Roger Federer is 32, which is not old. Not to me. Not to anyone that remembers when Mr. T had his own cartoon, Domino’s had the Noid, and Peter Gabriel was the guy in Genesis, not the guy who sang “Sledgehammer”. Under tennis standards, however, Federer is sort of old. Sprinting baseline to baseline, hitting bullets cross court is predicated on power and speed, fast-twitch type activities, and believe me, these things do not improve with age. Sometimes the decline is subtle, but they do decline. Sigh.
Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors won their last respective Grand Slams at the age of 31, Boris Becker at 29, Stefan Edberg at 26, and John McEnroe at 25. Ivan Lendl was 30 when he last won the Australian Open, and Andre Agassi won the Australian at 33, but he is the exception, not the norm. Just from a quick search through Wikipedia, most of these guys peaked mid to late 20s and were winning with guile by 30. Federer was 30 in 2012 when he last won Wimbledon, and time isn’t exactly slowing down.
Federer lost to Novack Djokovic for the men’s title on Sunday, ending a rather magical run where he’d dropped only one set in his prior six matches. Federer took the first set against Djokovic in a tie-breaker, and it seemed as if an 8th Wimbledon title would be his. Sometimes stories write themselves. Federer had tapped into what made him arguably the greatest tennis player ever, and he would become the oldest Grand Slam winner in history. It was not meant to be. Djokovic took the next two sets, and after Federer won the fourth, he faltered in the fifth and ultimately lost on his own serve.
Federer is still one of the best tennis players on the planet. This is not open to debate. He is currently ranked 3rd in the world, a step below either Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, and there is zero chance of overtaking either one of them. This isn’t a question of desire or talent or wily veteran savvy. Tennis doesn’t really work like that. In my mind, tennis is a lot like boxing. One person sits atop as the pound-for-pound best, and that person dominates all comers until the reflexes ultimately go and a newer, younger model ascends. Essentially, too, being the best is what we’re discussing here. In other sports it’s okay to win a majority of the time and bring home a championship some of the time. The San Antonio Spurs just won their fifth NBA championship in the past fifteen years, and we marvel at their ability to scout and adjust their style of play to an ever evolving NBA landscape. The Miami Heat? They essentially are the Jim Courier of the NBA world. Flashes of dominance, a few championships, and now we’re left to wonder if their time has already past as LeBron mulls his future.
Being the greatest is also why boxers and tennis players and Michael Phelps so captivate us. To be so thoroughly superior to everyone else in the world at a particular thing is both fascinating and terrifying. What kind of person can do that sort of thing? What kind of obsession would it take to focus so entirely on a given task that someone can maximize his or her abilities? Jerry Rice became the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, and his work ethic is legendary. So too did Tiger Woods until personal demons caught up with him and the body started failing him. These are other points, though. They are beside the point. Federer was the world’s best, he no longer is, and for one more day I hoped he would reclaim his spot and hold the Wimbledon Cup aloft center court.
This post, then, is more about me than Federer.
I won’t pretend I was there from the beginning of Federer’s run. To me he was a great tennis player that took the place of another great tennis player who took the place of . . . you get the idea. Since I was a kid the list pretty much went from Lendl to Becker to Edberg to Sampras to Agassi to Federer to Nadal (give or take a few names). He was the guy who dominated tennis tournaments and pitched Gillette razors. It wasn’t until 2009’s Wimbledon when I started paying attention, when he played that epic fifth set against Andy Roddick in the final that Federer won 16-14. I’m a casual tennis watcher, but on that day I sat and watched the entire match, perhaps in the hope for Roddick to win his Wimbledon. I came away disappointed that Roddick didn’t win but happy that Federer won, if that make sense. Federer even topped Sampras for most Grand Slam titles, winning his 15th.
Maybe I’m just a bad American.
I guess it comes down to wanting to witness greatness. There are so many things in our lives that are just mundane and quotidian. We wake up, make coffee, get dressed, and drive to work. We sit in offices, in ergonomically designed chairs, stare at cubicle walls and pound out TPS reports until our minds are numb. Seeing someone take the mundane and turn it on its head amazes me, so I root for it to continue. I wanted Federer to remain great because in a somewhat baffling and contradictory sense it meant that someone could be free of life’s inexorable pull to the ordinary and it confirmed that the world hadn’t changed that much at all. Federer was still the best. I could now have my coffee in peace.
That day in 2009 Federer became associated with Wimbledon and the Fourth of July, since the British hosted tennis tournament occurs during a distinctly American holiday, and fireworks and barbecues is exactly what you associate with both the British and the Swiss. So, every year, I find myself watching Wimbledon, rooting for Federer to win, fearful that the looming presence of Djokovic or Nadal would interrupt his progress.
I remember in 2004 when Phil Mickelson won the Masters. I remember this because my dad, in another room, yelled out “whoopee!” about as loud as a human being could, and this was the most excited I had ever heard my dad at anything. People pulled for Mickelson, they identified with him and his struggles to win, and when he finally tossed that proverbial monkey from his shoulder all the pent up angst and frustration went with it. He had done it, finally, and damn it all we were going to celebrate with him.
I had my own moment like that in 2012 when Federer won Wimbledon. It wasn’t about the win or where in the trophy case he was going to put this Cup. It was personal. My daughter was born on Valentine’s Day of 2012, and while going through the inevitable life upheaval that comes along with a first child, I found myself watching Wimbledon (in a rare moment when I wasn’t cleaning up or synchronizing our nap times). There was Federer again, making it out of the quarterfinals for the first time since ’09, and like precision Swiss clockwork he won again. Did I yell “whoopee”? No. Much too staid for that. The past four months of having no idea what I was doing, constantly feeling lost, helpless, useless, and afraid, and of course the sleepless nights and in general, having no clue what was happening, Federer won Wimbledon and it sort of made sense again for a few hours.
Is that attributing too much worth to sports? Probably. It was just a tennis match on a scorching hot summer day that I quickly forgot to go wash baby bottles or burp or Google this or that baby related item. But, you know, maybe Grand Slam 17 isn’t all that different than 16 to most people, but it meant something to me that day.
So, Federer almost did it again on Sunday. This time I was playing rocket ship with my daughter as she giggled and wanted to be tossed in the air. As she counted down “5…4…3…2…1,” I stole glances at the television, captivated again by Federer’s skill. “He could do it,” I thought, but it was not meant to be.
Maybe Federer makes it again, probably not, but I’m sadder than I ought to be that it might not happen.