On Roger Federer and Late Style

18 Mar 2024

This is a review I wrote in 2022 on the release of Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer, and updated slightly upon Federer’s retirement later that year. It’s really less a review than an exploration of a path Dyer doesn’t quite take in his book, and it wasn’t quite timely enough to be publishable, but I’m leaving it here for posterity.

When the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that, ‘in the history of art, the late works are the catastrophes,’ he was referring to Beethoven’s recalcitrant late style, but Roger Federer could probably relate to the sentiment. A month shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, Federer stepped to the baseline in the fifth set of the 2019 Wimbledon final, serving up a break and 40-15 against Novak Djokovic—two championship points, one swing away from what at the time would have been a record-extending twenty-first grand slam title. If the Federer of 2006 would simply have hit an ace out wide and called it a day, at this late moment those two points passed without bringing the match to an end and, as Geoff Dyer puts it, ‘one sensed that Roger’s chance had gone.’ Djokovic would go on to win in a tiebreak at twelve-all in the fifth.

Narrating that reversal of fortune in The Last Days of Roger Federer, and Other Endings, Dyer recalls the devastating return of serve that Djokovic had struck in a similar situation in the 2011 US Open semifinals, and the accompanying sense of inevitability that had accrued around these Federer-Djokovic matches in the years since. Indeed, Federer fans will have burned into their memories a nearly identical scenario from the 2010 US Open, along with the Wimbledon finals in 2014 and 2015, both of which went to Djokovic. We might even say that Federer’s late phase began with that 2010 defeat. Perhaps it seems strange to identify a late period that lasts longer than the rest of a player’s career, but, as Dyer notes, ‘pundits have been speculating about when Roger might retire for more years than Borg spent on the Tour.’ Both because his end has been declared so often and because he put it off for so long, Federer is the perfect emblem for a book about endings, even if relatively little of The Last Days is actually about tennis.

Towards the end of the book Dyer acknowledges that he had originally hoped to write a study of three artists, with two already selected: Beethoven and J.M.W. Turner, whose late works have often been described in terms indebted to Adorno’s densely philosophical writings on Beethoven. (In his book White Sands Dyer describes how, ‘reading Adorno, you’re hurled forward and taken aback by the escalating intensity of a dialectical method in which everything is constantly turning on itself in order to surge ahead again’). But he was unable to come up with a suitable candidate—geographically contrasting but temporally close, and with a similarly interesting late style—and in the end he abandoned that project in favor of a more ecumenical study of endings more generally. The benefit of that change of strategy is a broadening of the book’s cultural horizons: in place of yet another study of some canonic early nineteenth-century author, we get a tour of Dyer’s promiscuous taste in popular music, jazz, film, fiction, poetry, and controlled substances. Bob Dylan gets extended treatment, as do D.H. Lawrence and Nietzsche, and we also hear about Andy Murray, Martin Amis, Gillian Welch, Giorgio de Chirico, and the demise of the great plains’ buffalo herds, among many other people and things.

The departure from his original plan was also a return to the familiar for Dyer, whose past books have addressed many of these topics at length, often mixing autobiographical vignette with an attentive critical eye and ear. In Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer turned his inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence into a book about his inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, and the last major section of The Last Days is likewise anchored by an account of his unsuccessful earlier plan. Digression is central to Dyer’s style, and although Roger Federer is in the title and Dyer returns now and then to the professional game, and particularly the aging stars of recent years, tennis more often functions as a launching point for musings on Dyer’s own relationship to the game and to his aging body as, in his sixties, his time spent on court comes to consist of battling injuries as much his opponent.

Owing largely to its connection with Adorno, late style has traditionally been a thorny topic, relegated to discussion of the highest of high art by way of the densest critical formulations. When he wrote that late works were catastrophes, Adorno was not pointing to any deficiencies in the quality of Beethoven’s final compositions, nor even to the psychological or physical struggles that marked his final years. He referred, instead, to a strange sense of ‘untimeliness’ in the composer’s late string quartets and piano sonatas that distinguished them from his earlier output. In the middle period works, so the story goes, Beethoven wields conventional musical materials to extraordinary ends, the force of his brilliance transforming seemingly mundane classical forms into powerful expressions of the composer’s subjectivity, or perhaps even as the heroic liberal subject of the age of revolution. This is arguably still how most people think about making music, as a form of heightened, even unmediated self-expression.

