Wonder Year: Roger Federer

Not only is Federer not acting his tennis age; observers as astute as Rod Laver, the all-time great from Australia, Mats Wilander, the eight-time Grand Slam winner from Sweden, and Brad Gilbert, the coach, commentator and former pro, believe Federer is playing the best tennis of his life. When the U.S. Open begins next week, he will be favored, despite tweaking his back and losing in the final of a warm-up tournament in Montreal, to win his third major of the year, something he last accomplished at 26. Consider: Andre Agassi won his final major at 32, Laver and Pete Sampras won their final majors at 31 and John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg won theirs at 25. When Federer triumphed at Wimbledon in July, he became the event’s oldest champion in the Open Era (which began in 1968),

.. But after his victory over Andy Murray in the Australian Open final in 2010, his dominance in the slams skidded to a halt. Between the ages of 29 and 35, he won only a single major, beating Murray again at Wimbledon in 2012, in what were ideal conditions for his game after the roof was closed in the third set. Although he continued to reach the occasional final and semifinal, all signs indicated that he was gradually and inevitably succumbing to the forces that fell all athletic superstars: age, injuries and, in one-on-one sports, the cumulative trauma of agonizing losses.

.. In many ways, watching Federer practice exceeds the entertainment value of watching him compete. It’s pure play and even more of an improv showcase. Every ball is lathered with gratuitous action, spin for spin’s sake, spin as slapstick, and unlike Nadal, who rips violently upward on his shots to impart an ungodly number of rotations per second to the ball, Federer luxuriantly massages every shot as if to prolong the moment of impact and better feel the racket head moving over the ball, string by string. That day, every fifth shot, give or take, was a trick shot

.. Federer, Nadal, Murray and Novak Djokovic have dominated the second week of majors for a decade, but only Federer seems to take consistent and obvious pleasure in what he is doing on the court.

.. In part that may come from Federer’s not having grown up subjected to the same preadolescent all-or-nothing pressure of his major peers.

.. Two-handers are easier to hit, especially for youngsters, and dependable as diesel engines. But anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that one-handers bring more joy to a player, if only because they are beautiful, and to hit them well, you have to let them go.

Pete Sampras, whose record seven Wimbledon titles was broken by Federer in July, once told me that when he went from a two-handed to a one-handed backhand, he was transformed from a grinder to a shot maker, and the game became immensely more enjoyable for him.