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On court Roger Federer was a dizzyingly dazzling Greek tragedy

On court Roger Federer’s superlative domination co-existed with a mysterious meltdown. He was human after all

September 30, 2022 / 04:04 PM IST
File photo of Roger Federer. Despite his sliding form, there is no dip in TV ratings when Federer, 39, walks on court. If anything, he drives them even higher, courtesy him being a crowd favourite.

File photo of Roger Federer. Despite his sliding form, there is no dip in TV ratings when Federer, 39, walks on court. If anything, he drives them even higher, courtesy him being a crowd favourite.

The first time I saw him was on my Philips TV, smartly ponytailed, playing with carefree abandon, and looking the least bit intimidated by the spectacular setting. He almost resembled a priggish punk wannabe 19-year-old rock star of tennis.

The venue could not be more aristocratic in terms of tennis royalty. He was up against the emperor of ‘The Championships’, Pete Sampras; former World Number 1, seven-time winner on that storied turf, 13 Grand Slams in the kitty, and still possessing the most lethal serve in the business. It also happened to be the most sacrosanct 2,808 square feet of brilliantly manicured grass anywhere in the world. It was the Centre Court at SW 19. It was Wimbledon.

After three hours and 41 minutes of an absorbing five-setter in a fourth round encounter the scoreboard read 7/6, 5/7, 6/4, 6/7, 7/5. The world suddenly woke up to an unusual Swiss phenomenon which was not a finely crafted knife, a tech-friendly bank promising secrecy, or a delicious chocolate.

It was Roger Federer.

The teenager had an awkward smile, and a pretty deadly forehand hit with contemptuous nonchalance down the line. Unknown to us all, a legend was being born. That is how they are born perhaps. It was July 2, 2001.

A Dizzyingly Dazzling Greek Tragedy

By now you have probably read Federer’s extraordinary milestones several times over in thousands of tweets, and Instagram posts, and those imaginative essays written by classic tennis analysts, each uncovering a distinctive layer of a player who was like a modern-day ballet dancer on song, each step synchronised with the accompanying symphony.

He had the benedictions of the gods. He floated like a butterfly, and mercilessly smothered the yellow tennis ball into angles and corners that were inaccessible to even the swiftest opponent on the other side. It was spellbinding; the tweeners, the huge kick second serve, that predatory panther like swoop for a sharp volley, and the deceptive drop shot.

His most prepossessing characteristic was his unassuming disposition. The 20-time Grand Slam winner was never a showboat. Yet ironically enough, his exceptional accomplishments apart, I believe to understand Federer’s greatness we need to look at not his successes, but his losses. Federer’s career was schizophrenic; he was at once dizzyingly dazzling, he was concomitantly, a Greek tragedy. Let me explain by contextualizing two of the greatest matches in tennis history.

The Signs

I remember the evening of July 6, 2008, vividly; that backhand topspin winner at match point that took the 4 hour 48 minute match into a dark evening. Considered by many to be the greatest tennis match ever played, the score line reflected Roger’s near great comeback against his Spanish nemesis Rafael Nadal, almost akin to a Robert Ludlum thriller; 6/4, 6/4, 6/7, 6/7, 9/7.

A few weeks earlier Nadal had literally vanquished Federer on the red clay of Roland Garros, 6/1, 6/3, 6/0. Wimbledon was supposed to be Roger’s comeuppance moment. Miraculously, Nadal outlasted the Wimbledon king in a breath-taking display of remorseless aggression. That Roger would feature in a devastating emotional loss on his favourite home ground would somewhere become the leitmotif of his glorious career.

Roger has an astonishing 103 career ATP titles (second only to Jimmy Connors at 109). But look deeper behind that staggering achievement, and you will see another agonising statistic. Federer lost 54 finals (a whopping 35 percent), which is why his numberless fans were always a traumatised bunch, and never needed a nail-cutter.

Inexplicable Meltdowns

Barring a few, most were extremely close matches with Federer ensconced in the driver’s seat before an inexplicable meltdown. While the 40-15 double match points against Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon 2019 final (the second masterpiece match) will be a perennial millstone around the brilliant denizen of Basel (he won 14 more points, and had 40 winners more than his Serbian bete noire), there were others too.

He led Juan Martin Del Potro in the US Open final before crumbling in a five-set defeat in what would have been his sixth straight win in New York. Intriguingly, Federer did not win another title after 2008 in the Big Apple. In recent memory, his losses against Del Potro and Dominic Thiem at Indian Wells is a manifestation of the great man’s unfathomable vulnerability.

Memorable Comebacks

Of course, critics will argue that he has made memorable comebacks in five-setters too, notably his remarkable rebound against Tommy Haas in the French Open on his way to his solitary triumph in 2009. Or of course, the enthralling five-setter against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon in 2009. For sure, there were others too (the 2017/18 five set wins in the Australian Open against Nadal and Marin Cilic), but Federer’s heart-breaking losses and nerve-jangling reluctance to convert breakpoints (41 percent) and game points, had become a peculiar trademark of his landmark journey.

In a way it was fitting then that serving 9-8 in the deciding tiebreaker of the final match of his life, Federer-Nadal could not pull it off. It would have been a magical consummation, but instead became a gut-wrenching loss. That some of the greatest matches in tennis had Federer at the receiving end, however, only accentuates his brilliance. His losses strangely enough overshadow his glittering triumphs. That flying in the face of a brutal competitive ‘winning is everything’ attitude, Federer taught us something else — Sometimes you win even when you lose.

Moist Eyes

At around a little past midnight on September 23, the first day of the Laver Cup, the story finally came to an end. That dreaded moment of imagining a tennis court without Federer was for real. At the O2 Arena there were moist eyes, and some just cried copiously, uninhibitedly expressing their love for the 41-year-old with a wobbly right-knee which refused to recuperate despite three surgical interventions.

Federer broke down, expectedly perhaps, the weight of the realisation of retirement palpably sinking in. That two of Federer’s outstanding compatriots applauded him, celebrating their own competitor, was testimony to Federer’s enormous lasting legacy. And their own. Nadal and Djokovic are exemplary competitors, great sportsmen. As we discovered, lovely human beings. They cried too, GOATs all. It was as Djokovic put it, “a beautiful moment”. For tennis. For sports. For humanity.

End Of The Camelot Era

Outside, the London air was now getting cold. The teeming crowds, emotionally drained, and physically exhausted after several hours of amazing tennis, walked desultorily home. Almost everyone lost in their own thoughts, overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion. The history that they were part of. The history that was scripted by a marvellous magician wielding a Wilson racquet.

Within seconds of Jack Sock’s precise winner, Roger Federer had become a ‘former’ tennis champion. The panoply of the maestro’s tennis histrionics was now past. The slam-dunk phase of his career where he practically won everything was now just an awe-inspiring feat of biblical proportions to cherish. We had seen the end of the Camelot era. It was 12.26 am on September 23, 2022.

I boarded the jam-packed tube that had several nationalities represented at that unearthly hour. A tall young girl wearing a RF cap that concealed her face was typing furiously into her mobile phone. Her eyes from what I could see was swelled up. I knew that leaving an empty O2 Arena in which 16,000 fans had just rhapsodised their hero, Roger Federer had quietly disappeared into the night. Just like the train that had now entered a dark tunnel as it sped towards Central London.
Sanjay Jha is former National Spokesperson of the Congress, and author of The Great Unravelling: India After 2014. Twitter: @JhaSanjay. Views are personal.
first published: Sep 30, 2022 04:02 pm