"When you strike at a king you must kill him."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
The best tennis players in the world converge this week at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. A veritable pink elephant, the 17,000-seat stadium, cocooned between snow-covered mountains and a vast desert and seldom used other than for this event, will house the titans of the sport. During the night sessions, a level of wattage lights up the sky above the stadium to an extent that mimics the baseball field in Field of Dreams. The players will battle it out, with the winner pocketing $1 million and a valuable 1,000 ATP World Tour ranking points. Amongst the favorites will be the most decorated man ever to hit a tennis ball, Roger Federer.
The Swiss star is a global icon. He not only has earned huge success on the court, winning 16 Grand Slam titles, but he is also equally outstanding in his sportsmanship and humanity. Last year in a global study, he was named the second most respected man on the planet, trailing only Nelson Mandela, and a notch ahead of Gandhi!
Understandably, many athletes would be contemplating retirement at this stage in their career, but not Federer. Federer has accumulated a vast fortune, played over 1,000 ATP-level matches, and has a beautiful family eager for his attention, but he is still driven to regain his throne and overcome steep competition.
The obstacles in front of him are significant. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have hoisted the last eight Grand Slam trophies and are in the prime of their careers. However, rather than recoil, Federer comes into the BNP Paribas Open riding a hot streak. He has won five of his last seven ATP World Tour events. Additionally, instead of fading away after his heartbreaking semifinal loss to Djokovic in last summer's U.S. Open, where he squandered two match points, Federer has done something rare in modern-day sports: he has become better with age. He is motivated to achieve a few remaining goals, namely an Olympic gold medal in singles. In the 2008 games he won the gold medal in doubles with partner Stanislaw Wawrinka. He is also painfully close to having occupied the number-one ranking for the greatest number of weeks in ATP history, just one behind Pete Sampras.
Federer has often revealed that the key factor in maintaining his longevity has been simply enjoying his job. He loves playing tennis, and he even enjoys many of the perils that have driven his peers away from the game, such as the travel and pressure. Federer embraces life on the road and takes pleasure in experiencing new cultures, exploring unknown regions with his supportive wife, Mirka, and expanding his horizons. Federer is a student of life, and as a result he has developed an adaptation that shields him from the rigors of tour life. In regard to pressure and expectations, Federer seems unburdened. Once again, he manages to shift an anchor into an advantage. He is aware of how much he has accomplished and therefore views added success as a bonus.
It needs to be acknowledged that for all his balance and perspective, Federer is hardly complacent -- quite the contrary, actually. He remains staggeringly focused on his goals, and his quest to improve is never-ending. He knows he will have to challenge himself physically and tactically to make adjustments to beat his competitors, whereas in the past he had the tools that created vast margins of error between him and his challengers. Now he is up against two of the most athletically gifted champions the sport has ever seen, Djokovic and Nadal, and he will need all his guile and vast repertoire of shots to surpass them and get back on top.
When Federer was dominant, he could virtually pick what style he wanted to employ to be successful, always forcing his opponents to adjust to him. That is no longer the case. Federer now has to be much more conscious of staying away from certain patterns that have proved unsuccessful, especially the pattern that keeps him pinned in his backhand corner. A more proactive Federer, conscious of expanding his own comfort zones, shortening points by mixing in the occasional serve and volley, attacking second serves, and using his short-slice backhand and his latest weapon, a drop shot, are the keys to his success in the present and the future.
Federer has a packed schedule this year and has even hinted at trying to compete through the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, Brazil. Tennis should be so lucky.