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Roger Federer waves to fans in the crowd as he does a lap of honour after winning the men’s final match against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open on Jan. 29, 2017. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Roger Federer waves to fans in the crowd as he does a lap of honour after winning the men’s final match against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open on Jan. 29, 2017. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Kelly: Roger Federer may never stop being great at tennis Add to ...

Like many of us, Roger Federer has become a bit of a softie in his old age.

Win or lose, he cries. He cries at centre court, he cries during the trophy presentation, he cries when anyone says anything nice about him. One can imagine Federer trying to get through The Notebook. He’d need to wear a life preserver.

After winning the Australian Open on Sunday, Federer waited until he’d completed the handshakes. Then he collapsed to one knee and sobbed.

For several years now, Federer’s weeping jags have all played like part of an extended farewell ceremony. No major tournament can pass without a raft of ‘This may be the last time we see Roger Federer at [blank]’ stories.

Whenever he starts to wobble in any match, stadiums will spontaneously erupt in a series of “We love you, Roger!” outbursts. People quite reasonably fear this is the moment it all ends.

It’s been going on so long, we’ve forgotten there was a time when the Swiss was admired, but without much affection. At his very best, Federer’s brilliance was robotic.

He floated into tournaments, put the opposition through a physio-tactical wood chipper and left. There was no apparent effort involved. At least, none that you could see. He didn’t even go to the trouble of sweating.

Things that look easy are never fully appreciated. And no one had ever made tennis look simpler than Federer in his prime.

It looks hard now, and has done so for quite a while. The sneaky power has left him. He can’t cover a court as he once did. The slices, while still unseemly in their cheekiness, don’t always land as precisely as he’d like them to.

He’s often called the greatest of all time, which is not quite correct. Federer was the very best ever circa 2006. He’s about 80 per cent of that player now.

That small diminishment has turned him from a fearsome figure into a romantic one. In order to be properly loved, Federer had to shed some of his greatness. What we are left with is someone more human and therefore more appealing.

We often associate that decline with a new found pose of humility, ‘Oh, you know, so-and-so was too much for me today. I’m just happy to still be out here, etc.’ Federer doesn’t bother with that. He is casually ruthless with himself, and with others.

Asked after Sunday’s win how a 35-year-old celebrates, Federer said, “I’m a bit more experienced about it. I don’t just show up and look for something. We’ve organized a party.”

Federer had not won a Grand Slam in nearly five years. He had not beaten Rafael Nadal in a major final for a decade, and never once outside London SW19. But he still booked a room for the victory shindig.

Some might call that arrogance. With Federer, I’d call it self-belief.

The difference is in how Federer goes about his work. He simultaneously does and doesn’t care about professional tennis. He plainly loves playing the game, but neither covets the spoils nor broods on the defeats.

He extended his own record for major tournament wins to 18 on Sunday. When someone tried to bait him into superlatives, Federer shrugged the question off annoyedly.

“The last problem is the Slam count,” Federer said, already turning away from the questioner. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter.”

When you are in the presence of a top pro an hour after a match, you don’t need to have watched the contest to know its outcome. It’s evident in their tone and body language. Not with Federer. Win or lose, he is the same. On some level, the result is unimportant to him.

John McEnroe once said Federer was the player he most envied. Not because of his talent, but because of this unique ability to separate his enjoyment of the game from its results.

In trying to describe how that works, McEnroe adopted Federer’s mittel-European drawl: “Well, you know, I lost the finals. I was up two sets to love and a break. There’s always tomorrow …” – McEnroe bugged out his eyes – “… I’d be saying, ‘Where’s the Empire State Building?!’

“That’s part of why he’s lasted. I think he’s the most beautiful player I’ve ever watched, but at the same time, it’s the part where he can just shrug it off.”

When we talk about the things that make Federer special, we start with the physical. No player has ever had so complete a package of ability. Eventually, it gets to the metaphysical – what we might call the ‘heart’ advantage.

We talk about athletes who “want it more” than anyone else, having no real idea what that means. At a certain level, don’t they all want it? Wouldn’t the least of them probably give far more for it than the ones who’ve already done it? And don’t the same ones win again and again? Physics and metaphysics become a virtuous circle.

The very best players have what continental types call “a good mentality,” but Federer has something more than that.

He has the sort of mental make-up that contains multitudes. He cares about tennis, but doesn’t believe winning or losing is the highest expression of that fixation. He cries either way.

He wants to win – expects to do so despite recent evidence to the contrary – but doesn’t absorb the result.

His ego is remarkably supple.

All the maladies of the sporting mind – an overabundance of self-regard, doubt, fear, selfishness – are temporal. You’re either spending too much time dwelling on the past or fretting about the future.

Federer competes in the present, disconnected from his own history. Hence the inability to contain himself. He treats everything like it is both the first and last time he’ll get to experience it.

“Emotions poured out of me,” Federer said on Sunday. Well, when don’t they? The man is nothing but emotions at this point.

He’s repeatedly said that he does not intend to retire. He doesn’t qualify these remarks by guesstimating a good time to leave. He just continues to go out and play. Having done that desultorily for a while, he now finds himself back on top.

It’s more than surprising. It’s vaguely ridiculous. We now have to confront the real possibility that Federer might never stop being great at tennis. Maybe he’ll just go on forever. Nobody would complain.

As such, his real accomplishment on Sunday wasn’t tabular. It was becoming the first athlete of the 21st century to extend the drama of his sporting life into a fourth act.

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