Roger Federer ‘Genius of a Higher Order?’

How many among us are equally gracious in defeat as we are in victory?  Hours after being ousted in an embarrassing straight set defeat in the 4th round of the US Open, Roger Federer rose to become his fellow countryman, Stanislas Wawrinka’s, devoted fan. 

Only the older among us remember that Federer reinstated gentlemanly manners into a sport that lost it’s way when overwhelmed by a ‘no holds barred - win at any cost’ generation.  Brad Gilbert wrote a best selling book called ‘Winning Ugly’ in 1994; Jimmy Connors said at about the same time : ‘I hate to lose more than I love to win’ and Martina Navratilova added, 'That whoever said it's not whether you win or lose that counts, probably lost.’ 

The problem is that none of us win every time time, and forever – even Federer.

No sportsman alive has elicited such effusive eulogies as ‘Roger’ in the last weeks. Come what may, most consider him to be among, if not ‘the’, greatest tennis player ever - with the most Grand Slam wins (17) and weeks ranked No. 1 in the world (302). While Federer’s prowess on the court is undisputed – few are aware that his ability to monetize his career has been light years ahead of any tennis player who ever lived.
Forbes ranks Federer’s wealth at $400 million, consisting of a record $77 million in career prize winnings since he turned pro in 1998.  The bulk of his wealth, however has arisen from a flurry of sponsorships from the likes of Rolex, Nike, Gilette, Moet & Chandon and Credit Suisse. 
Despite Federer’s slide to number 7 in tennis rankings, he is the 2nd the  highest-paid athlete in the world, ahead of Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, and just behind Tiger woods.
While Federer’s competition on the court has stiffened, his competition off the court is fading.  Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Lance Armstrong fell from grace some time back, and the likes of David Beckham and Michael Schumacher have retired.
Federer remains the best bet around. Fans have voted him as their favorite player on the ATP Tour 10 straight years. He never had a major injury during a decade when he ranked among the top 3 players in the world – meaning that he reached with remarkable consistency the last stages in most major keeping him in front of TV viewers and in the press.  Compare this to baseball, basketball and football stars who come and go, often ending up injured or in the tabloids.
Tennis is attractive to sponsors because its fans have high disposable incomes and the season is almost year-round. Another plus is its global reach. US and UK centric sports are parochial, or confined to former colonies like rugby and cricket. Federer can advertise for Nike or Gillette anywhere. A fan in Beijing summed up Federer’s popularity in China : ‘he has a big nose, and a nice smile’.
Then there is the ‘Swiss’ element. He comes from a country with a population of only 8 million in a world with 6 billion. People associate reliability, precision, modesty and perfection to the Swiss – and Federer embodies all of these qualities in spades.  “It’s as though his country’s neutrality makes him a global citizen.” – says Tony Godsick, his long-time agent. On top of that Federer ‘manages to do it with ‘style and class’ so he is favored by price insensitive luxury goods like Rolex and Moet & Chandon. Credit Suisse entered into a long-term endorsement with Federer saying: ‘This world sportsman with Swiss roots is an ideal ambassador for the Credit Suisse brand’.
Few Swiss would beg to differ.  Biel, a bilingual town straddling Switzerland’s German and French regions, just named a street after him - ‘Roger Federer Allee’.
While Federer is a national hero in Switzerland and welcomed as though he were at home wherever he goes – few people seem to know who Roger Federer is. He has always been difficult to read and is seldom disposed to offer any window into his soul. Faultlessly urbane, multilingual, his public remarks give the press and his fans everything and nothing.  
Sponsors love Federer’s evasive armor because it improves predictability and duration.  He is surrounded (and protected) by a finely tuned machine – including Godsick – that is considered to be the most discrete and professional in tennis.  Nothing is left to chance. What looks natural is meticulously planned and smoothly executed.  Following his legendary 7th win at Wimbeldon, for example, he slipped on an vintage looking tennis sweater and a golden Rolex that visibly contrasted and gleamed as he hoisted the coveted  (silver) "All England Lawn Tennis Club’ trophy for 870 million television viewers around the world to see.
Tim Godsick said a few years ago that Federer’s success and performance on the court is what ultimately determines his business success : ‘Firms always want to be associated with the best, and Roger is the best’. 
But what happens when he’s not the best? His poor performance this summer, which included losses to players who would have once struggled to take a set off him, suggests that there might be a growing disconnect between Federer’s results and his marketing machinery. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Federer has won only two Grand Slam events and made three finals appearances.
