Magazine article The New Yorker

New Racquet

Magazine article The New Yorker

New Racquet

Article excerpt

Sometime last month, on a losing streak and looking for answers, Roger Federer decided that what he needed was a new tennis racquet. Having won sixteen Grand Slam tennis tournaments in his twenties, more than anyone in history, Federer in his thirties had come up with just a single title, at last year's Wimbledon. Stiffer competition presented a problem, but time had also taken its toll--at thirty-two, Federer qualifies as young in practically every profession except the one he chose--and balls that he once slapped back with ease were now skipping out of reach. The new racquet, a Wilson prototype painted all black, was bigger, offering an increased margin of error. In tennis circles, the switch seemed to mark an epochal shift: Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player of all time, had just admitted that he needed help.

"I feel young," Federer said last week, as he headed into his fourteenth U.S. Open, a tournament that he won five consecutive times, between 2004 and 2008, but hasn't since. He was at the Gansevoort Park Hotel, sitting on a couch in an eleventh-floor suite outfitted with a Foosball table, which he hadn't used. "I'm not very good," he said. "It's more the French guys that are good at that." He'd squeezed in two hours of practice in Arthur Ashe Stadium that morning, before changing into a black suit with peak lapels, and a blue checked shirt unbuttoned to his chest. His hair had recently been trimmed; gone is the youthful ponytail. (For a sobering reminder of the Internet's permanence, Google "young Roger Federer.") "By now, I pick my own clothes," he said, claiming one benefit of getting older. "I had many things wrong in the beginning."

That was true off the court, but on it Federer's game was so polished that his acolytes often described him as an artist; now they feared this bigger, less precise racquet as an aesthetic threat. (Could Picasso still paint with a wider brush? Could Baryshnikov dance in hiking boots?) Federer acknowledged that his game is visually appealing--he prefers "showman" to "artist"--but insisted that this is incidental. "I don't purposely try to make it look graceful or classy," he said. "But because I have that--can you say vintage style? Old-school tennis, with the one-handed backhand. …

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