This story appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The highlight is dying and the reel is dead, but, at least figuratively, this was a shot for the highlight reel. It was late in the first set of Sunday's Wimbledon men's final when Roger Federer, who turns 36 next month, went all out. Dashing across what was left of the Centre Court grass, Federer caught up to the ball beyond the baseline, coiled his arm and flicked an angled backhand. His shot hummed past the opponent, Marin Cilic, before kissing the court near the sideline. It was still another he-did-not-just-do-that bit of shotmaking for the Federer compendium. The crowd went wild. As it always does.
Barely a minute later, Federer played another critical point. This one featured no magic, no obvious display of his lavish talent. This time he tacked between offense and defense, stubbornly refusing to give ground, patiently and steadily driving the ball deep into the court—grinding, in tennis locution—until Cilic capitulated and committed a forehand unforced error. There was no frothing from the commentators, no oohs or ahhhs or other sonic rewards from the fans. Still, this point mattered just as much as the previous one, and it was perhaps more central to the plot.
This interval encapsulated one of the great truths of tennis, sports, life. For all the gushing—not wrongly—about grace, it's often another one-syllable gr word that is just as responsible for success: grit. We fix our gaze on the bells and whistles of talent, not the effort to extract it. We're so seduced by the outcome that it distracts us from admiring the process. Grit is the real engine of greatness. Grit balances elegance and lavishness. Grit is what enables the winners to alchemize their native gifts into results.
It has become a voguish concept, grit has. It's easy to discuss and harder to define. In her best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth lands here: "[Grit] is a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal." Duckworth even goes so far as to put forth an equation: "Talent × Effort = Skill. Skill × Effort = Achievement." In writing her book, Duckworth studied everyone from elite Army units to National Spelling Bee winners to Warren Buffett. She could just as easily have focused her research on tennis, and specifically the 2017 Wimbledon champions.
Already considered the GOAT of men's tennis, Federer added to his credentials at the All England Club. A ridiculous 14 years removed from his first title there, he defeated Cilic 6–3, 6–1, 6–4 for his eighth championship as well as his 19th career major, padding his lead over Rafael Nadal's 15. Federer did it without dropping a set, the first man to accomplish that on the grass in 41 years.
Federer's talents for manipulating a tennis ball are—and have always been—abundant. When he plays, almost reflexively he draws comparisons to art and music. He is alternately a maestro, a virtuoso, an impresario, a pointillist, a stylist. To quote the sign of one fan attending a Federer practice session last week, QUIET: GENIUS AT WORK.
But if Federer is an artiste, so, too, is he an artisan. He'll go in the basement and tinker with his game, adding new elements and testing new equipment. His switch to a larger racket this year has allowed him to take bigger cuts on his one-handed backhand. During play, perhaps more than ever, he's happy to slog through points with persistence, willing to prolong rallies and hit as many balls as necessary to prevail, aesthetics be damned.
His mental state during competition also epitomizes grit. Without histrionics or drama, he pushes through the inevitable lapses. "Roger Federer's best trait is the same exact best trait of Rafa Nadal—with two totally different personalities," says Paul Annacone, a longtime Federer coach (and a colleague of the writer at the Tennis Channel). "He doesn't let the emotion of the moment, pro or con, sway him. He has this incredibly short memory. What just happened doesn't matter. Roger hits an incredible shot—or he makes a mistake. Doesn't matter. He just moves on without a huge amount of emotion and just plays the next point."
Granted, Federer seldom calls attention to his doggedness, what in Switzerland would be called sitzfleisch. He performs in silence, not grunting or moaning. He seldom sweats or snarls. While peers complain about the rigors of the circuit and demands of travel, Federer—blessed with the means to afford private planes—flies around with his wife, Mirka, and their four kids and talks proudly of being "a citizen of the world." He doesn't exude stress.
So it is that we don't always see the sacrifice his success requires. We don't see him decline to go skiing, for fear he might tweak his knee or land on his right arm. We don't see him monitor his diet—save the balls of Swiss chocolate scattered throughout the home he rented for July in Wimbledon Village—to maintain his 187-pound playing weight. We don't see him hold "training blocks" during the season on the back courts of hotel complexes in Dubai. There, in striking anonymity and searing heat, he goes through elaborate stretching and flexibility routines with his longtime trainer, Pierre Paganini, in the mornings. In the afternoons he hits with players who have differing skills and styles, rotating them in and out, as a champion boxer would sparring partners.
The yield on this investment—the payoff of this grit—has never been more apparent. Federer isn't just competitive, and he isn't just winning. He is playing at the dizzyingly high level that he displayed when he was in his supposed prime. "Honestly," he says, "I'm incredibly surprised how well this year is going, how well I'm feeling, how I'm managing tougher situations, where my level of play is on a daily basis."
