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Kelly: Roger Federer finds new form in the art of tennis

Shortly before he arrives at the Rexall Centre on Friday afternoon, an impromptu choir has gathered to receive Roger Federer.

He steps out of his shuttle, a bit embarrassed. They've put up balloons. It's his 33rd birthday. The group – mostly teenage volunteers – busts into Happy Birthday.

Federer stands there looking better than the rest of us. On TV, he's handsome in a rough, peasant way. In person, he looks as if he is forever emerging from the wardrobe department. He looks – there is no better way to put it – famous.

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Everyone is now fawning, and Federer is tolerant of this. There are 30 or 40 kids all trying to contort themselves in such a way that they get a chance to brush by him. Behind him, his coach, seven-time Grand Slam winner Stefan Edberg, is schlepping Federer's gear. Nobody bothers to help. Croatian pro Ivo Karlovic has made the mistake of showing up at the same time.

The mob nearly topples him trying to get at the greatest player of all time.

Federer accepts this all pleasantly. He's going to be more than an hour late to his practice session, but he's happy to linger.

It's all getting late for Federer now. Why rush to the end?

Later, he will play some of worst tennis in recent months, and sneak by David Ferrer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. Federer will drop by Saturday to give Feliciano Lopez a good, hard slap in the semis, and then who knows. Even at half-speed, he is giving a desultory Rogers Cup its one-man rationale.

This is how most tennis players fade – trying to recreate in old age a style of play they no longer have the legs or the figurative or literal heart for.

Confronted with his own decline, Federer changed. He is still the artist, but more of a technician. In his youth, it was all swirling attacks on the canvas, an impossibly articulate flurry of on-court activity. That Roger Federer could have won majors playing with a spatula.

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Now, he's the master in middle age, pottering around his workshop looking for just the right mechanical tweak. It is as if, in his later years, Picasso discovered Photoshop.

He gave up on the eccentrically small-headed racquet he'd used through the best of times, acknowledging that his power game needs artificial assistance. The process was so fraught, it took him a year to make the transition.

He no longer comes in to the net as often, or at all. He's content to stand back and trade blows with younger men. This limits his profound understanding of angles, but makes him proportionally less vulnerable to fatigue.

Part of this has nothing to do with age. Since his arrival in the late 1990s, the game has been slowed by design. Even Wimbledon gave in, fiddling with its grass mix to encourage a harder court and higher, rally-extending bounces. Few of the alterations in tennis have tended to help Federer, but he continues to prove the difference between knowing your limitations and adapting to them.

There are also small adjustments in personal style. Twentysomething Federer was solicitous, but heedless. Having never had to adjust himself to professional disappointment, he had trouble empathizing with his colleagues.

After beating Andy Roddick in the remarkable 2009 Wimbledon final – one of his signature victories – Federer addressed the crowd.

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"Don't be too sad," he told Roddick. "I went through some rough ones as well. One on this court last year."

Roddick looked up, wide-eyed and momentarily enraged. This had been the American's last chance to win the Slam that might have defined him, and he knew it.

"You had already won five," Roddick shouted out at him, loudly enough that it was audible through the on-court mics.

Federer, oblivious: "I'd already won five. But, still, it hurts."

Now, in his 30s, having finally suffered through what Roddick encountered his whole career – a persistent bout of second-bestism – one feels certain he'd tread more lightly.

He hasn't won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012, and may never do so again. He seems okay with that. Not in that tight, transparently phony way so many other shrinking giants are all right with it. But genuinely.

"I'm more laid back today than I ever have been just because I … well, I don't have to defend, like, 12 tournaments a year," Federer said this week. "I'm not in a hectic place."

Imagine how good you'd have to be at something that maintaining your spot as third best in the world (his current ranking) feels like a nice, easy change of pace. He's slowed to a walk as he approaches the finish line. The pack still can't catch him.

He keeps telling people he has no plans to retire. Despite an intermittently wonky back and an enormous number of matches played (nearing 1,200 – fourth most of any male player), he has been remarkably resilient. Jimmy Connors made the semis of the U.S. Open at 39. He was no Federer. As observers, we may continue to live in hope.

You were reminded why that feeling lingers this week at the Rogers Cup. The product on the court now seems only excellent, rather than otherworldly. Federer's best chronicler, David Foster Wallace, once called him an "avatar" – in Hinduism, a god in corporeal form. That was an apt way to put it.

Like a very, very few athletes, Federer once did things that only seemed rational as you watched them happen in real time. On reflection, and in slow motion, they became contrary to the laws of physics.

Foster Wallace didn't live to see Federer become human, and that also seems sadly fitting.

It is, however, a wonder for the rest of us. Many top players cannot go anywhere unless surrounded by two or three lieutenants. Federer moves about by himself, signing autographs, shaking hands.

Being the centre of attention turns most stars into paranoid wrecks. They speak in clichés not because they are inarticulate, but out of fear of saying anything interesting. Interesting is bad in the sports business.

Federer can't or won't help himself. Early on here, he was asked to comment on the rise of Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. She has said that meeting him after winning the junior Wimbledon championship was one of the formative experiences of her life.

Federer wouldn't pretend to remember meeting her – most would have. In assessing her qualities, he said approvingly, "She doesn't fist pump every point. Which I can't stand."

Was that a criticism of his closest competition, all of whom are famously furious fist pumpers? Of course it was. He's long past caring. Still of the game, he already exists slightly above it.

That's fitting as well. There is very little of classic Federer to be found in the modern game. It has reverted to its coarsest, muscle-bound roots. It's big men standing at the baseline, trying to apply a thousand-pound-foot of torque to their topspin forehand. If you've been lucky enough to enjoy Federer through the entirety of his career, it's the difference between watching Olympic fencing and then switching over to professional wood chopping.

There is no point trying to copy his style – any of it. After a brief period of contrivance and reactionism, it's now generally accepted that to be like Federer, you must actually be him.

Regardless of how or when it ends, that is Federer's most important legacy – that he has none. Though his feats of genius are all on public record and tempt emulation, he charted courses in the game no one else is able to follow.

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