But in his late period, Adorno suggests, Beethoven does something very different. Far from building on the achievements of the earlier works, he instead deconstructs them, ‘withdrawing’ from the music until the remaining musical objects—bare conventions, like simple cadences and trills—speak louder than the composer’s subjectivity. This withdrawal is so complete, and so artful, that what we are left with is not the string of middlebrow clichés we might expect from music described as ‘conventional’, but rather something more unsettling. It’s as if the composer only approaches the music from the outside, shining a light on a fractured landscape of musical materials without controlling them. The music acts out a sort of brokenness, an unresolved tension staged by the composer who is otherwise absent. The late works feel out of time, pointing away from the past but not exactly towards the future.

Following directly in the footsteps of the famously elitist Adorno, Edward Said’s On Late Style broadens the concept’s scope beyond Beethoven but remains in the same aesthetic ballpark, focusing on the likes of Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Mozart. Said began work on his book on late style late in life and it remained unfinished on his death in 2003 after a long struggle with leukemia. In an introduction to the posthumously published text, Michael Wood suggests that there was something intentional, or at least unavoidable, in Said’s inability to finish a book on a topic that he had been thinking seriously about since at least the 1980s—it’s as if ‘he wanted to finish it but was waiting for a time that would perhaps never have come. There would have been a time for this book about untimeliness, but this time was always: not quite yet.’ Likewise, while Adorno’s famous essay on ‘Late Style in Beethoven’ dates from the 1930s, his book on the composer was left incomplete when he died in 1969, not just for lack of time but because he was never quite able to pull together his thoughts into a form that did justice to music that he considered ‘truer than [Hegel’s] philosophy’. Thus, his posthumously released book on Beethoven is a series of fragments compiled from notes and partially completed essays—an appropriate enough form for a philosopher with an intellectual and aesthetic penchant for the aphorism. Said made the case that Adorno himself ‘is very much a late figure,’ an ‘out-of-his-time late-nineteenth-century disappointed or disillusioned romantic who exists almost ecstatically detached from, yet in a kind of complicity with, new and monstrous modern forms.’ Dyer’s own autobiographical reflections on aging, and on the place of the present book in the timeline of his career, are atypical only in that they make so explicit what has become something of a common association between lateness as lived and as a topic of critical interest.

The Last Days is itself a fragmentary text, taking the form of dozens of numbered sections, many shorter than a page. At its best, this structure allows for clever juxtapositions and connections among artists, art forms, and everyday life. On the other hand, the freedom of the book’s form sometimes sends Dyer off on a track that isn’t obviously related either to the surrounding material or to the broader themes at hand. A series of fragments at the start of the book’s second major section culminates with an odd invective against rap, and at other times Dyer simply seems to be musing about things he likes. The overall looseness of form also matches the looseness with which the central topic is treated. Having abandoned the idea of a more focused study of a conceptually unified late style, The Last Days opens itself up to anything that ends, which is to say pretty much everything. An incomplete list includes artists who burned out at their peak, or with something left unsaid (Jim Morrison, John Coltrane), artists past their prime who endlessly rework old material (Bob Dylan), one-hit wonders who burned out or simply never produced more notable work (J.A. Baker with The Peregrine), seemingly terrible novels that become retrospectively brilliant only in their final pages (Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise), works whose endings we’ll never know because we put them down, walked out, or otherwise gave up (The Brothers Karamazov; the TV show Homeland), the feeling of doing something for the last time and then, unexpectedly, doing it again (going to Burning Man; seeing Pharaoh Sanders perform).

It’s hard to fault Dyer for approaching lateness broadly rather than filtering all of his criticism through the cracked lens of Adorno’s theory of late style, which is so tightly coupled to Beethoven—after all, Adorno’s contention is, in part, that Beethoven’s music is philosophy—that it’s difficult to transpose it to another example. Even Said, though he professes to follow Adorno closely, pulls away from some of the theory’s thornier philosophical aspects in favor of a heavier emphasis on biography as a basis for lateness than Adorno might have endorsed. Regardless of its exact manifestation, late style tends to be a heavy concept, and at his best Dyer brings some levity without losing the critical force of the ideas, particularly in sections on Turner and on Coltrane (in general, some of Dyer’s best writing is found in the fragments dealing with jazz). Even if his direct references to the critical tradition around late style are relatively brief, it is refreshing to see these terms deployed in a context less beholden to their usual stuffy connotations.

