Competition has rhythm—an ebb and flow of motion and rest, of highs and lows, even of spring and fall.
For months tennis, sizzled during its summer season in the sun, culminating with the unlikely but serenely triumphant Roger Federer kissing his fifth US Open trophy.
Time has now shifted toward an autumnal chill. The beat moves on indoors while outside, the brilliant blaze of color announces the end of a dramatic 2008 tennis year.
We have witnessed the ebullient rise of Nadal and the slow-motion fall of Federer during an unending drama unfolding week after week, month after month…wondering, and waiting.
For tennis aficionados, never has there been a more agonizing unwinding of an event than Federer finally losing his No. 1 ranking in August 2008.
In January, the act opened with Djokovic seizing the Australian crown, his first Grand Slam trophy.
In the second act, Nadal ground out wins during the clay season, pulverizing Federer in the final. Federer was sacrificed and ceremoniously dethroned at Wimbledon.
But now we are in Madrid in the midst of the third act. There is one more triumphant stop in Paris before officials in Far Eastern climes showcase another season-ending climax—The Masters Cup Championships. Shanghai draws down the final curtain on 2008.
For Roger, it couldn’t be more fitting. He loves it indoors. Something about the security of unchanging conditions on a fast surface and a sense of invulnerability propel him to dazzle on court.
His first ATP victory in February 2001 was indoors, where he defeated Julien Boutter in the final of the Milan Indoor Tournament.
He feels comfortable here, especially this year. His body recouped from low energy and mistiming. His psyche adjusted to the fait accompli of Rafael Nadal supplanting him as No. 1. Nadal will end 2008 as the top-ranked player. Of that, there is no doubt.
Not playing in Madrid, moreover, was never a serious option. It would have interrupted Roger’s rhythm—his own internal clock. He has always played in Madrid, except when injured in 2004.
He won the title in 2006 and last year lost to the enigmatic Nalbandian, who came out of nowhere to sweep the field.
Roger’s world fragmented in 2008 after contracting mononucleosis. Remarkably, he’s been able to piece his season back together, richer and wiser for his experience.
Richer because he realizes the scope of his improbable accomplishments. Wiser because he understands now his foothold on fame always rested on quicksand.
Many who praised him without restraint now pass him by without much notice. He is interesting but no longer the focus of their rapture. It stings a little—but he is growing used to it.
When he was winning almost everything, he did not think about it. It was automatic. The road stretched on as far as the eye could see, and he never worried about the curves, even when he could not see beyond them.
Once Roger discovered the secret to winning, he never questioned his success—nor asked how long it would last. He saw no end of the road, even though he knew it would all end eventually…but not now and certainly not soon.
Now he hugs the center line, observing the vista of his tennis career. There is much left to accomplish, but the general bent is downward and represents a far different angle and challenge than the one he scaled on his first climb to the top.
Roger will ascend other peaks. No doubt he will regain his ranking as the world’s No. 1 player. He will break Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam final victories.
He will continue to raise his bar higher and higher…as every tournament he plays seems to set another record.
But as he progresses through 2009, the joy will be tinged with shades of regret, because now he sees beyond the bends and curves as he winds down the slope toward cessation.
As its senior statesman at age 27, Roger has represented himself and tennis well on the world stage throughout his career. He is respected and admired with an enormous and world-wide fan base.
Yet, he must long for his years of early success on tour when everything was ahead…when playing was thrilling and tributes eternal. When even Roger Federer was impressed by his own game.
Now reacting to his own rhythm, Roger slows the pace and waits to make sure his body follows. He listens intently to his own internal clock.
Competition requires a strong engine, a body that reacts just as you expect it to in an instant, stopping and starting on a dime. It is this body that has helped to propel him to the top of the game.
So far in Madrid, his instincts appear eager and fresh. He remains motivated and relishes the competition, the challenge. He pulsates, delighting in the thrill of victories.
Whether he wins in Madrid isn’t really the point. It is being here, competing well and expecting to win, that matters.
His serve continues to punish. It has become a primary weapon. His forehand screams past opponents on a regular basis as his timing returns.
His net play remains unimpeachable. As we watch his amazing all-court game, it reminds us again of why he seemed unbeatable in the past.
2008 brought back reality. Roger has proven to be human after all. He can fail. By now, we don’t expect him to win everything as we did before. But his humanity and his indomitable spirit continue to inspire him and his fans.
It has made winning special again, and the accompanying accolades more rewarding. As we watch him move forward through the tournament in Madrid, through all remaining tournaments in his career, we will remember the life lessons learned in 2008.