Beyond a point, watching sports is a purely vicarious pursuit. There’s nothing to rationally explain one’s emotional investment in a contest of professionals, the outcome of which has little to no bearing on one’s life.
The level of skill and artistry that these professionals put on display, one would think, would make those watching uncomfortably conscious of their own mediocrity and push them into a very depressing space. And yet, watching elite sport is amongst the most gratifying of human experiences and instead, leaves one mesmerised at the scope of possibilities.
Roger Federer didn’t retire as the most successful player in the history of men’s tennis even though it was widely believed at one point that he would. He even finished with a losing record against his two greatest rivals who will now hustle over the next few years to be universally accepted as the greatest of all time, with one contender taken out of the equation.
But to those who continue to swear by Federer with militant loyalty, these records feel laughably trivial. The experience of witnessing what would ordinarily be considered impossible, day in and day out for the better part of two decades, far outweighs what the final standings read. Nobody watches sports to keep a track of records, after all. There are news reports and press clippings for that.
You watch sports because, ultimately, it’s a theatre of the stupendous. You watch sports because few experiences add momentary meaning to your painful ordinariness the way athletic excellence in a competitive environment does. You watch sports because, unknowingly, you’ve grown habitually fond of gifted individuals reminding you of your mortal being. And perhaps no one reminded us of this with more alacrity than Federer did.
Watching Federer play Tennis was always an enchanting indulgence, but it was just that – an indulgence. It would only take him a moment to leave you feeling too inadequate to continue. But to truly grasp the enormity of the man, you perhaps ought to have paid more attention.
His resplendent candour may have eased its way into your consciousness, contrary to those who put in additional effort to maintain an intense exterior. Federer, relatively, felt more relaxed, accessible and like someone who didn’t mind humanising greatness. But if you dared to confuse his buoyancy with neglect, that signature single-handed backhand was just around the corner.
Fully realising Federer’s wizardry required higher levels of engagement from his viewers. In his technical repertoire, he possessed more tools than most to win points from seemingly impossible positions. Deceptive slices, half-volley forehand winners off the baseline, aggressive forward positions to return second serves on the half-volley and of course, the backhand cross-courts – the list of spells he could produce with a racket in his hand was bottomless. And the entirely casual execution of each often forced you to take a moment to wonder if indeed, it was all that special after all.
It was almost as if Federer refused to be seen in the mould that athletes of his stature usually are. Even his most audacious ground strokes exuded a certain serenity and calm. The unrelenting rigour of Rafael Nadal or the mechanical perfection of Novak Djokovic were not on offer. But you never came to Federer for that. He, instead, promised that indulgence for the romantic the ruthless world forces you to keep in check, and made sure you never felt shortchanged.
The romance of early Federer was something inconceivably special and nothing exemplifies this more than the iconic contest that really put him on the map for the first time.
Four-time defending Wimbledon champion and quite possibly the greatest player in tennis history at the time, Pete Sampras, walked in at the Centre Court to extend his 31-match winning streak. Federer, at 19, had no business even pushing Sampras to his limit, let alone achieving the unthinkable.
Over the five sets, Federer matched Sampras serve for serve and volley for volley. He perfectly upped his game when he sensed the champion was there for the taking and didn’t get bogged down on big points by the weight of the latter’s reputation.
The moment should have ideally earmarked the passing of the baton but it actually took Federer two more years to fully realise his promise, when he finally won his first major at Wimbledon in 2003.
For the next four years or so, Federer operated on a different level, winning more than 70% of the tournaments he played in. And though Djokovic and Nadal (outside clay) were still far from finished articles, he had the likes of David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, and Lleyton Hewitt to contend with – all of whom were once considered his equals, and with good reason.
The rise of Djokovic and Nadal, however, changed a lot of things. For one, it coincided with a paradigm shift in tennis, where surfaces started to homogenise more than ever before. The specialists were pretty much phased out of the sport and Federer now had two phenomenally talented rivals who not only challenged him year-round and across surfaces, but were also five years younger to him.
Nadal and Djokovic were almost like walking algorithms written with robotic precision. Their levels hardly dropped and they operated with a watertight defence. They guarded the baseline in ways the previous generation could barely have dreamed of. This, in part, explains the edge Nadal, in particular, held over Federer in the early days of their rivalry. But Federer evolved and found new ways to crack the physically exhausting challenge the two threw his way.
Towards his final days, Federer managed to somewhat correct a lopsided record against Nadal but ended up losing a few finals (too many) against Djokovic for anyone’s liking – the last of which was perhaps the greatest in the history of Wimbledon, where in 2019 he came painstakingly close, but not close enough. With two championship-points on his own serve in the final set, it was all falling in place – the coming together of a dream, the final swansong, the last dance. But then, nobody needs another reminder of what Djokovic pulled off from there.
If a couple of points went the other way, the 2019 Wimbledon final would have perhaps ranked as the most seminal point in Federer’s career. At nearly 38, he’d have finished his career winning his signature slam, defeating both of his greatest rivals on the final two hurdles. It’s unlikely he’d have carried on further. Instead, his last memory in a major turned out to be a straight-sets defeat – the third being a bagel no less – at the hands of, to put it kindly, not the most eminent player, Hubert Hurkacz.
Being deprived of that fairy-tale finish at the Centre Court will not be easy to move on from for Federer. But, perhaps, such a perfect ending would have betrayed the human imperfections that remained his distinctive brand all through his career. The godly arrogance that much of his stroke play produced was so often counterbalanced with that frustratingly ambitious winner that finished long at a decisive point. The less-than-perfect ending, in that sense, feels quite thematic.
This story is not one of only fulfilments, though. There’s plenty that could have been different. A double career slam wouldn’t have been off the charts had his time not clashed with the ultimate clay monster; the final slam count would have read significantly differently, too, had he not been the oldest of the three. But then, some may also say the final three that he won were three too many anyway.
And in the end, does it even matter? After all, keeping track of records is for boring bookkeepers. Tennis fans have bigger things to worry about.
Featured image: Reuters/Toby Melville/File Photo
This article was first published on The Wire.