Is Roger Federer back? Will his racket change to a new 98-square-inch frame close the gap on the game's elite? What is it about his game that attracted millions of fans and turned him into tennis' biggest star? I asked these questions -- and a few others -- to Andrew Burton, one of the biggest and most cerebral Federer fans I know. Burton has written about Federer for Tennis.com and The Changeover, and you can follow him on Twitter at @burtonad.
SI.com: What's your Federer origin story? What is it that drew you to his game and made you a fan?
Burton: It really started for me at the 2004 ATP year-end championships in Houston. A friend had tickets for the round-robin match between Federer and Gaston Gaudio. I saw the warm-up and one game -- I was playing hooky from work, and I had to leave during a two-hour rain delay. But during the warm-up, Federer hit some practice serves, and I just had a visceral jolt -- "Wow, he is so beautiful."
By 2006, I was fully hooked. My wife and daughter have been pretty good-natured about the last eight years. Having your wife get up with you at 1:30 a.m. to watch an Australian Open final tells you you married well.
SI.com: We've heard a lot about "The Cult of Roger Federer," probably brought to the forefront by David Foster Wallace's famous essay. Do you buy into the idea hat there's an otherworldly quality about him and how he plays? I get a lot of emails from Federer fans that seem to be based on that kind of reverence.
Burton: I know many longtime fans of tennis and other sports do talk about Federer as being some kind of paragon of elegance. Last year Ed Smith wrote a very thoughtful article about this. Ed is a former top-class sportsman himself, although it's clear that he thinks of himself as something of a journeyman. He says, "Watching Federer has been a richer, more complex and more emotional experience than all the other sport I've consumed put together."
Very few players of any sport can make you think, "I don't believe I just saw that," time after time. Even fewer can do this through a match, fewer through a tournament, or a season, or a fistful of seasons. Once Federer came of age -- maybe late in 2003 -- he's played a kind of tennis, a kind of sport, that is genuinely rare.
The "Federer as Religious Experience" cliché can be dangerous for two reasons. First, it misses other aspects of what Federer does: He'd rather win ugly, in the sense of scrapping for a win, than lose beautifully. Federer is a competitor, as Andy Roddick acknowledged ruefully after he was outlasted 16-14 in the fifth set of the 2009 Wimbledon final. Federer can grind them out. Second, the Foster Wallace essay set up a false dichotomy between the "artist," Federer, and the "artisan," Nadal. There's a lot of intelligence, artistry and beauty about the way Nadal plays -- and the way other top players like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro play.
SI.com: I assume 2013 was a rough year for Federer fans. Watching him as much as you do, which match was the most surprising to you?
Burton: As you know, I'm a tennis stats geek: I've spent a lot of time charting players' career arcs, and Federer, bless his heart, is following a well-trodden path. So I wasn't stunned by 2013. I was disconcerted by his increasing physical fragility.
No single match was the most surprising. There were some early-round losses in the first part of 2013 to mid-level players -- for example, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Kei Nishikori in Madrid -- which seemed odd. The loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in the second round was a surprise, but I thought Stakhovskhy red-lined all match and took his chance when it came.
SI.com: Toward the end of last season Federer said his back injury was the primary reason for his slump. Do you buy that?
Burton: After the disappointing loss to Stakhovsky, Federer decided to play two clay-court tournaments and test out a new racket. He played the Hamburg quarterfinal against Florian Mayer on a cold evening, and by the end of the second set Federer was just spinning his serves in and I knew his back had gone again. This was the fourth time Federer's back had given out in tournaments in 18 months (Doha 2012, Wimbledon 2012 and Indian Wells 2013 were the others). Now it seemed like a chronic problem.
I'm pretty sure he thinks the back injury had a lot to do with disappointments, especially at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Apart from matches where he was clearly feeling a twinge, it affected his training schedule and tournament preparation, and likely his confidence and match game plans as well. I know he feels that when he couldn't trust his back he couldn't trust his ability to defend, so he feels that he wasn't ready to play his best tennis.
