It is the most magnificent forehand you have ever seen. There is a certain sense of lyrical splendour to it, an action that compels you to watch, inspires awe in your hesitant heart and haunts you till you submit into the belief that it’s truly the most enchanting thing on a tennis court. There is no awkwardness that accompanies the motion, no hesitation – just one smooth swing, the easiest thing on your eyes, and yet when it reaches across the court, the poetry of the racquet has somehow transformed into the lethality of an unconquerable winner.
The opponent is torn between admiration and contempt. He wants to give it back, send back a scathing forehand himself, but deep down there is a quiet awareness that it isn’t something you pick up with hours of turmoil on the tennis court, it’s something you are born with – either you have it or you don’t.
You could hate the man; I did, for years; now the feeling is closer to the reluctant indifference of an envious opponent. But the one thing you could never deny was the fact that it was an absolute delight to watch Roger Federer. For all the disdain, you couldn’t help but accept that you were watching a man who was born to play tennis.
He was a compelling competitor, but that wasn’t it. It wasn’t the grit or the courage that had you hooked, though both were abundantly on display. His tactic was impeccable yet you barely noticed its brilliance when you saw him play. The details, wonderful as they were, were all lost in the empowering beauty of his elegance.
Every time Nadal stares down his opponent with the steely resolve of a cornered warrior, or when Djokovic lets himself into the roar of an ensnared beast, your heart pounds in anticipation. There is a charge in the atmosphere that only precedes events that belong in the extraordinary. In those moments of eagerness, Nadal and Djokovic hold the power to enchant you into a different world, one without the physical limitations of the everyday tennis court, one which convinces you beyond doubt that the possibilities are endless.
That isn’t quite the case with Federer. You don’t watch him for the flashes of unearthly genius, you don’t watch him in anticipation of brilliance; you watch him for the mundane and the regular. While the rallying shots of ordinary players were build-ups to what you hoped would be spectacular endings, the ordinary of Roger Federer was spectacular. I suspect the man could gather an audience eating his breakfast.
Every sport has a few like him. Sachin Tendulkar’s walk back to the pavilion held more poise than the classiest square cut of most other players. There was something majestic about the simplest of dribbles of Michael Jordan, and it was because of all the understated charm of Tiger Woods that we were so deeply shaken when we discovered that he was only human.
Grace would mean little, of course, if it wasn’t accompanied by numbers and shining trophies. For all our hunger and passion for art, as sports fans we are hopelessly obsessed with silverware. Style isn’t always successful, elegance doesn’t ensure victory and the greatest champions aren’t those who look the best, but those who win the most.
In 2013, for Federer, the silverware came far too seldom and with far too much struggle. It was because of this that we began to get disillusioned with the idea of an indomitable Roger Federer. He was beaten by men whose tennis, when compared to his, seemed like the thoughtless doodles of an indifferent teenager against the timeless work of a weathered artist.
So we questioned the very things that we loved. We wondered if he should abandon the elegant and embrace the pragmatic. We questioned if he should attempt winners at all on the backhand side; we thought maybe he should just defend. Nadal and Djokovic did it well and they had trophies to show for it, we reasoned.
Perhaps that’s always the case with the imaginative. As long as it brings the results, we are mesmerized; but the minute it doesn’t, we start questioning its necessity. No amount of style can replace the simple gratification of a victory, however ugly.
“You don’t just forget how to play tennis”, said Federer after his defeat to Djokovic in the Indian Wells finals. He was responding to the critics of course, who after a less than glamorous 2013 had claimed otherwise.
To be fair, they were only addressing rationality, and rationality pointed to slower reflexes and aged limbs, to a man who had a single title in the whole year and lost in the second round of Wimbledon. A sudden loss in memory of the sport was a reasonable conclusion. You couldn’t have blamed Federer if he believed it himself.
The fact that, at 32, he didn’t believe that in the slightest, is what sets him apart.
Over the winter I came across many kinds of Federer fans. There were the pessimists, those who believed their idol’s time was done, and were already testing the waters to jump ship on to more promising prospects. There were the hopefuls, who agreed that he was past his prime but were still sticking around for a big win to say his final goodbyes. And there were the optimists, the truer and the more passionate amongst the fans, who still believed with conviction that Federer was not even close to done, that he was still capable of his very best; theirs was a noble stance, although not very realistic.
But I haven’t met a single fan who was more optimistic than Federer himself. After his loss to Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open, Federer said, “I still feel my best tennis is only ahead of me right now – hopefully by April I’m going to be 100% again.”
I remember chuckling at that sentence. With April almost here, it doesn’t seem that funny any more.
In the last few weeks we witnessed from Federer what we hadn’t in a long time. The shots that we classified he was no longer capable of were back in all their glory. The forehands kissed the lines, the drop shots crossed the net, the serve rediscovered its sting and even the erratic backhand was reasonably reliable. This was a Federer who could beat most players on his day, the Federer who brought thousands of fans to the game, the Federer who won 17 Grand Slams. From the distaste of 2013, this was well and truly a comeback.
As I punched in the title of this piece, I grappled with the words. A mention of regalness, even metaphorical, is only deserved in situations of certain stature, merited only on men who have stood far out from the crowds, whose legacies will far outlive that of others. In our tiny little world of tennis, we can perhaps agree with little argument that the title sits rather nicely on Roger Federer… more so now than two years ago. Not because the numbers have swelled – they haven’t – and not because he has found a new dimension to his play – he hasn’t. But because he has proven beyond doubt that he is a thorough champion.
Abandoned by luck and form, he backed himself to stay in the game for the sheer love of it and for that whisper of hope that caressed him into believing the irrational. While most men with nothing to prove would have happily taken to retirement, enjoying the spoils of a rich career, he chose diligence over luxury, commitment over legacy.
His efforts at Indian Wells and the few weeks before are testimony to the very best of human qualities – to grit, to work and to never giving up. In the last 12 months, with almost no titles, I have had more reverence for Roger Federer than I did for all the years before, with all their trophies and trinkets.
I have written his obituary before, have taken delight in skewed statistics and have argued endlessly on why he is not the greatest player of all time. I have wondered occasionally during those times why Roger Federer, the champion of millions, hadn’t won me over, why I was reluctant to give him credit when he so obviously deserved it. The answer of course lay not with him, but with me.
Federer is just an athlete on the tennis court trying to win tennis matches, like all the others; he is not an entertainer eager to gather fans. All the times I looked at the numbers they failed to impress me, as they still hopelessly do, but when you look at the man behind the numbers, beyond the glitter of silver and gold, there is a champion like few others, a champion who demands respect, and that I can gladly give.
Here’s wishing him as long a career as he desires and to never, ever rooting for his retirement again.Published 19 Mar 2014, 14:12 IST