Many have asked why Roger Federer continues to tread the boards when he has played all the great roles. As the owner of 17 grand slam titles, he has already delivered his definitive Hamlet, Macbeth and Henry V. Does he really want to end his career as the second gravedigger, two or three years down the road?
But this question misunderstands Federer’s almost pathological self-belief, as well as his ability to see the upside of every challenge. For this famously serene character is relishing the sense of being the scrapper for once. Everyone knows about his artistry, poise and grace. But now, for the first time, Federer is beginning to show his cussed side.
“I always knew that eventually it’s going to be tougher,” Federer toldTelegraph Sport. “You can’t just keep on playing, and keep on winning. And that’s why it’s been interesting for me myself to see how I would handle it, to take the bird’s view and see myself battling it.
“It’s actually been OK, it’s been a different process. I don’t want to say it’s fun in any way, but it’s refreshing in the sense that I never really had to deal with it to this extent.”
Federer is referring to the travails of a year that has seen him slip down to No 7 in the rankings, the lowest position he has occupied since 2002.
If his millions of fans were concerned about his early-season form, they were downright shocked by high-profile defeats to Sergiy Stakhovsky (the world No 116) and Tommy Robredo (in straight sets).
Yet Federer never lost his unique ability to turn a racket into a scalpel.
What he did mislay for a while was the physical freedom to wield the blade. His back tightened up through the summer months, so that he couldn’t train properly. Then, when it came to match day, he started going for the miracle shot too early in the rally — a bad habit that has taken a while to erase.
“I really felt that I didn’t have enough practice, because I was injured,” Federer said.
“I lost build-ups and that’s something I’m still catching up on. I’m still not 100 per cent playing wise, just because it’s been a rocky year. But even though I’m still not moving as well as I’d like to be and all these things, I’m so close.”
He cites the example of Tuesday night’s match at the O2 Arena, when he was edged out in three finely-balanced sets.
“And that was against Novak [Djokovic] who has won everything recently — Shanghai, Beijing and everything — so that gives me hope that I’m really not far away. If I can have a good build-up block in December, hopefully my 2014 year is going to be a good one.”
Of all the major sports, men’s tennis is arguably the finest generator of plot-lines. 2013 has given us Rafael Nadal’s comeback, Andy Murray’s first Wimbledon title, and Djokovic’s bloody-minded refusal to move aside (a resolution that came to naught when Nadal finally locked down the world No1 spot on Wednesday).
Yet Federer continues to fascinate as much as any of them. Indeed, the question of his alleged decline — some say it is terminal, others a mirage — has become the main talking point of the autumn, despite everything else that is going on. And whether he is winning or losing, he remains the spectators’ darling.
Federer followed Nadal onto court on Wednesday to be presented with three gongs by the ATP, one of them entitled “Fans’ Favourite of 2013”.
“Every year I think ‘OK not this year,’” he said, of an award he has monopolised for the past 11 seasons. “But then I do get it again, and it seems I have incredible fan support, not just in one area, but in most places. The demographic is also from young to old, so that’s where the support is amazing. I try to take the extra picture, sign the extra autograph, just give back as much as I can because without a full stadium it’s not the same.”
Greg Rusedski has questioned whether this appetite for all things tennis can survive the next major change in Federer’s home life, which will come when his twin daughters Charlene Riva and Myla Rose — who turn five next summer — start at school. (In Switzerland, primary education begins at six.)
But Federer insists that he is still following his usual routine of planning 18 months ahead.
“I was talking to Nike the other day, and we were talking about designs for the 2015 US Open. I don’t think in terms of ‘Am I still playing then?’ It’s just part of the process and while I am enjoying myself. I don’t even think of the end. Anyway I think that all the talk about all these things is actually quite boring to be honest.”
So what about his daughters’ forehands? Have they started out on the coaching trail yet? Federer laughed. “When we go on holiday together, we just build sandcastles,” he said. “They don’t need to make it on the tennis tour. Anyway, I don’t want to go back on tour with them. I’ll be the dad who says ‘Alright see you then, come back in four weeks.’
“Of course they have held rackets, but it’s very early. I’m very supportive of them; playing sport is a good education.”
And with that, he is gone, nipping into the locker room to deliver a few words of consolation to his defeated friend and countryman Stan Wawrinka.
Federer must be a good ally to have in your corner, for his undentable optimism, is perhaps as great an asset as his whipcrack of a serve. His life has been one long illustration of Henry Ford’s dictum “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.”