It's a strong argument, but I don't think it's the whole story. Even with a clean bill of health, these days Nadal is a prohibitive favorite every time he plays Federer, and I'd argue that Federer is now the underdog against a healthy Murray or Djokovic. Unless he can bring something new to the table against these players -- um, bigger hitting with a bigger stick? -- the five or six years he gives away to the top guys will continue to kill him.
SI.com: You mentioned the bigger racket. Is that the change that will keep him competitive with the top guys?
Burton: It's a racket, not a magic wand! Suppose we can turn the dial back to 2010: Federer is probably 50:50 vs. Murray and Djokovic on all surfaces, but a huge underdog against Nadal on clay and an underdog against Nadal on outdoor hard courts.
I read that one of Nadal's coaches recently said something to the effect that Federer had the ability to turn the dial up to 11 for passages of play, but that he couldn't sustain that level and could drop down to a 7, while Nadal and Djokovic knew how to maintain a consistent 8 or 9 out of 10 level of play. That sounds right, with Murray a half notch behind.
The five-to-six-year age gap doesn't keep getting bigger, but I think there's a big difference between being a 33-year-old playing 27- or 28-year-olds and a 29-year-old playing 23- or 24-year-old opponents. Michael Sokolove's 2011 article in The New York Times is very insightful on this:
"[T]he careers of elite athletes, enviable as they may be, are foreshortened versions of a human lifespan. Physical decline — in specific ways that affect what they do and who they are — begins for them before it does for normal people. The athletes themselves rarely see the beginnings of this process, or if they do, either do not acknowledge it or try to fight it off like just another inside fastball. They alter their training routines. Eat more chicken and fish, less red meat. They try to get “smarter” at their sport.
A great many of us, their fans, live in our own version of denial — even in this age of super-slow-motion replay and ever more granular statistical data. We want to think our favorite players have good years left, great accomplishments ahead of them, just as we would hope the same for ourselves."
SI.com: Based on what you saw in Australia, what are your expectations this year? Is he back?
Burton: Federer played well against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray, but Nadal was another story (as usual!). If all the top ATP players stay healthy, I don't expect Federer to be one of the top two players. So in that sense, I don't expect Federer to come "back" as he did in 2011-2012 (and you'll remember I did call that shot early in 2012).
I do expect to see Federer play at the ATP World Tour Finals in November again: Being in the 3-8 range in 2014 is much more likely than one of the top two seeds, provided he stays fit. And there's another tantalizing prospect: The Swiss have a decent Davis Cup draw, and Stan The Man Wawrinka is Australian Open champion and Swiss top dog.
Roger and Mirka have another child on the way. Federer's going through his old dorky photos on Twitter. Federer genuinely still seems to have a zest for tennis, and the perspective to know that it's just a part of life.
SI.com: I admittedly have a blind spot when it comes to enjoying dominance. I just don't get how it's fun from a fan perspective. So for a Federer fan who got all those years of him being the absolute best in the game, where was the pleasure? What made it fun?
Burton: Even in Federer's best year, in 2006, it wasn't like anyone was reading from a script. That's sports -- you do not know what will happen. Federer won some incredibly tight matches that year -- two semifinals, against David Nalbandian at the Italian Open and Paradorn Srichaphan at the Swiss Indoors, were unbearably exciting. And he lost the best tennis match I ever saw him play, the Italian Open final to Nadal. I still rate that match higher than the more famous Wimbledon final in 2008 for pure tennis quality.
Here are highlights from both of those matches:
So some of the fun -- a lot of it -- was the primal pleasure everyone gets from seeing their favorite player or team come through and win, because sports isn't scripted. But there's also the pleasure of seeing a sport played as well as it could possibly be played. You can pick your label -- The Mighty Fed, Full Flight Fed -- but when Federer played at his best level, it was an exalting thing. Not, perhaps, a religious experience, but a pretty good one. Something close. And you knew it wouldn't last. Nothing does. But that was a part of it -- watch him play while he can, because he won't be able to do this forever. And I still feel the same, six or seven years on. He won't play top-level tennis for very much longer, so I intend to enjoy watching him play while he does. The winning is only a part of the pleasure.