Let's Go Roger! Let's Go!
Two Championship points. We waited with suspended breaths. Will this be it. We waited with celebrations ready in the little corners of our minds. Will this be it. We waited with empty stomachs and filled hearts. Will this be it.
It was not to be and after a few more wrenching minutes and unbelievable plays, Roger Federer lost in the finals of Wimbledon 2019.
Federer is an emotion. Sports fans sometimes find it hard to explain the feeling when it comes to watching live games, the fervor behind the excitement while supporting a team or an individual; be it Sachin for the cricket fans, or Manchester United for the football fans, the sentiment, the sensation of highs and lows, or actions and reactions, we live through it together. For me, and numerous globally, Federer brings out a sentiment which is difficult to explain but easy to feel. Though not always easy to go through it while we tear up with joy or agony.
Federer has won eight singles titles at Wimbledon, the most by any man in history, only one short of the nine women single’s titles won by Martina Navratilova, another great of the game. Some players have won 12–13 titles in the doubles categories, but singles remain the pinnacle of the sport. And Federer one of it’s GOAT or Greatest-Of-All-Time proponents. I write ‘one of’ as a disclaimer to all the ongoing debates and discussions if he is the one.
Throughout the 2000s, he was beating opponents, winning titles, creating records, strengthening his claim to be the GOAT. In parallel, his rivalry first with Nadal, and then the three-way when Djokovic got added to the mix, has given some everlasting memories and many a heartburn.
But he seemed to be tapering off.
By 2013–14, he was reaching semi-finals and yet had losses in the 1st and 2nd round of tournaments. While Djokovic had reached another level, and Nadal was still strong, and Murray was trying to get into the mix, Federer was going through a drought in Grand Slams, losing in finals and everywhere else to the troika and many others.
As a fan, though we had not given up, it started to seem like a question of when rather than if; the twilight of his career. There was even a discussion about NextGen players, identifying who next will garner support, though not love.
By 2016, it seemed his body was again catching up with him. Mind you, Federer has never retired injured from a match, ever. But first, he missed a few tournaments through health and injury concerns and then took a 6-month hiatus from the sport to recover fully. The withdrawals not only meant that 2016 was his first season since 2000 that Federer failed to win a title in the year, but also meant that he would drop out of the top ten rankings for the first time in fourteen years. This, combined with a grand slam drought spanning over four years, led to many fans (me included) and analysts believing that his outstanding career was finally coming to an end and he would never win any major titles again.
And then in 2017 he came and won 3 Grand Slams. But it was not sudden.
After 17 years of playing, he went back and re-learned his back-hand. He became a lot more aggressive with his stroke play to keep the rallies as short as possible. In an attempt to keep the rallies shorter, he innovated and there is now a play in his name — SABR, which stands for Sneak Attack By Roger.
But there is nothing sneaky about Roger Federer. Well, maybe his service games which sometimes get clocked at less than a minute. The one-two combinations of serve-and-volley, where the opponents know and have known for so many years, and yet he does it with aplomb. His one-handed backhand, which may not be the most powerful nor the most decisive, yet so elegant that it seems like he is holding a pose for the cameras.
His service has never been quickest, his hits never the hardest, his feet never the fastest. Yet he has won more than 100 singles titles; only the second person in the history of the game. Consider a snippet of what the commentator’s said during the tournament — “That was a slam dunk of a shot”, “The master is taking a masterclass”, “That’s just magic!”, “He doesn’t move, he glides on the court”.
I’m reminded of something that Nick Bolletttieri, an American tennis coach, once said — “Roger Federer moves like a whisper and executes like a wrecking ball”.
Federer is 37 years old now (38 in a month). Athletes, especially in individual sports, start looking at greener pastures at that age and yet he continues to learn, experiment and find a way to win and compete. The “Big Three”, of which he is the oldest — a good 5 years more, continue to re-define the era and the boundaries and keep winning among themselves.
Since the 2005 Australian Open, the Big Three have won all but eight Grand Slams, i.e. 52 out of 60. There have been contenders in between; Wawrinka won 3, Andy Murray was becoming dominant and converting the club to a Big Four. But the troika has stood the test of time and the wave of players. The upcoming players, Zverev, Tsitsipas, and others, are the second NextGen that is trying to break the hegemony. They are good but not yet brilliant. They have defeated the three in tournaments but are yet to win a major.
The brilliance of the Big three has created a LostGen of players. Players like Dmitrov, Raonic and many others, currently in their late 20s, who were supposed to be winning multiple Grand Slams and creating records. There were flashes of brilliance but the consistency was not, and when they were supposed to be at their prime, the Big Three were still winning and extending records.
Federer has won 20 Grand Slam Singles titles, was at the top of the rankings for 237 weeks, has the record for the longest consecutive Finals appearances, semi-final appearances and many more. If we start discussing the records he has created, there will be no end.
During this year’s tournament, Federer became the first player (man or woman) to win 350 Grand Slam singles matches and a 100 at Wimbledon alone.
The NextGen lost out early, and Federer (and the other two), rolled through the matches, grinding at times but comfortable at others, showing the gulf in class. And after 6 matches, Federer was in the finals again. Against a rival who has a winning record against him, Djokovic.
After his semi-finals win against Nadal, a close friend and a co-Federer fan, messaged me, “Can we start believing again?”. There was some cautiousness to the tone, and why not. How long can he defy age, his body, his rivals and the next generation of players?
But as we strapped in to watch him play the Wimbledon finals, for the umpteenth time, the joy of watching him play at this level, at his best level or not, was unbridled. There were moments in the match where we sighed, shouted, jumped, high-fived, cursed, clapped and fell silent.
Federer did not win the match. He played really well; he won more overall points than his opponent, but he did not win, the match. He did win the fans over once again, he did win the respect of everyone once again, and he did win our hearts once again. Watching his post-match interview, we were more upset than he seemed, and there was that glint in his eye which gave hope to fans all over the world — on he goes.
We wait for the next time and the only thing that still comes to mind is, Let’s Go Roger, Let’s Go!!