When No. 3 Roger Federer lost to J. W. Tsonga in the Wimbledon quarters this year, a friend of mine texted me, saying, “The soul is out of Wimbledon.”
Once the reigning supremo Novak Djokovic of Serbia kissed the US Open trophy, I rephrased her message and said: “The soul is out of Slams.”
And not just 2011—even 2010 was not Roger’s year, by his own standards. It began well with winning the Australian major, but the momentum crashed at Roland Garros when Robin Soderling ended one of the most remarkable streaks in tennis: Roger’s 23 consecutive grand slam semi-finals.
While Rafael Nadal dominated the rest of the year, 2011 went to Djokovic. Nadal would have probably shared a Slam-drought with Roger if not for the latter’s magnificent tennis that ruthlessly halted Djokovic’s 43-0 unbeaten run. The French Open fell into Nadal’s lap—his sole Slam of 2011.
Numbers and records are aplenty—but they reveal wins and losses, and little else. Some years down the line, we may not even remember the year in which Roger went Slam-less.
That said, why does a Slam-drought mean much more to a Roger fan like me than, perhaps, to his record books, which are dripping with embarrassment of riches?
It means the Slam No.17 remained elusive for one long year—a never-heard-of low in Roger’s tennis career. It means his fans getting used to watching a non-Roger finals. It means watching long, power-packed rallies, rather than an elegant display of masterful tennis that nicks the opponent’s powerful shots ever so gently and tames them into delicate dropshots.
It means sitting through relentless force-hitting, loud grunting, sprinting and chest-thumping, rather than being awed by a butterfly gliding across the court. It means no silk gloves, but only sledgehammers. It means no intricate artistry, but only machismo. It means the absence of an orchestral concert of grace, beauty, elegance and magic. It means no poetry in motion.
It means a deep loss of the pleasure of seeing an image called “Roger Federer.” It means “a moment of gentle apocalypse.”
Suspended between a magnificent past, a shaky present and an uncertain future, will Roger find ways to stay in the zone and fight players much younger than himself? Will he somehow hit that state of maximal plenitude to feel complete like he once did, to dredge up all his energies and confidence and play once again as if there’s no tomorrow?
Will he take fans like me to an elevation of the daily commonplace in his grand tour of genius tennis that must simply not end—not in the near future?
Each of his losses is heartburn. Still, the feeling that Roger will come back to silence his critics refuses to taper off.