How should Roger Federer—the greatest tennis player on earth—talk about his own greatness?

The stadium scene.
Sept. 10 2009 4:17 PM

A Modesty Proposal

How should Roger Federer—the greatest tennis player on earth—talk about his own greatness?

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A reporter tried to trick him into candor by asking whether he'd ever played as well as he could and still lost a major. Tiger wasn't biting: "There are times I've put it together and I've had some pretty good margins of victory. Just feel that overall my game over the years, it's gotten better and become more consistent. And when I'm playing well, I usually don't make that many mistakes."

Tiger's understated but deadly bite comes out only when some upstart tries to suggest his dominance may be eroding. At the end of 2006, coming off knee surgery, Ernie Els had the temerity to suggest that he might soon "start giving Tiger a run for his money." Since that pronouncement, Els has won three tournaments worldwide; Woods has won 16 PGA Tour titles in the last three years. Last week, Tiger stuck the knife in: "Ernie is not a big worker physically, and that's one of the things that you have to do with an ACL repair is you've got to really do a lot of work. I feel pretty good with what I've done, and I think Ernie—he could have worked a little bit harder."

Compared with his buddy Tiger, Federer is free of rancor. Indeed, I would say he's set a new standard of blending graciousness and humility with a candid acknowledgment of his own excellence. I'd imagine this has something to do with Federer's ignorance of American aw-shucks-ism, and partly with his superb English not being quite superb enough to allow him to comfortably dissemble.

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In any case, the Federer approach was on full view in July, when he beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final for his sixth triumph in the tournament and his 15th Grand Slam title—the most ever. First, he slipped into a white warm-up jacket with the number "15" embroidered on the back—expressing both his questionable sartorial taste and his pre-match confidence that he would prevail.

He started by acknowledging his foe. "Don't be too sad," he told Roddick. "I went through some rough ones as well, one on this court last year." That was when his archrival, Rafael Nadal, beat him in five excruciating sets. "I came back and won."

Roddick, standing to the side, ruefully cracked that Federer had already won five times before that.

Federer laughed. "I won five, but still, it hurts. … Unfortunately, in tennis, there has to be a winner sometimes, and today I was on the lucky side."

Lucky—of course, it's the ultimate word in false modesty. But from Federer's lips, it sounded real. Yes, he had just set the record for Grand Slam titles, but only after losing to Nadal repeatedly—Federer had even been reduced to tears a few months earlier after losing in the Australian Open. During his Wimbledon speech, then, Federer was able to convincingly express two seemingly contradictory ideas: He was the greatest of all time, and the luckiest man on earth.

Ben Yagoda is the author of a new e-book about recent language trends, You Need to Read This.