Even the most enduring fans of tennis will agree that no one quite matches up to Roger Federer, without whom the sport loses its magic
I promised myself many years ago that I would not stop watching tennis after Roger Federer retired, whenever that was. After all, that was the strongest test of my indomitable spirit — was I a real tennis fan or just a Federer fan? Was there more depth to my passion or was I just a cheap dilettante? And here’s my chance to find out. For the first time since 1999, after taking part in 65 Grand Slam tournaments, Federer has withdrawn from the French Open now playing in Paris because of a back injury.
Roger Federer hits a return during the French Open last year at Roland Garros, where he will not play this year due to injury. Pic/AFP
The whole year actually has been tough for us Federer fans. Since Federer lost to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open in January, he has been hounded by injury. He hurt his knee in a freak accident running a bath for his children and had to have surgery. Then he was struck down by a virus. And then an old back injury returned to haunt him.
To be honest, for one month after Federer lost to Djokovic in Australia, I could not bear to watch tennis. Then, when I wanted to watch, the one million sports channels we have in India decided that they could not be bothered to show us standard tennis tournaments that they have telecast for years. The women’s game gets even shorter shrift from sports channels. And, of course, this year we had the Cricket T20 World Cup and then the IPL began, which meant all other sports had to take a backseat. Forgive me for being unpatriotic but there are only so many reruns of old Kabaddi matches that I can watch.
Now that the French Open has started and the sports channels are being generous and Federer has ended his streak of playing in 65 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, the test is on. And the difference is this: I do not scour and scan the draw looking for possible pitfalls and tricky opponents. I do not spend sleepless nights over Rafael Nadal’s place in the draw with reference to Federer — this is clay and this is Roland Garros after all. Anywhere else, the big threat would be Djokovic. I do not bite my nails over Federer’s ranking which means that he is in this section or that section of the draw.
Even better, I can watch with equanimity when Lukas Rosol severely threatens defending champion Stanislas Wawrinka. So what if there is a major upset at this stage? That’s what makes headlines and makes sport interesting, isn’t it? I can take the rain delays in my stride. I can make a cogent argument about the possibilities of a new crop of players upstaging the old favourites. After all, if Federer turns 35 this August, Andy Murray and Djokovic are now 29 and Nadal almost 30 — hardly young guns any more.
But here are the problems. I can happily watch anyone playing tennis but there’s so much that I miss when Federer does not play. There’s that court presence, that elegance of shot, that certain style of play, that mix of strength and finesse, the very fact that I can use words like finesse, the ability to play ugly when necessary but when that ugliness is equal to someone else’s best effort, that grace, that movement, that agility, that athleticism, those forehands, those serves, that slice, the constant innovation and adaptation, the variety, the changing tactics, the obstinacy when something’s not working, the quickness to adapt to an opponent... it all adds up to finding anyone else so much less.
It is all this that Federer brings to the game that makes him so much more than any other player currently on the circuit. He completes and enhances it. There are other talented players, there are stronger players, there are powerful players, there are players who depend only on strength or strategy or athleticism or this shot or that. But there is no one — not even Nadal, Djokovic or Murray — who brings everything that Federer does to the court or even half of what he does.
I pass the test then, but I sorely miss the magic. As long as Federer plays, there is delight and plenty of stardust. And when he doesn’t, well, my nails don’t really need a manicure quite that often...
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona