I still rue the fact that I missed watching the third and fourth sets of the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final as they happened. Hindsight tells us that those were the only two sets that Roger Federer won that day. Most unflinching fans of the Swiss legend would likely understand why I decided to go shoe shopping after Rafael Nadal took the first two sets from Roger on his favorite turf.
For admirers of the Swiss maestro recognize several "Federer moments." The great David Foster Wallace, who came close to wielding a pen as well as Federer wields a racket, has described them in flawless detail in his own inimitable way, and I won’t delude myself into believing that I could either match his prolific skills or do as much justice to Federer’s prowess.
In Wallace’s own words, these moments “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 OK.”
This happens, according to Wallace, at instants when Federer “appear(s) to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws,” moments when “the approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to.”
But there are other not-so-perfect Federer moments that Wallace didn’t quite experience, perhaps because he didn’t live to see many of them, and it is only fitting that the great writer took that pristine, infallible image of Federer to his grave.
But there comes a time in every sportsman’s life when age begins to catch up, desire plateaus, and fierce, hungry competitors begin to gnaw at his ankles. It is at about this time that sheer flawlessness begins to give way to ever-so-slight stumbles, and while these stumbles are duly noted by casual tennis viewers in terms of numbers and silverware, they become visible to true fans long before the numbers are charted or the silverware is presented.
Thus, to the fiercest advocates of the Swiss phenomenon, these stumbles become evident from intangibles displayed by the man they have watched fervently through every hump and hollow: the dark gloom that envelopes his visage during a helpless moment, the agonizing gaze as he stares into nothingness during changeovers, the towel still half-wrapped around his face, the glance that reflects despair when a missed ball clips the sideline, and the lack of desire to will himself out of seemingly insurmountable chasms.
It is not the scoreboard, it is not the somber crowd, it is not even the strutting, fist-pumping opponent on the other side of the net, but these gestures from the man himself that cause you to lose hope, that tell you definitively that your infallible hero is not going to pull himself up by his bootstraps and win this one.
About my absence during the third and fourth sets of the most-watched tennis match last year, suffice it to say that a true Roger Federer fan knows and recognizes these moments and likely prepares herself for her hero’s eventual defeat. In some cases this involves adorning one’s feet in expensive footwear. The eventual defeat did come for sure that Wimbledon, but not in the way I’d ever imagined.
The two sets Federer played after losing two in succession have rightfully been called two of the greatest sets ever delivered by the Swiss man, and I can vouch for this, having watched the taped version immediately after.
Not because he displayed a shot-making ability or mental anticipation that could be deemed exceptional to the norm—it’s pretty hard for Roger to beat himself at a talent so sublime—but because he displayed those “Wallacian” Federer moments, time and again, to pull himself out of the jaws of defeat.
That evening, against the backdrop of the green grass of Center Court and the fading light of the English skies, Roger went after every shot, truly believing that he could take this thing away from his arch rival. Almost until the point that he finally conceded 9-7 in the decider.
People often say that Roger Federer is best when he is on top. And why wouldn’t they?
Men’s tennis for the four years that he ruled it was reminiscent of wrestling contests in the Shakespearean era where one unbeatable champion was challenged by scores of contenders. After all the lesser players were cast aside, two remained on championship Sunday—scratch that—Roger Federer and one remained.
Even in his most difficult year, after losing to his nemesis on a court he had dominated like his hero before him, the final act of the 2008 grand slam season was very much in keeping with Federeresque traditions—total domination of an up-and-coming young star, a phenomenal player in his own right, and one who had broken through by not only winning his first master’s tournament that year, but also by making a very noticeable dent in the Swiss man’s winning record.
At Arthur Ashe stadium on that second Monday last September, all that was quickly forgotten, however, as Federer gave Andy Murray a lesson in tennis perfection.
But the Swiss legend’s fiercest advocates were reminded not to get cocky, as they were treated to more of the not-so-perfect Federer moments in the months to come.
The starkest one was in the final of this year’s first grand slam—after battling from behind to level the match at two sets apiece, in the fifth set, Federer didn't give one much reason to glance at the scoreboard. Shaky backhands and long, brooding glances across the net that dominated the Swiss's game said it all, as he gave away the trophy he’d won three times before.
There was something visibly different at Roland Garros this year. And I’m not talking about the absence of a certain relentless Spaniard.
One Monday morning during the tournament, as is my routine, I flicked on ESPN2 to check the score, fully expecting to see a Federer steamroll (while this may not be immediately clear from Federer’s decisive beating at the hands of Rafael Nadal the past four years at Court Philippe Chatrier, his road to that inevitable clash has always been surprisingly easy).
During this opener of the second week, however, still slightly guilt-ridden about my uncontrollable glee at Nadal’s shock exit, I had to squint a little before the score on top of the screen became clear.
This had partly to do with my myopia, but almost entirely to do with the fact that Roger Federer was two sets to love down to Tommy Haas the day after Rafa had finally given up his favorite trophy and gone home, leaving the door wide open for Roger.
3-4 down in the third set, when Federer faced break point, I decided he was as good as done. I had my finger set on the remote control, ready to turn off the television set as I often do in hopeless Federer situations such as this one, but from somewhere deep within the recesses of his psyche, Federer summoned both the physical will and mental nerve to run around and whip a clutch, inside-out forehand.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the ball went across the court and over the net, landing inches inside the sideline, saving the day, and perhaps, the championship for him.
It was truly a Federer moment of the Wallacian kind.
With that audacious forehand flick, Roger had only just brought the game to deuce, still trailing 3-4 in the third set, and 2 sets down, but at that instance, I knew Federer would make it to the semi final and likely win the elusive Coupe des Mousquetaires.
This was again an inevitable result of having watched Federer for so many years that I read his body language better than the scoreboard (in this case, literally so, because ESPN2’s bleary broadcast combined with my illiteracy in the French language renders me virtually incapable of telling the score in real time).
But at that moment, I had little question in my mind that the match would end in the Swiss man’s favor. Apparently, so did Federer. “When I made the forehand to save the break point in the third set, I really felt it could be the turning point,” he said after the match.
When a sportsman begins to leave the peak of his career behind him, it is but natural for the not-so-perfect moments to surface. But the moments themselves don’t matter as much as what comes next. After having so decisively ruled the tennis world for the better part of the decade, Federer seemed initially to be caught offguard by these moments. For, all of a sudden, the ball does’t seem to stop a split second longer.
So, understandably, he is missing more balls and tossing many more wide. But he is learning to pull himself up by the bootstraps and dealing with the next point better than he ever has.
Sure, we like the Wallacian moments, but we appreciate them a whole lot more with a healthy dose of non-Wallacian ones.