Roger, Rafa and the Rest
Some time during his five-year reign all the adulation got to Federer; it would have been astonishing if it hadn’t; what with every other journalist painstakingly explaining why he was the best man to have ever picked up a racket. Every other day. So ,somewhere down the line, it got to him, and he began to believe he was truly invincible, that all he had to do to win was turn up on court with a racket. It was his first mistake. It was a fantasy that added eloquence to written pieces; sport could not care less for fantasies. Sport, like life, is famously unforgiving on the stagnant.
And so a slow bleeding began. Critics made light of the losses. More importantly and dangerously Roger himself made light of it. It was a grand delusion. A sad grand delusion.
Never once after those losses started trickling in do I remember Federer praising the opponent or giving him credit. He was a man convinced into believing he was just unbeatable. He would say that he had himself thrown away the game. For a man who was considered a perfect gentleman, Federer was at times rather ungracious. At first, it was only Nadal. Then there were, slowly, other men too. And Federer was himself stubbornly blind to the rise of the competition.
This phase during which Federer fooled himself, with help from a fawning critic community lasted, in my mind, till the Australian Open this year. The tears that were shed on the Australian Open podium were shed not for that one defeat, they were shed for Wimbledon, they were shed for a suddenly visibly decline, they were the tears of a man whose illusion of his own invincibility had been shattered. A bubble had burst. One by one, all that he held dear to him had been snatched away.
I must be honest and admit I was unsure what road Federer would take after that. I was unsure he had the mental strength to be openly second best on an arena where he has been king for five years.
Roger however has been playing himself down of late. He has been playing himself as the underdog, and I think it might suit him. For his decline has been a thing of the mind, and the underdog is the least stressful position to be in mentally.
An underdog is unafraid. An underdog has nothing to lose. An underdog will play the game his way and pounce on every chance he gets to upset an opponent. Unashamedly, and without fear.
In fact, that is the story of how Soderling beat Nadal. Robin Soderling is respected on the tour for flashes of brilliance he has shown often, but has never managed to be consistent. On Sunday, nobody gave him a chance. Not even his closest friends dared to hope he’d beat the Spanish bullfighter in his own backyard. With absolutely no expectations, Soderling played like a man possessed.
That Nadal has had to give up the French Open this early into his reign will remind him that nothing must be taken for granted. After all, Roland Garros was to Nadal what Wimbledon was to Federer. Home Ground. Where the very clay conspired to coronate the Spaniard. Year after year. No end in sight.
All of men’s tennis is a pack of a half-dozen men who fight nail and tooth to reach the top and one man who tries to stay at the top, fending the rest away. It’s been like that for a long while now. The hunted always tires faster than the predator pack. It is the fatigue of the lonely runner. The Crown is heavy, and tires the King. Nadal will succumb too, one day.
But Nadal is mentally more stable, more grounded than Federer was in his latter days as king. Thanks in no small measure to the fact that he hasn’t had the world kissing his feet for five years. His reaction to the French Open loss is also a much better response than the Madrid excuses of thinner air and faster balls earlier this month. I have a gut feeling his family and support stuff are being very cautious to see his feet are firmly on the ground, and it will do him great good.
Federer’s inexplicable reluctance to hire a coach means he only saw himself through the fawning eyes of a world who ignored his flaws because they loved him too much, and they had not seen such a champion in ages. In the process they unwittingly erected a hurdle that eventually grew so tall it blindede Federer and took him out. Nadal’s own hurdle is now being built, and one feels the people around him are capable of guiding him over it.
What is astonishing about the Federer reign is that it lasted as long as it did, about five years. For five years, Federer was undisputed king of the court. For five years, and still counting, Federer has not not made to the semis of a Major. Nadal’s fall in the fourth round at Roland Garros on Sunday doesn’t necessarily mean he is a lesser player, but it will serve to remind us what it must have taken for Roger to do what he did, to win every time when it was only expected of him. And it was always only expected.
Indeed ,his “bad year” was a year anyone else on the tour would “give an arm and a leg for”, as Murray put it.
I’m not saying Federer’s got his old magic touch. In fact, he might never fully recover all of it.
I’m not saying that Federer will win this year’s French Open. And no, Soderling won’t win, despite Nadal fans now hoping their man lost to the eventual champion. Going on current form, I’d give any of Federer, Murray, local boy Tsonga and Argentina’s Juan Del Potro a decent shot at the title.
But in Madrid and now in Paris, you get the feeling that a certain man from Switzerland is playing as a man liberated finally from the need to blind himself to his flaws. Even though I firmly feel he must be spoken of with more respect than has been the case with a large section of tennis followers of late, his fall from public adulation has surely helped Federer. Federer spoke at post-match press conferences of how it was fun to play catch-up in his second round and third round matches. The words ring of a is unafraid to lose, of a man who is rediscovering why he loves the game. The crown is a weight it seems he can definitely do without for now.
Edited: 7 June 2009
While exhilarated at Federer winning the French Open, finally, I am left ruing the lost opportunity to have predicted it outright. A wonderful ‘I told you so’ opportunity down the drain. It’s just, I didn’t dare to hope for this. I couldn’t honestly give him more than a 20% chance at the start of the tournament, and the figure hadn’t improved too much even by the end of the first week.
Another thing, I have to be honest and say writing Soderling off was a mistake too, even if he went down tamely in the final. If had won, it would have borne an uncanny resemblance to Federer’s Wimbledon 2003. Federer himself was one of those characters who’d troubled the top players consistently but never made it big, primarily because of temperamental issues before becoming the Zen-esque cool-headed fellow he is. That Wimbledon title changed everything. A final at Paris might do the trick too.