Ad infinitum: Can anyone imagine a tennis world without Roger Federer in it?
"The fairy tale continues," a teary-eyed Federer confessed to the crowd at Melbourne. But the thing about stories is that they always end.
“I love you guys. Thank you.”
Even as Roger Federer uttered his parting words to the crowd at this year’s Australian Open, with tears streaming down his cheeks – hot and happy, his forehead glistening from a combination of self-confessed nervousness and a hundred cameras snapping up thousands of pictures for millions of people to dote over, the Hercule Poirots and the Sherlock Holmeses of the Internet were at work.
Not merely content with watching Marin Cilic put up a fight of a lifetime or watching a 36-year-old man win back to back titles after being written off by practically everyone, they found one more cause for drama: Federer never said “See you guys next year” like he usually does at the end of his speeches.
There are two explanations that seem possible:
1. Being the emotional train-wreck he was at the end, Roger Federer – the man who cannot make a mistake, simply forgot. So many broken records. So much joy. In the middle of all that, the words just escaped his mind.
2. Roger Federer never forgets. Judging by the precision he exhibits when playing, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to forget such an important detail. The absence of the term was intentional. Roger Federer will return no more to the Australian Open. This will be, in fact, his last year of competing among the elites.
The first case leaves us with nothing more than a slight degree of blasphemy. The second, however, brings with it catastrophic consequences.
Tennis without Federer. An eventuality that can never go away. The proverbial dagger hanging over every fan's neck. A cessation that should have occurred as early as 2013.
It just seems inevitable. A relegation from Champion elect to Runner-up to being an also-ran in the sidelines, away from the view of younger and tougher athletes.
The problem with Federer is that he doesn’t look good when he’s losing. He doesn’t run hard. He makes too many unforced errors in pursuit of glory. He seems a bit dejected.
It was always his backhand that reflected his game – if it landed right, it was his day; if it hit the net too often, it was painful to watch.
Most players will go through their entire careers without reaching their potential, or their prime. Tennis, like most sports, is chock full of players breaking into the arena and threatening to take the world by storm, only to fizzle out and never see the light of day. Federer now has two primes to tell his grandkids about.
There was a time when 14 Grand Slams seemed impossible to reach. Now, every tournament has the word “Believe” butchered to accommodate a new number.
Tears are more often than not left for the vanquished as a consolation prize. Considering the difference in regality between the winner’s and the runner’s trophies, that is fair. But today, it was Cilic who stayed calm and composed as he watched his conqueror bawl like a baby, prompting a thousand more in Melbourne to join him in pensive sadness. Competitive athletes can sometimes be very selfish.
For years, a horde of faithful have waited, with their hands covering their ears, for the fatal news. Every ace down the line brings a little more hope. Every overhead smash pushes the rumor a little behind. Every backhand that goes over the net is a spectacle to be cheered. Every trophy lifted, a sight to behold. But everything gold must go, and so will they all.
No more cursing at the television. No more going on to the internet and swearing at a bunch of strangers for jinxing him. No more turning the volume down when he loses a set, and falling into a pit of existential dread. Tennis will not cease to exist because a man retires. But tennis will lose a little.
In the end, it was fitting how Federer won - a ball that was a hair’s breadth away from being called out, deceiving mortals and bending to his will. It would be funny to imagine a world where that no longer exists. A world where balls aren’t dislodged with disdain. A world where the sport is played between people of equal caliber. A world where the outcome of the match doesn’t dictate your mood for the rest of the week.
Occam’s razor: when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.
Hopefully, Roger Federer just forgot.