… but rather, to praise him.
Let me start by saying that I have never been a fan of Roger Federer. This is not to say I don’t respect him as a tennis player or as a person. It’s hard not to be impressed with his resume of 17 Grand Slam singles titles, including the Career Grand Slam. He also has composed himself well on and off the court, for the most part.
Even so, I could never quite find it in myself to root for him. In fact, for most of his playing career, I disliked him quite heartily. Now I admit that most of the reasons I disliked him weren’t really his fault. For instance, it wasn’t Federer’s fault that Pete Sampras was my favorite player of all time, and during Federer’s prime he broke Pete’s records left and right. I was particularly saddened when Federer won the French Open — something Pete had never been able to accomplish — and broke his record for total Grand Slam titles.
It also wasn’t Federer’s fault that he captured the adoration and affection of not only crowds all over the world, but also tennis commentators who (ostensibly) were supposed to at least attempt to be objective. Throughout Federer’s career I have heard fawning over him that, quite frankly, nauseated me. Sometimes I also found myself thinking, “What does he have that Pete didn’t have? And why didn’t I hear this kind of fawning when Pete was in his prime?”
Again, I realize this was not Federer’s fault… but there it is.
The one thing that was Federer’s fault was his arrogance. He was, to my view, a truly poor loser. I was rather disgusted that when Rafael Nadal began to beat him regularly, what appeared to be Federer’s veneer of gentility began to crack. Worse still, as Federer got older and began to lose to the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray more often, he became ever crankier when he lost, rarely giving credit to his opponents.
But, again: I came not to bury Federer but to praise him. I’m simply giving full disclosure as to where I come from, as a tennis fan.
Today was an insane day at Wimbledon, and it was capped by Federer’s loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round. I sensed something was amiss from the very first set, when Federer needed a tiebreak to beat Stakhovsky (and needed 3 set points to get it done).
When Stakhovsky took the second set, I realized with growing horror that it was not completely unthinkable that Federer just might lose this match. Yes, I recognized it that early. And, yes, it was with horror.
Similar feelings had come over me last year, when Federer played Julian Benneteau in the third round (I think?) and had to come back from two sets to love down to beat him. Like last year, that match came after a way-too-early Nadal loss, and I had already felt a bit shaken. Of course, we all know what happened last year: Federer won the match against Benneteau, then later beat Djokovic in the semifinals and won the entire tournament.
After that tournament, I was very grouchy. The “fawners” were out in full force, once again acting as if Federer was tennis’ Jesus.
But this year felt different. Nadal’s loss to Steve Darcis in the first round shook me even more than his loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round last year. It wasn’t just because it was a round earlier, either. It felt similar to my horror at Federer losing to Stakhovsky.
I did some soul-searching not long after Federer’s loss. Because I wasn’t just shocked and horrified. I was grieving.
Sure, there were some practical reasons for me to be sorry Federer had lost. Most of you know that Djokovic is my favorite player. Nadal and Federer were on the other side of the draw, as is Murray. After Nadal’s loss, I figured Federer and Murray would reach the semifinal. I hoped they would beat each other up and, perhaps, leave an easier player for Djokovic to beat in the final.
But if that had been the only reason for my low feelings, I think I would have gotten over them quickly. As it is, I really do continue to feel a sense of loss.
And I think I finally figured out why. I think I am grieving because with both Nadal and Federer losing early at Wimbledon, it feels like the beginning of the end of an era.
Regardless of my nearly career-long dislike of Federer, the fact is that I have begun to come around a bit on him. His arrogance has faded a lot. He no longer seems to believe he can lose only if he is playing poorly and no other player can possibly just beat him. He seems to have gained respect for Djokovic (which I never thought was possible) and Murray (which I REALLY never thought was possible) as well as Nadal.
Federer even joined Twitter recently, and I followed him and found that he was really rather endearingly silly there. He takes silly pictures and makes silly jokes, like when he once asked John Isner “how’s the weather up there?” (For non-tennis fans reading this, John Isner is 6 feet 9 inches tall.)
When I watched his press conference after his loss, he said something else that really impressed me and made me realize just what a long way Federer has come as a person.
Commenting on the pre-tournament hype for a Federer-Nadal quarterfinal that is obviously not going to happen, he said: “You guys hyped it up so much, me playing Rafa, and we’re both out. So there’s a letdown clearly. Maybe it’s also somewhat a bit disrespectful to the other opponents who are in the draw still. I think it sends a message to [the media] as well that maybe you shouldn’t do that so often next time around.”
In other words: knock it off, guys. This tour isn’t just about me and Nadal. There are 126 other men in the draw at a Grand Slam, perhaps you can respect them a bit more.
You know, if this Federer had been around when he entered his prime, I probably would have become a big fan.
Although in all likelihood this sort of response stems from the maturity that comes from becoming a husband, becoming a father, being a veteran champion, recognizing that losing comes with the territory. No one can be perfect all the time.
When I look back at Federer’s career, I have to admit that even though I disliked his arrogance, there was a lot to like about Federer even from a personal standpoint. Federer usually, if not always, comported himself well on-court. (To be fair, even my favorite players have never been perfectly comported. They’re human.) He led the way to concern for lower-ranked players and fought to have their voices heard as part of the ATP tour. Aside from a few negative comments here and there through the years about some of his opponents, overall he has had good things to say about them.
Most of all, his consistency and professionalism on the court have made him a role model that allowed Nadal to come along, and later, Djokovic and Murray. Novak has said many times that it was Federer and Nadal’s examples of professionalism that made him realize that he needed to put more hard work and professionalism into his own game in order to get himself to their level. The argument could be made that without Federer, there would be no world number one Novak Djokovic.
The one phrase I kept hearing today in regard to Federer’s loss was “George Bastl moment.” As in, this was the moment when Federer proved to be stunningly mortal, just as Sampras proved himself to be when he lost early one Wimbledon to George Bastl. (Are you saying “Who??” That’s exactly the point.) Up until this moment, while it was easy to see and readily acknowledged that Federer is not the player he was in his prime, we could all say, “Well yes, but he does have that streak of 36 straight quarterfinals in Grand Slam tournaments, a record that will probably never be broken. He hasn’t been beaten by a George Bastl in an early round of a Grand Slam yet.”
Well, now he has.
But one thing I happen to remember about Sampras’ career, and it is one of my most cherished memories: that George Bastl moment was followed by his final Grand Slam victory, at the US Open in 2002. Just when everyone had written him off — just when everyone was saying “Sampras is finished, he really should just retire” — he won that one last Grand Slam. He did it on his terms. He could then walk away from the game, knowing he had nothing left to prove.
It’s easy to now say that Federer is finished, that he will never win another Grand Slam. But I don’t believe it. I think that just as Federer has had his George Bastl moment, Federer could yet have his Final Mountaintop Moment. It could even happen at this year’s U.S. Open. Or, if not, perhaps at next year’s Wimbledon. Hey, Federer says he wants to keep playing for many years to come.
Of course, it’s certainly possible that Federer will never win another Grand Slam. But so what? How ridiculous to suggest that a great champion like Federer should retire because he may never win another big one. Federer still has millions of fans all over the world. He still loves to play and compete. Even I have come to admit that his game is beautiful to watch, and it is still clicking more often than not. Since when does a tennis player in his 30s have to contemplate retirement because he has little or no chance of winning a major?
Tell that to Lleyton Hewitt.
I no longer consider Roger Federer to be enemy number 1. I may never come to enjoy commentators fawning over him, but I am glad that he is a part of this game. And I hope he sticks around for many years to come, and when he leaves, I hope he does it because he is ready — not because anyone else makes him feel it’s time.