Wimbledon’s Centre Court last year was witness to one of the most painful moments of my life. Roger Federer, the defending champion, lost a second-round match to an inspired serve and volley performance by Sergiy Stakhovsky, ranked 116 in the world. There was much at stake for Federer, most notably his 18th Grand Slam. All blown away by a better player on the day and a standing ovation from a stunned crowd wondering if this was the end. Could it get any worse?
This one’s for the boys: Swiss Davis Cup team (From left) Michael Lammer, Marco Chiudinelli, team captain Severin Luethi, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka pose with the Davis Cup trophy in Lausanne. Federer was the toast of Switzerland on November 23, as he applied the final touches to his country’s first ever Davis Cup win. Pic/AFP
As it happened, 2013 did not improve, not for Federer and not for his millions of fans around the world. Was time up for the greatest player in the world? Whatever time had in store, the knives were certainly out. Too old, too slow, too elegant, too classic... his competitors are all full of rigour and vigour and most of all, youthful indefatigable energy. Go now, while the curtain will still be kind to you, before it comes crashing down. You know sportswriters the world over. No degree in astrology from some ancient Indian university set up by today’s HRD ministry but they know everything before it’s even thought of (except match-fixing in cricket of course).
So with Federer fans lost in gloom and experts licking their chops at all the fab obits they could write, we reached 2014. No, this is not going to be a history lesson. But how about a few stats: 5 titles, a win-loss record of 73-12, 82 titles in all, 23 Masters 1000s and Switzerland’s first Davis Cup win with the Swiss team. Age: 33.
And suddenly, that old age that meant retirement, now means new glory. When Federer pulled out of the last ATP World Tour Final match against Novak Djokovic because of a back injury, there were gasps of déjà vu. The situation was made worse by media reports of a spat between him and his Swiss Davis Cup teammate and old friend Stanislas Wawrinka. Federer’s loss to Gael Monfils in the second Davis Cup rubber, in the Davis Cup finals, did not help. The back pain was evident.
But gloom, despair and Federer have not been good travelling companions (not since he turned pro in 1998 and not since he won his first Wimbledon and first Grand Slam title in 2003). He came out the next day with Wawrinka to play doubles and they smashed the French opposition. And the day after that, he gave Gasquet not an inch of that carefully-chosen-to-foil-Federer clay court in Lille, France to call his own. And when Switzerland won its first Davis Cup, Federer said it was not for him but “for the boys”.
I for one, not being either omniscient or prescient, have decided not to have any more “painful moments”. Because, obvious truism alert, the joy of being a fan of a sport and of a consummate sportsperson, is the joy of the process and the progress as much as the result. Each of those magical backhands, those delicate drop shots, those powerful forehands, those unreal volleys, those cheeky lobs, those precious serves, those lethal slices, those killer passing shots, all of those are enough to get by. And take you from one time-to-retire obit to the next.
And once again, patience has paid off, and the sportsperson, the sport and — dare I say it — the fan have won in the end. Intriguingly, Federer’s fan following has only gone up as the experts have put him in decline mode. I have seen a whole new generation of fans who appreciate his talent, his greatness and his essence enter the Federer follower brigade after he had to share the spoils with both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. And oddly, since Federer’s domination decreased, barring Nadal at the French Open, no player today has managed to match Federer’s dominance. And no wonder, here he is at 33, number 2 in the world, not dogged by injury like poor Nadal — who is five years younger — and with the best win-loss record of the season.
So here’s to celebrating one of the greatest sportspersons we’ve ever had the pleasure and honour to watch. Going up or going down, who cares? We’re just going along!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona