Must-read article for tennis aficionados: The April GQ cover story on Roger Federer.
Elegantly crafted by Rosecrans Baldwin, the article is the result of a rare step taken in tennis by players and their handlers: Baldwin was granted extensive access to Federer – over food, in his car, in a languid, lengthy dialogue. This is light years removed from the hasty interactions most journalists are usually given, where time with profile subjects is negotiated in five-minute increments (this is not a joke) or conducted in staccato, post-match press conferences.
Baldwin’s piece offers many engaging insights from both subject and author:
+ Only when he was 19, following his win over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, did Federer begin to conceive his career in grand terms: “I realized, Oh, my God. There's so much more to tennis than just practice in a cold hall somewhere in Switzerland. This is what tennis could be about. I realized, I want to be back on that court one day, I'd love to compete with these guys on a regular basis, I'd rather play on the bigger courts than on the smaller courts.… And all of a sudden it started to make sense. Why you're doing weights. Why you're running. Why you arrive early at a tournament. Why you try to sleep well at night. We just started to understand the importance of every single detail. Because it makes a difference.”
+ Writes Baldwin: “In private he's goofy, earnest about his interests, and he seriously doesn't mind getting excited when he tells a story. Basically, Roger Federer is kind of a dork, in the very best sense—and, newly converted, it didn't take long for me to order a hat with an RF logo once I got home. But forgive him if he keeps his dorkiness concealed from us a little longer.”
+ Pondering what might trigger retirement, Federer told Baldwin, “Let's say I have a tournament,” he said. “I ask myself, how happy am I to be leaving home? Because it'd be so nice to stay. So am I happy to pack my bags, and walk out the door, and put them in the car, and get in the car, look to the house and say, Okay, let's do this—am I happy in that moment? Or do I wish I could stay longer? Every time it's been: I'm happy to go. I'm still doing the right thing in my heart. It's a test. If that moment comes and I'm like, ‘Hmm…' I've heard other players say the same thing. A friend went to the airport and turned around—he couldn't go play that tournament; he needed to see his family. That's probably the end of a career.”
Baldwin also wrestles with his own conscious, admitting that he is not a Federer fan, but instead is more drawn to, “Andy Murray's self-defeatism, Stan Wawrinka's sourness, Nadal's nervous mannerisms. Basically, men who are capable of tragic mistakes, who demonstrate, physically and noisily, what it takes to beat back their own worst tendencies—or, just as often, fail in trying. And then there's a side of my vanity—and I'm not proud to say this here—that's occasionally thought that being a Federer fan is just too easy.”
Of course, as would inevitably happen in the course of writing a lucrative cover story for a major magazine, Baldwin finds himself won over by Federer. Why not? Alas, the open secret of life as a journalist is that for all the questions we raise and all our alleged appetite for conflict, hearing the answers from our subjects in a kindly way – particularly at length -- makes our work far more engaging than to be treated harshly.
My only quibble with this piece is its beginning: “Roger Federer was supposed to be finished . . . For years now, the questions have crept in as Federer, 35 and troubled by injuries, seemed to be drifting off the court. Reporters demanded to know: When will you stop? What comes next? Maybe a farewell tour before you wander away into the Alps? All the sporting world seemed to want, after nearly two decades of idol worship, was a forwarding address for where to send a thank-you note.”
This is a classic approach taken by journalists not familiar with a topic. They arrive into the subculture as street-smart, curious outsiders – the term “parachute” is often used. Cleverly tossing around vague, undocumented concepts – “seemed to be drifting off the court” or “Maybe a farewell tour” – they are able to pander to the audience’s even more vague understanding of the subject. So to make the case for Federer as cover subject, his Australian Open win must be juxtaposed against him existing near death’s door.
But the truth was far different. In 2015, Federer reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, finishing the year ranked third in the world. In 2016, a year when he only played 28 matches, he reached the semis of the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Injured? Yes. Drifting? No. Finished? Hardly.
So ignore the forced opening of this piece and instead enjoy the rest.