The celebrations of the truly epic final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open had just begun. Firecrackers were lighting up the sky. Champagne corks were popping. Djokovic was being elevated to the highest ranks. Tombstones were being erected for Maestro Roger Federer.
Federer became, yet again, a catchall for myriad epitaphs—some sorrowful, some dispassionate and some outright dismissive.
Just like it happened when he swept Basel, Paris and London, the twin delights at Rotterdam and Dubai are whipping up a froth of hope and hype all over again about Federer's winning possibilities.
The naysayers' tone isn't that elegiac. It's not as if the subject evoked belongs to the vanished past, but rather one that needed a simple internal thrust to get back to winning ways.
But why is it this way? Why does it take just one loss to write him off and one victory to rehabilitate him into the tennis mainstream of hopefuls?
Life in a Sterile Bubble
Sixteen majors in eight years (2003-2010) versus Sampras' 14 in 13 years (1990-2002), 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals versus 10 shared by Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl, 31 quarters at consecutive majors versus Jimmy Connors' 41 (not consecutive, as Connors missed a few majors in between), so on and so forth.
We all know about these records. But look at the consistency here!
Until he relinquished his No.1 ranking to Rafael Nadal in 2008, Roger Federer was living in a sterile bubble, often vulnerable to the pinpricks of only one player: Nadal.
The constant upswirl of his winning streaks and the casual sweeps at Slams got so heady that Federer was singularly responsible for the shift in the public perception of tennis itself.
Between 2003-2007 in particular, Federer delivered not just effects, but statements with his emphatic wins and elegant display of tennis where the lightness of his body was counterbalanced by the weight and force of his shots. Words like "grace", "beauty" and "elegance" became part of the vernacular of men's tennis.
Setting His Own Limits
Federer set his own limits. He broke records and set new ones at will. It was as if he was playing for the mere desire to satisfy his own curiosity about how much he could achieve.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world got used to Roger Federer's artistry of tennis-a rare amalgam of smoothness and tenacity. Anything that did not live up to this master class became an affront to his own standards.
Rafael Nadal, the Nemesis
So long as he was setting his own limits, Federer's realm was impenetrable. The reason why he has not overcome the nagging Nadal factor is, I would argue, because he was the only player who challenged Roger beyond his own limits.
Each time Roger saw Nadal on the other side of the court, the Spaniard grimly reminded him of his shattered dreams. Six of his seven Slam defeats were doled out by Nadal—all stitched into Roger's soul.
The Idea of Limits
To an extent, drawing battle lines isn't such a hard task for any of Federer's rivals. All they need to do is do better than him, if possible. He has set the limits for them.
But Roger has set sail into the uncharted waters. His limits are set by others—the media in particular—in terms of age, winning streaks, number of majors, etc. In other words, he is fighting a far more difficult battle: The Idea of Limits.
Federer has no idea how many more precious years will have him playing. He has no idea how many more Grand Slam wins will keep his records at a safe distance from his younger rivals. He does not know how many more Slam wins will levitate him into the permanent tennis sainthood without any discordant voices in the background.
It's a journey into the unknown. The greatest odd about his second biggest enemy—The Idea of Limits—is that it is invisible. It is abstract.
And, that's where the rub lies.