Before today, Roger Federer’s last Grand Slam was Wimbledon 2012. It was before people started to drag Andy Murray in the Greatest of All Time debates for no reason. In a non tennis timeline, it was before narcissistic selfies became a thing, before ISIS happened and back when Donald Trump was still someone.We had seen on Wrestlemania being stunned by Steve Austin and had a laugh everytime he came up. To borrow from Brando in Apocalypse Now, “it seems like a hundred thousand years ago”.
Tennis, as Federer said today, is a cruel game. It shows you up the day your decline started. Unlike a team sport, say cricket or football, which might carry you around for nostalgia’s sake way past your sell date, tennis doesn’t allow that luxury. Each tournament is a knockout one, each loss past a certain age is like a nail in your coffin.
There’s no sight worse than seeing the slow, painful death of a once unbeatable athlete. It’s the sports equivalent of a euthanasia that has to be faced some day. More than us, it’s the athlete that suffers. It’s impossible to maintain your expectations, when in your zenith, you have touched the heights that they do. One day, you rule the world, the next day, you are just another player going through the motions. More than your physical self, it’s about how you control your mental self.
About managing expectations, about realizing that not only are you not as good as you once were, you are doomed to get much worse, and most of all.how to keep up the insane level of self motivation needed to get up daily, go through your practice routine, hit the gym, nurse injuries and mount comebacks, especially if you have won everything there is for the game to offer. What compels a man to keep competing in the twilight of his career and importantly, when does this twilight begin?
In a game where you are considered a veteran if you are around by the time you’re 29, Roger Federer at 35 almost seems like a granddaddy. From 2004-06, he won 10+ titles each year, 07-8 titles, following that each year has yielded him about 4-6 titles. That’s a borderline maniacal success rate, given that the Swiss has been in the twilight of his career since 2011. Now, he had completed a career Slam in 2009, had an Olympics gold medal by 2008 (although a doubles one) and had overtaken his idol Pete Sampras too, in 2009. During this, he has broken all sorts of records there could be, and frankly, he owns too many of them to care about any now.
What may be considered a decline by his impossibly lofty standards, has lasted close to 7 years now. Decline is when you still have it in you to put it past any young turk but you know you aren’t at the top of your game anymore. So, after a reign as world no 1 for 302 weeks, the man’s decline has lasted longer than many players’ careers do. The more you look at these stats, the more they boggle your mind. This illustrious epilogue to his career has lasted longer than the epoch.
Having seen the absolute deep dive of a decline that 2 of his peers who were in the GOAT race have had recently. only goes on to magnify how even time is treating him with a logic defying reverence.
Nowadays, most Federer fans know their hero won’t go on to win a tournament, especially a Grand Slam, but they still flock to see him, in more numbers than ever before, because now, seeing Roger Federer is as much a “religious experience” as the late, great DF Wallace called it, as much as it is about revisiting memories and nostalgia. You tend to associate your life and existence with moments that make up a career.
There was a certain melancholy associated with this “decline” of his, and a huge part of it has been abolished today, or atleast been put to bed for some time. What was especially sweet about this victory was that it came over his favourite foe, the man who has directly thwarted his bid for atleast 5-6 Grand Slams at the last hurdle. The fact that it was a five set thriller where Roger came back from a break down to break back twice in succession only made it sweeter.
The man only plays for the love of the game now. He just enjoys this legacy that he has built. Maybe in the future there might come a man who’ll surpass his 18 Grand Slam titles, there’ll again be a section of the media. pundits who’ll rake up the greatest of all time debate, trying to pointlessly crunch numbers from different eras. But, all of us who have been fortunate enough to see the man play at an unreal level for close to 15 years will testify that for all the machine like precision you might develop by practising for more than 24 hours a day, there will be no other Roger Federer. The sun doesn’t seem to set on Roger Federer, and the day it actually does, we’d be better off celebrating the man’s achievements rather than lamenting what we’ll miss.