I felt the love out here, so thanks a lot. See you next year.” Subdued but smiling, Roger Federer made this powerful statement of gratitude and resolve at the Wimbledon’s Centre Court. An underdog at the world’s most prestigious Grand Slam tournament, he finished second in the final this year. For Federer, it was a loss. But in no way had he been humiliated.
Possibly the best tennis player ever, the Swiss great had a terrible 2013. Reams of newprint were used up to carry his epitaphs. 2014 has been the story of Federer’s resurgence. Hence, professional critics who have mastered the craft of making dramatic U-turns have calmed down. However, many bloggers and wordsmiths on social networking sites still insist that he must walk into the sunset. ‘Leave the court for good, Roger. Don’t let your last disgrace your past, Roger.’ ‘How long do you wish to keep on playing? You are 32, Roger.’ ‘Your stamina is fading away. You aren’t impregnable any longer. Don’t trample on your professional history, Roger.’
The problem is, Federer doesn’t give a damn. He loses as gracefully as he wins. He is more susceptible to setbacks than earlier. His percentage of unforced errors shoots up on occasions. But he trusts his game, enjoys his duels, and doesn’t promise anyone a win, the highest ranked player Djoko included.
Every genius is expected to defy gravity. For this victim of absurd expectations, falling downward is not an option. In every popular sport, be it cricket or tennis or soccer, the approach of critics and fans carries the same fingerprint of judgmental similarity. In 2014, Federer, who has been immune to criticism, has been a fine performer anyway. He has won one tournament in Halle (grass court) and another in Dubai (hard court). In the latter, he ousted Djokovic in the semis with a win in three sets.
His rivalry with Djokovic has been the single most significant talking point in 2014. If he has lost to the Serbian in the finals of the BNP Paribas Open, he has also hit back by defeating Djokovic in the semis of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. In the Monte-Carlo tournament, he lost in the finals to his Swiss counterpart Stanislas Wawrinka, a fantastic talent ranked fourth at the moment. The loss to Wawrinka cannot be therefore viewed as an embarrassing manifestation of enhancing mediocrity. At the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal, who has an exceptional record against Federer, defeated him in the semis. At the Wimbledon, Djokovic downed him in five evenly contested sets. This happened in the final, not in the earlier stages of the tournament.
Roland Garros, where he has a comparatively ordinary record, saw him make a fourth round exit. If seen in isolation, that was bad news, but not in the context of the larger picture. Semis, finals, two tournament wins, number three in the rankings: why should he go away simply because some people believe he must?
He is not playing a team sport in which he has forced himself into the squad, thereby leading to fears of impacting the verdict. He is in the top three, which is a good enough reason not to consider retirement.
Federer may not be at the peak of his powers. Playing at a time when artistry is slipping into history with subtle skills making way for the brutal exhibition of power, he is a misfit one needs to watch time and again. His lobs which tease the opponent, those delightfully angled placements, the masterly touch of the racquet which makes the ball rise over the net and drop lazily on the other side; Federer’s game not only resurrects his personal history but also revives many exquisite memories of an extinct breed that may not be seen in tennis any longer. As long as he plays well and continues to do so, just let him be. Don’t forget that he is not only a past master. He is also the last master.