When you play a balletic brand of tennis; when you waltz off Wimbledon’s Centre Court, trophy in hand and not a hair out of place; when you parlez-vous with reporters in five languages; when you amass 100 career titles, including 20 majors, folks begin to throw around the ‘P’ word.
However, Roger Federer, now 37 and in many minds the sport’s true GOAT, denies such a concept is attainable.
“People always elevate superstar athletes to superman status, like we’re superhuman,” said Federer, who’ll embark on his 18th BNP Paribas Open this week. “Then you get to meet us and you realize, ‘He’s just another normal guy. It just so happens he does great in what he does.’ I don’t see myself like that. Being perfect doesn’t exist. Everybody has their flaws. So do I. If I can make the game more popular, I can be good for fans, that’s great.”
For Federer, who’s chasing a record sixth title at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, that might just be enough. (The money, the fame and the trophies surely help, too.)
While he may not be superhuman, Federer has managed to defy the odds when it comes to his mostly injury-free career. The forehand, the serve, the instincts are great, but it’s his body that may just be his best asset. Aside from being limited to seven events in 2016 due to knee woes, the world No. 4 has been able to avoid the kind of injuries that have plagued his main rivals, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic included.
“It’s something incredible to see,” said Federer’s potential quarterfinal foe Kei Nishikori, who himself knows a thing or two about injury layoffs. “He plays at such a high level and doesn’t have many injuries. He works so much harder than everybody. We don’t always see that. Also, the way he plays is very smooth. It doesn’t look like he puts any stress on his body.”
“There are so many talented guys who get hurt. That’s normal,” Nishikori continued. “Especially nowadays, with so many power players, big guys. It’s almost impossible to play without injuries.”
Is there some luck involved?
“There’s definitely luck involved,” said Federer. “If you can get through your teenage years, where you’re maybe not that professional — you play a lot, there’s a rain delay and you don’t warm up, you rip a hammy and go out and play on it, break your back snowboarding, whatever it may be — if you can get through that period, that’s good. Then, at one point, I think having enough sleep, eating the right food, it all helps. Recovery, knowing the schedule.”
“Most important for any athlete is understanding your own body,” he added. “What is pain and what is injury pain? What could result in an injury? Being able to play through that many times is going to happen. Sometimes being sick as well. But also knowing when to step off the gas and give yourself a break. At the end of the day, you need to have smart people around yourself that educate you in that way. And you have to buy into that idea.”
To all you 37-year-olds who are waking up with back pain, whose bodies are beginning to betray you, just remember: nobody’s perfect. Not even Roger Federer.