As the clay court season on the ATP tennis tour rolls around Europe towards its annual climax at Roland Garros in Paris, it's worth pausing for thought (if you're a tennis fan) to consider the game's greatest player. Roger Federer has had a disappointing spring on the terre rouge - and won't be the favourite to repeat his historic and critic-silencing win at last year's French Open - but his increasing focus is on the four annual Grand Slam events where, by his own assessment, he is virtually unbeatable over five sets.
With Roland Garros 2010 approaching, Federer currently holds the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles - and was only one set away from a triumph at last year's US Open. He has consecutively reached at least the semi-final stage of every Grand Slam tournament at his last 23 appearances: to put this in perspective, his nearest competition is Ivan Lendl with 10. Federer has made 18 of the last 19 Slam finals and famously surpassed Pete Sampras at last year's Wimbledon in collecting his 15th Grand Slam trophy (a 16th was added for good measure in Australia earlier this year). By the end of this month, Federer - already the player with most consecutive weeks at number 1 (237) - will again move past Sampras (at 286) as the player with most overall weeks in pole position.
Much has been written about Roger Federer's extraordinary ability and accomplishments - but this critique focuses more on the often overlooked nuances and minutiae of his skill and behaviour: qualities which separate him - both as a player and as a human being - from all of his contemporaries, and arguably elevate him even further beyond their reach. His on-court etiquette, when acutely observed, is remarkable:
Coaching: although he maintains a concerted practice regimen, Federer doesn't over-train and has had less coaching during his professional career than any other top 20 player. The three coaches he has used since 1997 (Peter Lundgren, Tony Roche and clay-court specialist, José Higueras) have proved the temporary exception rather than the long-standing rule. As one of the game's great students (and fans) - and blessed with inordinate natural ability - Federer often trusts his own instincts and judgment to correct flaws, finesse existing strokes and introduce new repertoire. During the few dips in his career, critics (and fans) have implored him to secure a permanent coach - advice which has often been met by a powerful, silent response: winning. (For an amusing look at Federer's well-documented antipathy regarding coaches, check out this video.
Self-belief: Federer is the only current top player, of either sex, who never looks up at his box (of family/friends/coaches) during a match. The gifted Justin Henin seemingly cannot play a single point without looking up at her coach for reassurance or guidance. Among the men, Rafael Nadal also appears to require regular propping from his box - nearly always looking up at Uncle Toni to get his opinion regarding a close line call (before requesting a Hawk Eye computerised review). (Update: during the current season, Nadal is looking up at his coach less and less, a good sign indeed for the world's best clay-courter.)
Win or lose, Federer is comfortable in his own skin, reliant only upon his own knowledge, experience, confidence and skill. This is a rare quality in the modern game - and one which, like so many of his on-court traits - harks back to a more refined, professional and gentile era. I recall his preparation for an exhibition match a couple of years ago in the Middle East when he and Nadal were inaugurating a new court: both appeared from the same hotel lobby to get into a single waiting vehicle: Nadal emerged first carrying the usual over-sized bag containing several racquets which all the players (including Federer) use at tournaments; the driver had trouble accommodating the bag in the trunk. Federer followed simply holding one racquet in his hand, with no other baggage.
Fitness: one of the many reasons Federer has enjoyed such a remarkable unbroken run of success is his relative lack of injury. He remains so fit mostly because he combines balletic movement with deft, other-worldly hand/eye co-ordination, natural gifts which allow him to rarely over-stretch or punish his physique (unlike Nadal whose relentless power and comparatively awkward, unnatural style have already taken a heavy toll, despite his relative youth). Federer's astonishing combination of speed, grace, strength, balance, positioning, pace and fluidity are unrivalled past or present. The mental fitness of his "tennis mind" is equally unmatched, allowing him to think faster and more creatively than any opponent. If he remains injury-free, Federer's intention is to play well beyond the 2012 Olympics - and the prospect of him reaching a haul of 20 Grand Slams is more probable than possible.
Balls: Federer rarely requires choosing between more than two or three balls from the ball boys/girls before serving. The great majority of his rivals inspect four/five balls before selecting the freshest with which to serve. He will usually just serve with the ball he's given.
Refreshingly and courteously, Federer always hits any extra or stray balls directly and accurately to a ball girl/boy - in contrast to the casual disdain displayed by so many fellow professionals who just don't care. It's a tiny and unimportant behaviour, which I don't think is even a conscious consideration by Federer, simply part of his thoughtful DNA.
Give me a break: before serving, he will only bounce the ball three to four times - and never wastes time. His top rivals - including his friend, Nadal (whose serving preparation ritual frequently exceeds the 25 seconds allowed) and Novak Djokovic (who averages more than 10 ball bounces before swinging) do. To the best of my knowledge, Federer has never once been cautioned by an umpire for exceeding the 25-second rule.
While many of his fellow players will towel off to take an extended break in-between every point (a rather spoilt practice which must amuse/irritate the likes of Rod Laver or Björn Borg who were never allowed such luxury), Federer rarely does - and is the only current top player who will often not even bother to take his towel from his seat to give to a ball girl/boy for inter-point sweat control. (It also helps that Federer's seemingly effortless movement means he rarely seems to perspire.)
Good manners: eschewing his hot-headed behaviour as a junior, and aside from a very occasional expletive (a rare and short outburst during last year's US Open final), Federer is as close as it comes to the perfect gentleman and professional, both on and off the court. The Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award has been bestowed upon Federer six straight years (2004 - 2009) meaning he's now won more than the Swedish gent (with five) after whom it is named. He was also crowned Laureus World Sportsman of the Year an unprecedented four consecutive times (2005 - 2008). His nobility, decency, respect for and from fellow players (he is President of the ATP Players Council) is legend and his devotion to his wife, relatives and twin girls appear equally grounded and real. His down-to-earth good humour is often on display in interviews, no more so than in this out-take from an interview with CNN International last year:
The Greatest: while tennis commentators continue to modify their awestruck reverence of Federer with cop-out phrases like "one of the - if not the - best player of all time", it seems their unwillingness to say he is unequivocally the best is either out of cautious deference to past legends like Laver and Sampras, or is boringly mindful of the changes in racquet technology, fitness and diet, or other era differentials. This observer would like to state that there should no longer be a discussion on the subject: Federer is the greatest tennis player ever to grace the game and would have - at his and their best - summarily spanked (in the nicest possible fashion) any player of any era with any racquet on any surface. Those who point out that Federer's win at last year's French Open did not include a victory over clay court supremo, Nadal (against whom Federer has a losing record - one of the few he needs to correct) should be mindful that the Swiss maestro beat Nadal in straight sets - on clay - at the Madrid Open just one week prior to Roland Garros.
Unlike self-congratulatory greats like say, Michael Jordan, José Mourinho, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Diego Maradona or even Tiger Woods, Roger Federer has never sought acclaim and his ego is not dependent upon being called the greatest of all time. Just one more reason why he is.
Over several decades of watching and analysing the sport, I've only once seen a top professional actually "throw" his racquet in the direction of his opponent in respectful "I give up" awe. It's worth reviewing.