2017.
The Swiss star’s use of serve-and-volley and slice, as well as his precise and accurate spot-serving, allow him to log many service games that last barely a minute. Some of his rivals take almost that long between points. But Federer’s aggressive play isn’t just efficient. It’s also career-extending.
Federer was at an important crossroad when he lost to Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals. Federer was 34 years old, without a Grand Slam title since 2012 and returning from knee surgery in February.
It took a lot of flexibility — and a fair amount of guts — for Federer to withdraw from the season, committing to a late-career makeover. Clearly, he wanted to be a Grand Slam contender once again, rather than a game but washed-up champion content to go deep if not all the way at majors.
Federer has often said that the hiatus gave him the opportunity to hit the “reset” button and allowed him the luxury to work on and alter his game. All true, but it was a big risk to leave the game at that age and adopt new tactics.
“Roger moves as well as ever. He’s so quick out of a corner,” Reyes said. “His [redirect] step is really amazing. He doesn’t slam on the brakes and lock up a knee before turning. He just drops his hips, bends his knees. He’s like a giant spring.”
Federer’s athleticism is at the root of his efficiency, as well as his ability to remain injury-free. It provides the foundation for the way he plays, which few can emulate successfully.
“He moves naturally,” Evert said. “He’s got the fast-twitch muscles, so he glides across the court. His body is a gift. It has really helped him with his longevity and his style. He’s played shorter points than most players.”
Federer is happy man. It’s as obvious as the smile that so often transforms his elastic face. Federer has experienced no scandals, seems never to have questioned the value of what he does and loves being with his family. He clearly loves being Roger Federer, without really rubbing anyone else’s nose in it. If you think that’s easy, why aren’t more people that way?
“Now it’s different,” Federer said. “Now I have a big family. I have a lot of friends that travel the world with me. I get to see familiar faces again at all these events because I’ve made so many friends over the course of my career. I’m so happy to come back to Melbourne, see all my friends that live here in Melbourne.”
Said Evert: “I think mentally and emotionally, having kids, having a family, he gets away from the game.”
She knows whereof she speaks, having had a lot of trouble navigating that territory in her own peak years.
“You always hear players complain that they want to be in one place or that they feel burned out,” Evert continued. “Roger doesn’t burn himself out mentally because he knows how to compartmentalize and live a normal life.”
In the end, the secret to Federer’s longevity might be no great mystery at all.
“I think he has a real joy for the game,” Evert said. “That’s what makes Federer Federer.”