All the same, I was disappointed when the book’s title and premise sparked a question that, in the end, it doesn’t examine closely. Is there, in fact, something untimely about Roger Federer, something beyond the basic reality that he, as of Dyer’s writing, was indeed in the final days of his career and had suffered some losses that he might have avoided in his prime? Could Federer have been the third late stylist in Dyer’s original conception of the book?

I think the question is just irreverent enough to make sense in the context of Dyer’s inquiry, but to get at it requires peeling back an additional layer of Adorno’s theory of late style, and particularly his understanding of untimeliness. In this account the technique of a late artist has developed beyond its earlier mature form, but on a sort of historical slant, away from the line of ‘progress’ represented by the artist’s earlier development or perhaps by the work of other up-and-coming artists. But what makes this skewed trajectory truly untimely is the specific way that, by resisting a more typical course, it shows the cracks in the system that authorizes that path in the first place. Adorno’s late Beethoven plays out a kind of realization of the emptiness of the nineteenth-century bourgeois individual and its nascent world-making power—that’s what Adorno finds compelling about the apparent withdrawal of the subjectivity that, in Beethoven’s earlier music, was represented in the staging and heroic resolution of musical tension. Late style’s non-resolutions are untimely when they grind against the social and aesthetic order and demonstrate their contradictions. This is where Adorno’s aesthetic account of late style meets his broader critique of modernity, and where a space opens up to extend an idea developed around music to other aspects of culture.

It’s unlikely that Federer ever intended to reveal cracks in the contemporary social order, but Beethoven probably didn’t, either. It’s Adorno’s stylized image of Beethoven that does the critical work, and for a heavily stylized image today we don’t need to look any further than ‘the Maestro’. Federer started out with baggy T-shirts and a bad temper but as his career took off he transformed into a cosmopolitan fashion aficionado, genteel but also apparently relatable enough to win the ATP fan favorite award nineteen straight times, the last two of these in 2020 and 2021 when he played, respectively, a grand total of one and four tournaments (he surely would have won in 2022 but was ineligible, having dropped off the rankings prior to his farewell match at the Laver Cup). To see him on court became, famously, a ‘religious experience’. At Indian Wells in 2018 I identified the court Federer was practicing on by the crush of people enveloping it, twenty feet deep on all sides with others lining the top of the bleachers for the adjacent match court to peer over. Of course, I jockeyed for my own spot as viciously as anyone.

On the strength of this image Federer’s recent endorsement deals are as untimely as they are ludicrous. Mid-pandemic, in a period when he was barely competing and three years after his last grand slam title, he began playing with tennis shoes from the Swiss brand On, a company that didn’t actually make tennis shoes (they did finally release a court-ready model, but word-of-mouth reviews suggest it’s not worth the switch except for the kind of Federer loyalist who makes sure only to step on court decked out in full Roger regalia). And then there is his Uniqlo endorsement, which pays him on the order of 30 million dollars a year despite the fact that Uniqlo doesn’t seem interested in actually selling any tennis clothes.

Every professional sport has been affected by the pandemic, but as an inherently international game tennis has had a particularly strained relationship with the global health disaster. Player vaccination rates initially lagged well behind other sports, not to mention Novak Djokovic’s unsuccessful attempt to enter Australia unvaccinated for the 2022 Australian Open (it was hard to feel too much sympathy when TV commentators framed his most recent Wimbledon win as especially meaningful ‘given all he’s been through’). But the state of suspended animation that began in March 2020 lingered far longer for Federer than for the rest of the tour. Instead of retiring in 2020 or 2021, as he almost certainly intended, Federer hung on, making the kinds of cheerful Instagram posts and hopeful announcements about his eventual return to court that marked the entire later phase of his career. Speaking at a ceremony featuring past champions at Wimbledon in 2022, he still seemed to hold out for the possibility of a return, though a scan of his perennially bad knee in the following days put an end to those hopes and his final match at the Laver Cup two months later was effectively an exhibition, registering as a tour-level appearance only on the technicality that the event is sanctioned (but not awarded points) by the ATP.

