Roger Federer: Lulling against the dying night
Somewhere out there, there is a universe in which Roger Federer never picked up a tennis racquet. Maybe he became a bus driver or a bricklayer in the Swiss countryside.
At the same time, the 2019 Wimbledon draws to a close and the world sees nothing out of the ordinary, except for a bus bobbing and weaving through the traffic with all the grace and poise of a ballet dancer. Or someone stooping over the ground under the soft sunset, pedantically aligning all the edges until they look nothing less than perfect.
The world sees nothing out of the ordinary, especially not a 37-year-old playing a Wimbledon final that lasts 4 hours and 57 minutes. The world sees nothing out of the ordinary, especially not a player who has been on the cusp of retiring for the last five or so years dish out 26 aces against the top seed and defending champion.
The world sees nothing out of the ordinary, certainly not the fact that at an age when most tennis professionals are into their second stint at coaching academy players or becoming analysts for sports channels, a particular someone not just hung in there but came out on top. Repeatedly and, if not for a totally unnecessary change in the rules, maybe even when it mattered the most.
But enough with hypotheticals.
Back here on Earth, the only home as we know it, things aren't really any different. The world sees Novak Djokovic, all 6 feet and 2 inches of manufactured aggression lift the golden trophy up and over his head - do not tell me there is any other winners' trophy that comes close to having the regal bearing of Wimbledon - smile to the cameras, eat some grass and go home as still defending champion.
The world takes one final look at the scoreboards before they are wiped clean for the season, 7-6,1-6,7-6,4-6 and 13-12, the numbers all lined up pretty below the Rolex logo and they see the Serb as the definite winner. Or worse, even the deserving winner.
In fact, Federer served 16 more aces than the winner, won more break-points, had a better 1st serve percentage in, won more points on his first serve, won more receiving points, won 14 more points through the entire match, and even won more games through the course of the match.
But in the history books, as well as the Wall of Fame at the fabled halls of Wimbledon, the name that went up was not Federer. And the weird thing is, none of that matters.
What matters is that Federer is 37. That means he is now 4 years older than Nadal. 5 more than Djokovic. 15 more than Alexander Zverev, whom many consider the beginning of the next significant challenge. 10 more than Dominic Thiem.
Statistically, "it can be assumed that the majority of ATP players should have improved further before they turn 28, with their peak being somewhere between 28 and 32." This is from a 2014 article by Dan Weston, analyzing how age can be used as a metric to bet on tennis matches. By that mark, Federer is well past due. As a friend so kindly put it to me, he is simply an anomaly.
Through all of this, it is not like Federer is without his share of flaws. To be honest, no player seems as prone to flaws as Federer for a tennis fan who has grown up watching Federer play. There are matches where is nothing short of frustrating, as his millionth backhand slice hits the net for an unforced error.
As the semifinal against Nadal was evidence, there are matches where he is simply "not in the mood", much like a petulant child who has been denied their latest toy. He doesn't quite stomp on the ground and fall crying to the floor, but you can sense the brooding that goes on inside. Nothing is uglier in this sport than Federer not in flow.
These things, these little idiosyncrasies that make Roger volatile are the same ones that make him special. It means you understand when he goes for the inside out cross-court forehand when a simple shot down the line would have sufficed. It means that you understand him rushing to the net on Championship point, as you scream at the television telling him to stay the hell back as Djokovic lines up a passing shot.
It means you cannot help but cuss out the entirety of the organizing committee who decided that a tiebreaker in the final set of a championship wasn't unfair. It means solidarity with Mirka as she buries her head in her hands. It means a lot more things, but most of all, it means that Roger in any other way would simply not be Roger.
Us, the entitled fans of this Swiss magician, have become so used to watching him win that we haven't taken into account the passage of time. Expecting Federer to win at 37 just as he did back at 25 or 32 is about as logical as deciding a super over tie based on the number of boundaries scored. But the weird thing is, and the most unbelievable thing is, that he almost delivered.
Had Federer won, it would have been his biggest victory yet. Not because of the scoreline. Not because of his opponent. But simply because Federer is 37. If Federer wins something - anything - next year, it would be his biggest victory to date because he would be 38. You know where I am going with this.
Age is a factor that people are used to ignoring until it becomes too late. Age is a factor people choose not to see because it humanizes their idols. It is much easier to think of your favorite players as a ruthless machine destroying everything in its path to stardom, rather than acknowledging the fact that every point is becoming more of a physical struggle than a mental struggle as the years move forward.
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, | Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream | Dies at the opening day.”
Right now, as the world stands on a not-so-hated Monday, waxing lyrical about the joys of sport, remember the same. Remember the same the next time, when Federer might not come all this way. Remember the same as your expectations get crushed every time as the earth completes one more revolution around the sun.
Remember this dream, one so many of us got to partake in, did not die at opening day, but is destined to die one day. One fine day, Federer will set foot on the tennis court for the last time in his life as a player, and never return again.
Until that day, we will do nothing but watch with open mouths as that backhand slice kisses the sideline on its way out. And that will be the most beautiful sight in the world until the next one.