Thursday September 10th, 2015

NEW YORK – In the interest of public service, not to mention a bit of sanity, I offer now a couple facts. Roger Federer has, like every schmo, gotten angry at technology. “Like when I don’t understand why the screen froze, or don’t know how to fix it?” he said late Wednesday night. “Yeah.” He has also uttered words or sentiments, perhaps at that very screen-freezing moment, that he later regretted. None sprang instantly to mind but, he said, “I’m sure I have.”

I also see it as my duty to report that, also on Wednesday, Federer walked behind a serious TV interview of Stan Wawrinka­—his opponent in Friday’s semifinal of the 2015 U.S. Open— waved his arms, and made a goofy face like any other background yahoo desperate to get on camera. On the other hand, he has never lost his car keys (“Um, not that I can recall,” Federer said.) But the fact that, with $93 million in winnings, he even knows what car keys are qualifies, I think, as proof that the world’s greatest tennis player is just like you and me.

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This is important, because we have now entered the godding-up phase of a Roger Federer Grand Slam run. It became official early in his 6–3, 6–3, 6–1 quarterfinal win over a flailing Richard Gasquet, after Federer dumped a 103 mph serve into the net for his second—and final—double fault of the night. He was up a set and a break by then, but the score hardly did the display justice: Federer’s level had risen so high that, for one jarring moment, one glitch could feel like he’d dropped a tray of dishes on court.

“Every now and then,” John McEnroe murmured on ESPN’s telecast, “…proving he’s human.”

Then came an ace to refute that idea, then another 15 minutes of Federer incredible-ness, with him not just playing well for 34 but well for, well, any age—and any other tennis legend, dead or alive. It was all there: the crackling forehand, the astonishing court coverage, the impassive demeanor and so-still head—plus a quiverful of backhand strikes, the kind that crackled and hummed and dismantled Gasquet’s prime weapon, made one of the more elegant one-handers in tennis history look weak.

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Consider: Federer’s weakness has always been his backhand, but Wednesday night he also outhit the 29-year old Gasquet off that wing, 12 winners to two. “This is a crazy performance by Federer,” the usually unshakeable Darren Cahill reported to the booth from courtside. “I’m not so sure I’ve ever seen him hit the ball so cleanly.”

“He’s playing his best level now—he won 17 Grand Slams when he played like that, like tonight,” Gasquet said after the match. “I needed to play better to disturb him more and I couldn’t do it. He served incredible today and I tried to do my best, but I didn’t find a solution. I was slow and I couldn’t keep up this rhythm. For sure, he’s playing great.”

Robert Federer, Roger’s dad, was watching from the player’s box, an earpiece streaming the broadcast into his ear. ESPN’s crew asked, on-air, how many times in his life he’d seen his son play better. Robert held up zero fingers. From there, it was only a matter of time before people—including me—began speaking in hushed tones, pie-eyed, about Federer’s performance, and that tripped into wonderment about his age, shotmaking and the fact he simply seems unaffected by normal factors like life and perspiration.

“I needed a shirt change after the fifth game the other night,” tweeted John Isner, Federer’s fourth-round victim in muggy Flushing Meadows, as Wednesday’s match neared its close. “Don’t think Roger changed his shirt all night.”

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It never seems that way—not, at least, when Federer is on a roll like this one. He has yet to drop a set and only been broken twice in New York, and now faces good friend Stan Wawrinka (16–3 head-to-head, Fed, with all three losses on clay) in Friday’s semifinal. All smart Federerists are wary, of course: The tennis landscape is strewn with recent unstoppable Roger Runs cut short, including one by Wawrinka at Roland Garros in June. It has been three years since Federer last won a major singles title, and seven since the five-time champ won his last U.S. Open.

But Federer also beat No. 2 Andy Murray and No. 1 Novak Djokovic en route to winning the Open tune-up in Cincinnati, and admitted Wednesday to feeling “a little bit” amazed by his notably revivified game. He’s not alone. Gasquet is five years Federer’s junior but looks a decade older, another time-lapse example of how the game hollows its young. Bjorn Borg, McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras: so many of the greats hit a psychic wall and quit. Federer alone seems unaffected by the tour, the endless press, even the lack of Grand Slam rewards.  

“I don’t understand it, for the life of me,” says former No. 6 Pat Cash. “Everybody says, ‘I want to spend time with my family, can’t stand traveling anymore, I like a laugh in the locker room but enough’s enough.’ After I won Wimbledon and Davis cup, I said, ‘I’m done.’ When I was 23 I thought I was done. But Federer’s 34 and still wants to win. It’s a mystery to me.”

Armed with a larger racket since 2013, goaded to relentless aggression by coaches Severin Luthi and former great Stefan Edberg, Federer has been playing of late with a rare, even whimsical, freedom. This summer he even invented a new shot—SABR, for Sneak Attack By Roger—that has him rushing in to meet second serves with a half volley. Federer tried SABR twice against Gasquet Wednesday—and lost both points. That it remains an unproven gamble is part of its appeal. That he’s the mad scientist testing it is, frankly, delightful.

“It’s nice to play this way,” Federer said. “At my age, to run through, you know, five opponents the way I have done here at the U.S. Open, I don’t consider that normal, to be quite honest—even though I expect it in some ways for myself to come out and play well.

“I’ve played so well over the last one-and-a-half years. I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am. I still feel young. So it’s nice to get rewarded with the hard work and, you know, that actually I’m able to sort of play ‘fun tennis’: Aggressive, pick it up, half-volley it, move in, serve and volley, cut the points short—and, if I want to, extend the rallies. But it feels like on my terms. Then if you win this way, it’s a great feeling.”

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Archrival Rafael Nadal left Flushing Meadows days ago looking broken. Andy Murray is gone. Once considered Federer’s lone rival for major titles, golfer Tiger Woods showed up at the Open last week, his life as a contender seemingly over. But Federer rolls on, looking fresh and startlingly young. Federer is still here and would rather be nowhere else. “I feel like I’m close,” he said.

This isn’t normal. It doesn’t help my point. So I asked Federer one last question, universal for those north of 30: Do you have any fear or anxiety about getting older?

“No, not really,” he said. “I don’t like the thought that one day I won’t be around anymore, even more so that I have kids. But that’s part of life, you know? It goes in circles.”

Wrinkles? Hair loss?

“Oh, no,” Federer laughed. “That’s no problem at all.”

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