If Federer has always been attributed an aura of timelessness, at the end it was no longer the timelessness evoked in the Rolex ads that air every Wimbledon but the timelessness of lockdown, of March 2020. But Federer’s untimeliness extends back still further. The murmurings about retirement cited by Dyer date back as far as 2008, to the moment Federer lost the Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal (the fading light in the last stages of that match may have overdetermined the pundits’ reactions). That’s probably a bit too early; surely 2009 and 2010, in which the streak of at least one grand slam per year continued, make up something of a late-middle phase with the true late period beginning in 2011 or 2012 with the full-on arrival of Djokovic. But even this means that Federer was something of an untimely figure for a decade before finally retiring in late 2022.

From here it would only be a small stretch to suggest that Federer is fundamentally a transitional figure in the game, between the 90s heyday of Sampras and Agassi and the ascendance of the rest of the Big 3. Though his strongest claim to being the greatest of all time, his record tally of grand slam titles, only fell recently, the label of GOAT took on a forced quality sometime in the last decade. It may not have been inevitable that Nadal and Djokovic would both surpass him, but in retrospect the common argument that he couldn’t be the greatest of all time without having winning records against his main rivals rings true, not because Federer wasn’t the greatest player of his era but because we haven’t been living in his era for a long time.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t continued to be one of the best players in the world, or that his renaissance of 2017-18 wasn’t a thing of beauty, with his return to number one, multiple grand slam titles, and technical innovations (Where the late Beethoven filled his music with ‘irascible gestures’ and ‘sudden discontinuities,’ Feder gave us the trollish SABR move, in which he hops to the service line in order to take his opponent’s serve as a half volley). But these late flashes of brilliance can’t fully explain the way Federer’s fans have only invested themselves more fully—or incorporated him into their own psyches more vigorously—as his timeless game ran out of time. If middle-period Beethoven embodied the aspirations of the bourgeoisie in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Federer’s heyday was the post-Cold War optimism of the liberal capitalist order, the idea that no two countries with a McDonald’s would ever go to war, accompanied closely by the desperate need to maintain that optimism even as (and especially after) it lost all plausibility. As Dyer puts it, Federer’s sporadic high points these past ten years fostered ‘an illusion that we could believe in’, that ‘the most efficient way to play tennis was also the most beautiful.’ If only the combination of efficiency with elegant simplicity—in free trade and the one-handed backhand—really had solved their respective problems for good. And if that analogy starts to make the ‘late’ in late style sound a lot like the ‘late’ in late capitalism, that’s no mistake. Both terms owe a certain amount of their contemporary meaning to Adorno.

Adorno extolled the power of fragmentation as an aesthetic feature in the music he most admired and as a structuring technique in his own writing, in both cases as a defense against what he saw as the false appearance of wholeness in a broken world. It shouldn’t be a stretch to see a degree of influence on the organization of The Last Days given Dyer’s adept (and very funny) discussion of Minima Moralia in White Sands. But in this case the fragments don’t quite hold together, lacking a consistent field of tension in which to hold the various digressions and shifts in focus. The pandemic nearly manages to fill that role, but in the end the experience of the book feels a bit too much like the experience of lockdown itself, when we all had so much free time but couldn’t quite turn our brains on all the way. It’s true that the early stage of the pandemic was itself a kind of ending, a total cessation of activity, and thus more than deserves its place among Dyer’s long list of endings and last things. But in The Last Days it also feels unmetabolized, as if the resonance among the pandemic’s disruption of everyday life, various artistic and athletic endings, and Dyer’s own struggles with the process of aging should, but don’t quite, add up to something more. This is not an argument against Dyer’s attempt to situate the book in the time and conditions of its making so much as a recognition that we’re still too close to the pandemic to treat it as any kind of historical or critical anchor.

In the book’s postscript Dyer admits that, as 2021 came and went and new stars began to demand his attention, ‘I was starting to forget about Roger.’ This perhaps rings truest of any of his observations about Federer, the realization that, for all the stressful hours I’ve spent in front of the TV desperately willing him on to one more inspired run, one more title, it’s actually a relief to let him go (all I ask, probably in vain, is that someone please stop Djokovic from shooting too far past Federer’s grand slam tally). And while The Last Days was completed just months before Federer finally called it quits, his actual retirement and the rise of new stars like Carlos Alcaraz have laid the Maestro’s era firmly to rest. Late style often involves a certain kind of serenity—Dyer revels in Turner’s late washed-out canvases and Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang—but it is also a state of high tension. A simple ending, on the other hand, can be a relief.