Precautions are under way. Federer plays in fewer tournaments, focusing on the most important and lucrative ones. As the president of the ATP Tour Player Council since 2008, he has successfully lobbied for significant prize money increases at the four Grand Slam events.
More important, his endorsement contracts are long term and thought to continue irrespective of losing his top standing. Nike, for example, agreed in 2008 to pay him $160 million over 10 years.
Tennis career trajectories tend to ascend gradually and descend precipitously, with the slope most slippery at the inflection point. The lower Federer drops in the rankings, the more difficult the draw and the greater the chance of losing during the earlier rounds. That means less time on TV, and fewer photo opportunities to show his sponsors’ wares.
David Bailey, an Australian footwork specialist, feels Federer’s real genius was in his feet. “Federer has a 360-degree skill set,” Bailey said. “He’s fantastic going forward, backward and laterally, on all surfaces. Matts Wilander said the same thing in different words : ‘’There are better servers, better backhands, better vollies, but nobody moves better’’. John McEnroe likened Federer to Rudolf Nureyev – but feels he’s lost a step: "so he's reaching for more balls and therefore miss‑hitting more shots’ . . .  ‘at this level of play that little margin is all it takes.”
Age robs all athletes of their reflexes – but this is particularly crucial for Federer, who relies on the precision and finesse of shot making rather battling it out from the baseline.  A tennis ball touches the strings of a racket for some .005 seconds so a slight change in reflex can be the difference between a winner and a flop.  Seldom anymore are the so-called ‘Federer moments’ (coined by David Foster Wallace’s in his New York Times article, ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ written during the flowering of his youth in 2006) when he routinely stunned opponents with angles that defied principles of Euclidean geometry.
It also does not help Federer that the game has slowed down. Wimbeldon, the surface that best suits Federer’s game, now uses variety of ryegrass that causes the ball to rise higher, allowing opponents more time to track down and react to balls. Federer won an unprecedented five times consecutively the US Open 2004-2008, but that was nearly a half career ago and he won on a different surface. Sand has been added to the acrylic paint mixture to slow the pace of play down and encourage longer points. Audiences like to watch 25 shot rallies – but this does not play to Federer’s strength or age.
So it is no surprise that those at the top of rankings are machines rather than artists.  This goes for the men like Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray as well as for the women. Serena Williams has the symmetry and build of an NFL guard, and Maria Sharapova is 6.2 and weighs 140 lbs.
And then there is the math.  The lower Federer drops in the rankings, the more difficult the draw and the greater the chance of losing during the earlier rounds.  He will likely need to beat 2 of the world’s best during seven rounds to win a tournament. To get through Federer must win a lot of close matches and he doesn’t play the close points, for the most part, that well. No longer does the name Federer strike terror into the hearts of weaker opponents as it once did, as evidenced by his 1st round Wimbledon loss to 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky.
History is replete with examples of sports heroes who hung on for too long. Ali had no business going back into the ring against Holmes. Jordan tried to become a baseball player in the twilight of his career.  Willie Mays had to be dragged almost kicking and screaming into retirement. Red Smith, who rose to become one of America's most widely read sports columnists, said that ‘great players always believe they can come back’.
Federer has consistently made it clear that he hopes to play for several more years and he has proven experts wrong in the past. None of us who appreciates greatness wants to see him go – but everyone knows one day he will.  Paired with the fact that anything short of a championship is tantamount to failure, Federer is experiencing a period of unparalleled scrutiny.  This may be increasingly painful to deal with in a game that is played as much on top of the shoulders as it is below. 

There may be financial incentives to tempt Federer to lumber on – after all it is hard to land a job that pays $65 million per year just to show up.  
Federer has become who he is because he has always behaved with impeccable dignity. His combination of dominance and decency has made Federer so special in the hearts of his fans — and his sponsors.
The true test of Federer’s legacy will be whether he can continue to inspire the world of tennis once he leaves the court, in a manner that, say, Pelé has done for soccer. 

Now that would be genius worth paying for.

Note : 
This article has been adapted and published in the New York Times under the title : ‘ Even if Federer's Game Wanes, His Moneymaking Potential May Not’ (September 14, 2013), and in Le Temps, a French-language newspaper in Geneva ‘Roger Federer, la meilleure marque de sport’ (September 4, 2013)