Outside my window in Times Square, a tuxedo-clad Roger Federer waves from the Moet advertisement from New Year’s Eve 2013. Perfectly coiffed, perfectly cool, and perfectly in control, it’s the Roger Federer who seems to have sailed through a record-breaking career without breaking a sweat. That Roger Federer is the perfect embodiment of Swiss precision, restraint, and neutrality.
Yet, it is another Roger Federer who dons the red and white uniform for Switzerland, and he is a far cry from the suave polyglot who’s won over everyone from Michael Jordan to Anna Wintour. This Federer is wild-eyed and raw, prone to guttural shouts of “komm jetzt!” and goofy displays of camaraderie. And it’s a side of himself that Roger Federer has spent a career trying to tame.
In building his unparalleled career, Federer has made many adjustments – from coaching to tactics to racquet size, but the biggest adjustment he has ever made was the one he made at the start – learning to control his volatile, and often destructive emotions. Known in his early years as much for his tendency to self-destruct as for his prodigious talent, Federer is acutely aware that his continued success depends on his ability to protect his mental state. And so, over the years, Federer has built a fortress of calm, confidence, and steely indifference that has, against all odds, become his hallmark.
Over the years, however, the few cracks in the Federer armor have often come when he has been playing for his country. Indeed, in a career with few disappointments, playing for Switzerland has brought Roger Federer his share of heartbreak. Expected to win gold, he suffered shock upsets to Tomas Berdych and James Blake in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and returned home without a medal of any color. Fresh off of his first Wimbledon title, he lost to Lleyton Hewitt in 2003 Davis Cup semifinals, after leading by two sets to love and 5-3 in the third set, and reportedly was devastated afterwards. And, even though he departed the 2000 Sydney Olympics with the affections of his future wife, Mirka, he also left with the disappointment of losing the bronze medal match to Arnaud DiPasquale, and could barely contain his tears afterwards.
Against this backdrop, perhaps it is not so surprising that Federer has chosen, at times, to spare himself the physical and mental toll of playing Davis Cup for Switzerland. Unlike Stan Wawrinka, who has always been a stalwart member of the team, Federer has not made himself available to play nearly as frequently as his compatriot has in recent years. While Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic led their teams to Davis Cup victories, Federer downplayed the importance of the competition, and noted that his less frequent participation in Davis Cup was one of the hard decisions he had to make to achieve his goals in tennis.
But, perhaps he doth protest too much. A cursory glance at Federer’s world shows that Switzerland and teamwork loom large in his life. His primary coach, Severin Luthi, is the Swiss Davis Cup coach, and Federer shares his services, and those of his fitness coach, Pierre Paganini, with his teammate, Stan Wawrinka. He has an obvious love of playing doubles (and matching outfits). He plays his hometown tournament in Basel (and throws a pizza party for the ball kids) yearly, even though the tournament heavily promotes the appearances of (and pays appearance fees to) his rivals, including Rafael Nadal, but has not come to an agreement its main draw and hometown hero for years. In fact, all of the things that comprise Davis Cup – playing for Switzerland, supporting his coach and teammates, and team competition – mean a lot to Federer, perhaps too much. So for years, rather than risk investing himself in a competition that would likely end in crushing disappointment, he has only participated when he was absolutely needed, but not more.
Yet, on Sunday afternoon, there he was again – Federer, in his red shirt and flashing eyes, shouting “come on” at his winners and fist pumping the errors of a hapless Richard Gasquet. This was the crazy-eyed Federer who outlasted Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics in London to guarantee himself the silver medal – except this time, he had enough left in the tank to finish the job. Barely able to walk normally due to back spasms a week before, Federer showed no signs of injury on Sunday, hitting his full arsenal of winners, from aces to those improbable forehand slices. While his play was ethereal, his determination was visceral, and he rolled to victory in straight sets.
In what is becoming a recurring theme of his later career, Roger Federer was able to harness his emotions to propel him to victory, rather than cordoning them off to protect himself from defeat. For many, Roger Federer’s 2014 will be defined by this Davis Cup victory. But, for me, the real achievement here is not the victory itself but rather the willingness to let his guard down long enough to try.