I had a strange thought about Roger Federer this week. No, not that kind of thought. Let’s back up. Earlier this week, Complex released a video where Roger Federer does that Roger Federer thing — telling self-deprecating stories about his rebellious youth and his life as a hapless dad, geeking out over Michael Jordan, and marveling about getting to work with Nike on his own sneakers. And, then he set off to buy some sneakers for the video segment. Smiling, he took a pair and asked the salesman, “could I have these in an 11.5?”
And I thought to myself, what a thing that is. That Federer is a guy with feet, who wears shoes of a particular size. It’s not as if I’d never seen the feet or the shoes before, but it was so strange to see Federer, a creature who seems to be made of Swiss chocolate, motivational posters and giggles, thinking about something so mundane as feet.
I don’t blame myself for this strange thinking. After all, for years, and particularly this year, Federer has traveled in what I can only describe as a cloud of rapture. I have to think at least three-quarters of his interactions as a professional tennis player consist of people waxing rhapsodic at him about his own greatness. Just a couple of days ago, he stopped by the ESPN set for a post-match interview, and the interview seemed to consist of a little bit of talk about his match, and then the other questions which can best be summed up as “how do you like New York?” “did you see any shows?” “do you remember that time you came here and told us about how you cried at a Broadway show and how disarming that was?” “what do you think of the ladies’ match that we’re cutting away from to talk to you?” “let’s make sure we reference your prediction during the rest of this match, because you’re really great.” I don’t blame the ESPN crew — this is pretty much standard operating procedure for much of the Federer coverage these days. It’s not necessarily unwarranted — he is oddly disarming — but it is poor preparation for thinking of Federer as, well, a guy with size 11.5 feet.
But, against Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open, Federer often looked like a guy with feet, feet of clay, as the expression goes. It was his determination to win that kept him in the match with a surging del Potro, not the magic tricks that he often seems to pull out at night in New York. Too often, his shots disobeyed his racquet, landing in the net, or many feet outside the lines. And, even his serve let him down — after all, he gave up the first set with a double fault and then a serve that missed its mark and provided the perfect target for del Potro’s thundering forehand. But this may have been one of Federer’s better matches in this year’s US Open — for a player so lauded for the beauty of his game, his five matches at the 2017 US Open were decidedly ugly. The first two five setters against Francis Tiafoe and Mikhail Youzhny would be pronounced unwatchable if he weren’t on the court, and were only called thrillers because too many confuse long matches with great matches. I was there for those matches — trust me, they were long, but definitely not great.
That Federer took fewer sets to move through the next two rounds says more about his favorable match-ups with Feliciano Lopez and Philipp Kohlschreiber than his ability to produce the tennis that started all that rapture to begin with. There were highlights, to be sure — he can’t avoid producing them. But the highlights were separated by swathes of tennis that was ok at best to painful at worst. The quarterfinal against del Potro was more of the same, except that del Potro had the tools to take advantage of a less-than-virtuostic Federer.
I wouldn’t say that the party is over for Federer fans — surely, with rest and practice, there’s no reason why he can’t bring his level up yet again during the indoor swing. But I’ll remember this US Open as the one where Federer was a guy with his feet on the ground, in size 11.5 shoes.