Call it a revival of will and grace.
After studying Federer, Duckworth might want to turn to an exemplar of grit in women's tennis. At 37, Venus Williams has more than a year of seniority on even Federer. (For perspective, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters will both be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame this Saturday; both are 34.) No matter. A full two decades since she made her Wimbledon debut, a full 17 summers since she first won Wimbledon, Williams presses on. And the reason is simple: a coupling of passion and persistence. "I love what I do," she says. "I still like the challenge of being better today than I was yesterday."
Venus entered the tournament as a contender, if not a favorite. Her reputation, especially on grass, preceded her, while her power, speed and competitive instincts have endured. She also benefitted from the absence of the 2016 champ, the player who has beaten her in seven major finals, most recently January's Australian Open ... who also happens to be her kid sister. With Serena Williams out of action, deep in the third set of her pregnancy, Venus's odds at Wimbledon improved dramatically.
Optimism was dashed, though, days before the tournament, with the publication of a police report that on June 9, Venus had been involved in a two-car auto accident in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. A 78-year-old passenger in the other vehicle died after the collision, and his family was bringing a civil suit against Williams.
Venus soldiered through her first match but without her usual mirth. Asked about the accident in her postmatch press conference, she said, "There are really no words to describe, like, how devastating and—yeah. I'm completely speechless. It's just—yeah, I mean, I'm just...."
In her operatic career, Venus has won on the grandest stages. She has suffered the death of her older half sister Yetunde Price, who was killed in a shooting in Compton, Calif., in 2003. She has lobbied for equal prize money. She has for a decade battled the effects of Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic fatigue and muscle soreness. She has grown from beaded prodigy to the moral authority of women's tennis, from a polarizing teenager to a woman in full, roundly admired and adored. At this moment, she did something few had ever recalled seeing, at least in public. She broke down; tears flowed unrestrained. A moderator jumped in: "Can we just give her a minute, please. Do you want to take a minute outside? Shall we?" We shall.
Venus collected herself. And she, well, gritted through both the interview and then the rest of the tournament. She won with power. She won with poise. She won blowouts. She won battles. She beat veterans. She beat three straight opponents born in 1997, the year of her first Wimbledon. Midway through the tournament, video from the accident surfaced, strongly suggesting that Venus was not at fault. By then her joy, and her signature postmatch twirl, had returned.
In the final Venus faced 23-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain. A natural athlete and violent ball striker, Muguruza is capable of Mugu-ruthless tennis. She is also capable of enigmatically vacant play. Two years ago she reached the Wimbledon final, falling to Serena. A few months later, deep in a slump and losing another match, she was picked up on court mikes telling her coach, "I don't want to play anymore." Last year Muguruza took down Serena for the French Open title and seemed poised to become the next star. She then went a full year without reaching a tournament final, much less winning another major. "Handling success is something I had to learn to do," she says. "It's not easy."
Duckworth writes of the "rising to the occasion form of grit," elevating yourself at the most critical junctures. Last Saturday, Muguruza did precisely that, meeting the moment and embracing it lustily. Facing double set point in the 10th game of the match, Muguruza called on her tenacity to win a ferocious 19-shot rally. As if flipping a circuit breaker, Muguruza didn't lose another game, blasting away and returning Venus's serve as if it were propped on a tee.
After taking the title 7–5, 6–0, Muguruza was asked what she had discovered about herself at Wimbledon. "I've learned that it's very important to find organization," she said. "To go through a Grand Slam, two weeks is so long. You have to economize your energy and fight when you're out here, recover, train well.... There are a lot of things that aren't [individually] so important. But put together, they make everything work."
It all leaves women's tennis in a curious place. The vacuum created by Serena is a considerable one. The player who entered Wimbledonranked No. 1 (Germany's Angelique Kerber) has yet to win a tournament in 2017. The player who left Wimbledon ranked No. 1 (Karolina Pliskova, a Czech) lost in the second round. The most accomplished player not named Williams (Maria Sharapova) hasn't played a major in 18 months because of a doping suspension and a thigh injury. Muguruza might be best positioned as the sport's one authority figure. "I feel like a completely different player [now]," she says. "I am committed."
Federer's commitment has never wavered. He's still flourishing, still passionate and persistent. Here we are in 2017, and Federer has won two majors and the 31-year-old Nadal—Federer's comparably gritty foil—has won the other. More than a decade into their rivalry, they are one-two in ranking points this year. It's all a reminder that potential is one thing. Realizing it is quite another.
It was around 7 p.m. on Sunday when Federer—still working his way through his media assignations, three hours after the match—addressed this very point. "Yes, I was blessed with a lot of talent," he says. "But I also had to work for it. Talent only gets you that far."
The rest? That's grit. True grit.