The Lion In Winter

I have been a tennis fan for as long as I can remember.  Although my ability to play is nothing more than awful, I can watch and understand the ebb and flow of a march far better than I can do or ever will be able to do in football (which I arrived at relatively late.)  I have seen so many great players in my life, among them Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Navratilova, Graf, Evert, Seles, Nadal, the Williams sisters, Agassi, Sampras, and above all Roger Federer.  I have enjoyed watching the game, but because of Federer I find I can no longer watch tennis anymore.  While his own special style turned tennis into an art form, he has also spoiled it.  The reason is that Federer has met an unconquerable opponent: time.  As he falls into the throes of the inevitable and natural decline that all athletes face, I cannot bear witness.  The lion is indeed in his winter.

Before Federer turned professional, he was a top-ranked junior player, and he won the boy’s Wimbledon title in 1998.  His already advanced game was still a work in progress, and that hindered in his early professional years–as did his impatience.  Scouting reports on Federer suggested that if a player hung in with him and absorbed his shots, Federer would become frustrated, lose his composure, and blow the match.  That was why the young Federer consistently fell to his early rival David Nalbandian of Argentina.  Yet despite his frailties he could still show flashes of greatness, none greater than when he beat Pete Sampras in their epic five set duel at Wimbledon, a match that ended the great champion’s dominance at the All England club.  That match, the only time those two ever met, was traumatic for both.  For Sampras it was the end of his invincibility.  Although he would go one to win one last major title (the 2002 US Open), he was now an afterthought.  For Federer it was too much too soon, and he faltered under the weight of expectations.  Over the ensuing months, Federer seemed doomed to be another Xavier Malisse, an incredibly gifted player who never fulfilled his early promise.

In August 2002, Federer’s world was shattered when his friend and former coach Peter Carter, the man who coached him throughout his teens, was killed in a car crash.  Oddly though, in as much as it hurt him on a personal level, from a tennis perspective it somehow helped to make him whole.  The results did not show immediately, and the final humiliation was yet to come.  At the 2003 French Open, a journeyman player from Peru named Luis Horna upset the fifth-seeded Federer in the first round (in straight sets no less.)

To say that this loss created Federer would be entirely wrong.  It is however, fair to say that the loss somehow released him from his self-imposed shackles.  Two weeks later at Wimbledon, tennis gave its greatest gift to the world.  Federer, now a fully formed colossus, strode out onto the manicured court and dominated all in his path.  He was not the first player to overpower the competition, but this destruction was different from all that had come before.

Part of this is circumstantial.  The truth is that by 2003, women’s tennis had become far more interesting than men’s tennis.  With the decline of Sampras and (to a lesser extent) Andre Agassi, men’s tennis had become a bubbling, shapeless mess.  Rather than the comfort of a hierarchy with a few top players to create compelling rivalries and intricate stories, men’s tennis became a free-for-all.  Whenever a player won a major tournament, you could never be sure if he was for real or just a flash-in-the-pan.  From the US Open in 2000 (the first major after Sampras’s last Wimbledon) to the French Open in 2003 (the last major before Federer’s first Wimbledon) there were nine different winners in eleven tournaments.

Furthermore, the dominant style in men’s tennis was very dull.  There are competing theories, some circulating around the move to graphite racquets (Navratilova and McEnroe were especially vocal about this.)  The serve had come to dominate to such an extent that points were over as soon as they began.  To be fair, every style has its flaws; the serve-and-volley was not much longer than just the serve-only game, and a meeting between two baseline players could be interesting as a metronome.  The service-only game was different though because–fair perception or not–seemingly talentless hacks rose to the top of the world.  It also polarized the men’s field: either a player had a strong serve and performed well on fast courts or he was a retriever and succeeded on slow courts.  There was no overlap.

Federer changed all that.  Federer has a strong serve (and perhaps even more importantly, a strong second serve), but he was no Goran Ivanišević.  He could play defensively, but he was no clay court specialist like Gustavo Kuerten.  He won tournaments on all surfaces, and went deep into every major.  Yet that is not why Federer was so great.

On the court, he was like a god.

I do not say this lightly.  Nor am I the only person who has compared Federer to the divine.  The late author and essayist David Foster Wallace wrote a famous essay for The New York Times called “Federer as Religious Experience” in which he explained, not the player himself, but rather the fan’s experience of watching Federer.  Wallace began his essay as follows:

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.

Wallace, who played competitive tennis as a youth, wrote perhaps the definitive essay on Federer.  He captured in writing a feeling that so many, even those who (like myself) do not play, feel about Federer’s game.  Federer’s tennis was the manifestation of a Platonic idea.

Even that alone cannot fully describe why Federer is so unique in tennis history.  Although rare, there have been other artists who have had all (or at least most) of the shots in Federer’s arsenal and delivered those shots almost as pristine a manner.  The difference between Federer and other artists is simple to explain, but unfortunately entirely prosaic.  Federer has perhaps the most tactically astute brain in tennis history.  Former artists got paralyzed in tight matches because they were not sure which shot to play.  Federer always knows.

Federer has his detractors, and the “Greatest Of All Time” debates rages on tennis blogs and discussion boards across the Internet.  Most of the debate centers around Rafael Nadal, Federer’s only real rival at his height, and the man who may very well supplant his legacy.  I am not going to get into that debate here, although one can easily figure out where my sympathies lie.

Instead, I want to talk about the feeling of utter sadness that I and other Federer fans feel as we witness what we always knew was inevitable.  The truth is for the past year-and-a-half or so, I have been unable to regularly watch tennis because it is just too painful.  Watching Federer is less joy than a mixture of nostalgia, regret, and depression.  I want to enjoy his last years in the game (the man is not yet 30), but it is just too hard.  I tried to watch the final of this year’s French Open, and I could not even though I should be used to Nadal beating Federer at the French Open.

It happens to all the greats without exception; no one goes out on top.  The truth is that I am utterly removed from Federer on a personal level.  I know little about him off the court, and I want to keep it that way.  The only times he exists for me are those hours I see him play on my television.  Yet in those hours he was everything; he created an intimacy and beauty in sport that may never be seen again.  It is impossible not to be moved by his decline, inevitable or no; gods are not supposed to fall, they are eternal.  But perhaps we all to become atheists if we ever want to watch tennis again.

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