“… to bear witness was to evoke some sort of spiritual experience that occurs only a handful of times in a lifetime – if you’re lucky. To try to describe the way Federer plays tennis is like trying to describe how Nureyev danced or Heifetz played the violin. Common words or images do none of them justice.”
– Gareth Andrews, The Age, 2007
It wasn’t the first time that I missed a Roger Federer final because of travel, and it might not be the last. He plays too many finals and I travel too often. Dulled by intense jet lag, I woke up in a hotel in the small Japanese town of Amagasaki when Federer and Robin Soderling were in the 2nd set of their final match at Roland Garros. In the humid night outside, neon lights proclaimed the blue-white highrise of Midori-de, a very large superstore. At the base of the building was a train platform where a few people awaited their ride home. It was quiet; there was no indication that half a world away, history waited with bated breath to see if a tennis player would fulfil a burning ambition. For four years, Federer had laid seige on the fortress of Court Phillipe Chartrier. Each time, he would be fended off by the only player more accomplished than him on the red clay. Now, Rafa Nadal was no longer in the running, and the door to history – or at least a few years of history – was opened.
Many insults have been hurled in the debate about the greatest tennis player of all time, and none of what I write here can resolve that question. I have no desire to diminish the achievements of Sampras and Laver and Tilden and Budge and Rosewall. They did more than just defy the law of averages – they gave, in their own unique ways, hope and happiness to countless fans of the beautiful game, bringing a little bit of joy in their lives as Roger Federer has brought to mine. Who am I to begrudge their greatness at the cost of my favorite player? A case could be made that one should care less about the title at Roland Garros than about another statistic that came forth from the mountain of mind-boggling numbers that Federer has amassed – the small matter of 20 successive Grand Slam semifinals. For a player accused of being mentally soft, that is an astonishing statistic, one that probably will stand the test of time much longer than 14 Grand Slams. But, people tend to be fascinated with the winners, not by semi-finalists. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, someone should look into this: For five years, Federer has been there at every Grand Slam tournament. In these five years, he has either won the tournament or lost only to the eventual winner. For five years, healthy or not, he has been a quiet and unsmiling presence in the last four. For five successive years, if you wanted to win a Grand Slam, you had to go through Roger Federer. There was no other way.
This is a testament to consistency but that is not its most surprising aspect. Federer’s crowning achievement is that this is a testament to consistent and beautiful play. Conventional wisdom and history suggests that the manner of Federer’s game should be in direct opposition to its consistency. His playing style depends on having a deer’s lightness of foot, a dancer’s movements, split-second timing and an understanding of the game that is the envy of most tennis coaches. It is not based on brute power; Federer cannot hope to win games by muscling the ball – he has neither the build nor the racquet nor the temperament to do it. You will find more of Federer’s game in the grainy sepia videos of Don Budge in the 1930s than in the assembly line of modern screaming banshees that role out of Nick Bollitieri’s academy in Florida.
Eschewing the more physical game that is common today might well prolong his tennis playing life, but every month of consistency seems like a miracle. All the micro-gears have to be precisely in place, and the smallest lag can make the difference between a carved cross-court forehand or an ugly shank that falls into the crowd. That kind of playing style does not go hand-in-hand with consistency and sport is littered with beautiful players who couldn’t keep it up – How many of us have drooled at the lazy elegance of David Gower only to be exasperated by catch practice in the covers? How many of us have felt that behind Mohammed Azharuddin’s nonchalant facade lurked the High Sorcerer of backfoot batting, only to have our hopes crushed when he (apparently) threw his wicket away. In sport, consistency and beauty of form have rarely gone together, and it is this amalgam that makes Federer utterly, damningly, unique.
I first watched Federer play in Indian Wells in 2005 – on TV, in a relatively unimportant match against Lleyton Hewitt. I wasn’t on the bandwagon at the time, but was piqued enough to follow his matches until Wimbledon that year. These viewing experiences changed the way I approached tennis. To a dilettante – which I was and continue to be – Federer’s point construction, variety and technique represented some of the best tennis coaching I have had, before and since. Imitation is out of the question, but there is much to learn from Federer’s approach to a tennis court and his intuitive grasp of its geometry. Somewhere along the way, buoyed by a relatively mild bout of tennis elbow, I discovered that it was important for me to enjoy playing the game with due consideration for technique and little regard for the score. Ever since, I do not recall a single session when I have not been happy and grateful to be on a tennis court. This, after all, was the game I had come to love from watching Becker, Edberg and Graf. After watching Federer, I was to fall in love with it all over again.
Back in Amagasaki, I was wide awake now, following the score alternatively on the French Open website and the BBC sports page. There was no video feed, and the suspense had to be quenched by a text scoreboard. Federer was serving for the match in the third set – it had been a good old-fashioned hiding. However, he slipped behind at 30-40 in that game, and without the video, I could not tell whether it was due to Federer’s famed nerves or Robin Soderling mounting a comeback (I would have preferred the latter). Under the Midore-de building, a nearly empty train slowed down to a halt at the platform. I tried to relieve the tension by idiotically unpacking some of my luggage and brushing my teeth for the night. By the time I was done, the train was leaving the station, and the score had refreshed to 6-1, 7-6, 6-4. It was raining on the red clay at Roland Garros. Time and tide had waited, kindly.