My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Tennis player Roger Federer
He has nothing left to prove. He’s won almost everything there is to win in tennis, in many cases several times. He’s set records no male player will ever break, including 302 weeks at the top of the ATP rankings. He’s a half-step slower now, no longer able to smoothly dispatch all comers as if, to paraphrase Andre Agassi, he were Cary Grant playing in an ascot and a smoking jacket. He’s rich beyond imagining and happily married with four young children. Why not retire at the top? After all, in his tennis dotage, Roger Federer is still No. 2 in the world.
He’s too polite to say this, but...are you crazy? For one thing, Federer likes competing too much. For another, he’s too damn happy. According to a perfectly unscientific survey reported this winter by the British social-networking site Friends United, 33 is the happiest year of our lives. In 2014, the year Federer turned 33, he won more ATP matches than any other male player (73), made a record ninth Wimbledon final (and 25th Grand Slam final), helped Switzerland win its first Davis Cup and fell only a few victories short of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking. He and his wife, Mirka, had their second set of twins, Lenny and Leo, to go with older sisters Charlene and Myla. After the boys’ birth in May Federer told The Telegraph of London, “This is the best time of my life.”
That’s saying a lot, considering all that Federer has accomplished. If you don’t believe he is the greatest player in tennis history, be prepared to stay up all night arguing the point. But 2014 wasn’t simply a continuation of Federer’s long march into sports immortality. It was a stunning reclamation project. After a dismal 2013 in which he struggled with an ailing back, dropped as low as No. 6 in the ATP rankings and was sent home from Wimbledon early by an unseeded Ukrainian, Federer went back to the garage. He added his boyhood hero, six-time Grand Slam champion Stefan Edberg, to his coaching team. He switched to a racket with a larger head, the better to keep up with his younger rivals. He healed his back and resumed his rigorous fitness and practice regimes.
The result, in 2014, wasn’t the Roger of old, exactly, but a sleek Roger of new. Attacking more consistently, rolling his backhand more and slicing it less, he pushed No. 1 Novak Djokovic to five sets in the Wimbledon final. He reached the semifinals of the Australian and U.S. opens, extending his preposterous record of Grand Slam semis to 36. And he made his record ninth championship match at the year-end ATP World Tour Finals, at which his back finally seized up again and he was forced to forfeit to Djokovic. Nevertheless, a week later Federer helped Stan Wrawrinka win the Davis Cup doubles in straight sets on the slow clay of Lille, France, and then clinched the cup with a breathtaking demolition of Richard Gasquet.
Although it was Federer’s first Davis Cup trophy, he said it was not for him but for his teammates and his country. He wasn’t “ticking off the box” on his tennis résumé, he told a courtside interviewer. “This one’s for the boys.” He gave much of the credit to Wrawrinka, with whom he had taken pains to patch up a minor feud stemming from the ATP Finals in London. But while no one believed that the Davis Cup wasn’t a huge box ticked off on Federer’s résumé, it was in his nature as a sportsman to stress the collective nature of the victory. It is for this, as well as for his passion for his sport, his steadfast dedication to training and practice, his eagerness to give crowds the best show in tennis, and his flexibility and grace as he continues to compete despite the inevitable erosion of his unearthly skills, that Roger Federer is my Sportsman of the Year.
Tennis is not kind to thirtysomethings. In the ATP’s top ten for 2014, only Federer and No. 10 David Ferrer are in their fourth decade. Djokovic is 27; his record against Federer this year was 2-3. No. 5 Kei Nishikori is 24; at the ATP Finals Federer beat him 6-3, 6-2. No. 6 Andy Murray is 27; in London Federer destroyed him 6-0, 6-1. No. 8 Milos Raonic is 23; in London Federer schooled him 6-1, 7-6, allowing him not one point in the tiebreaker. No longer in his prime, hounded by younger, stronger, faster opponents, 33-year-old Roger Federer plays on, ever working to improve his game, not for history, not for money, not because he’s still better than most players in their 20s, but for the best reason of all: He loves it too much to stop.