When does a sportsperson become a ‘great’? Is it when he scales peaks that were thought to be insurmountable? Is it when he has pushed the boundaries so far it seems they can’t be pushed anymore? Is it when his peers stop seeing him as a competitor and cite him as their role model?
All of this and more is true for Federer. And it’s not true now. It has been true for years. It had been true before this decade even began. Federer had completed the career Grand Slam, the ultimate holy grail in tennis. He had dominated the sport longer than anyone else, he had broken all the records they thought never could be broke.
Not only did he collect trophies, the manner in which he collected them left everyone gasping. His shots were likened to a liquid whip. His movements were like poetry in motion. While his opponents had the best seat in the house to enjoy watching him float like a butterfly, they were also left wincing in pain when he stung like a bee. By all definitions of the word ‘great’, Federer was great a decade ago.
But here we are, still writing odes to the man as he turns 36 today, an age when most tennis players happily pick up a racquet a few times a year to play exhibition matches. Federer also isn’t picking up the racquet too often, but when he does, he does it to win titles. The biggest titles in his sport.
And it is not easy to write about Federer. Language is a construct of the human mind. How can something created by regular human beings perfectly describe someone who is anything but regular? Where words fail, pictures help make a better point.
So here’s a picture.
This was at Wimbledon last year, Federer was up against Milos Raonic of Canada. He had allowed Raonic to come back from a one-set deficit to take the match to a deciding fifth set. And in that fifth set, while trying to reach a backhand, Federer slipped, and fell awkwardly, hurting his knees.
A tennis photographer had once remarked,“there are no inelegant frames of Roger Federer.” Now there was one. Making it more unbelievable was the fact that it happened at the Centre Court at Wimbledon, a place that Federer has owned over the years. He lords over the Centre Court more than VVS Laxman lorded over the Eden Gardens. And in the semifinal, where he hadn’t ever lost in 10 previous attempts.
And it’s not that athletes do not lose balance inside an arena, what made that frame rare was that it never really happens to Federer. He is not known to walk and run around like regular athletes. On the court, he moves like no other tennis player, or like any kind of sportsperson for that matter. He merely tiptoes like a ballerina, gliding over the court, staying at a certain point and holding a certain pose for exactly the required duration. Not an instant more, not an instant less.
Unsurprisingly, the Centre Court was aghast. Wimbledon’s favourite son was lying bang in the middle of the green lawn. They weren’t sure if he could get up. Federer too was visibly embarrassed, and immediately buried his head, as if trying to hide from the people. But there was nowhere he could hide. Tennis experts around the world had called Federer finished many times in the past, and were proved wrong almost every time. This time, after his awkward tumble on the Centre Court, they were sure.
Soon after he lost that match, Federer announced that he would take the rest of the season off to give his knee time to recover. Taking a six-month break can be detrimental to any sportsman’s career. For a 35-year-old man playing a game as physically demanding as tennis, it meant the end. 35 is not the age where your body heals back to the levels of fitness needed to compete at the highest level.
Even his most loyal fans, who considered Federer a favourite to win every Grand Slam, had now lost all hopes of an 18th Grand Slam title and were happy celebrating the previous 17.
But that is where the genius of Roger Federer lies. He not only made a comeback six months later, he made a comeback no one, himself included, could have dreamt of. The first major tournament he played in six months was a Grand Slam, and he won it. He defeated four top-10 players on his way to victory, something he had never done before. The last three matches he won were five setters, marking the first time in his career he won three straight five setters in a Grand Slam.
Throughout his career, Federer had set ridiculously high standards for himself. And here he was, towards the end of his career, still raising the bar for himself. As if the bar already wasn’t in the stratosphere, he only pushed it further. He went on to win Wimbledon, the first time in five years, fourteen full years after he first won it. And this time he did it without dropping a set, the first time in 41 years someone did it at Wimbledon.
And not only did he annihilate his opponents, he made sure they enjoyed the annihilation. They could only smile and watch as Federer destroyed them with his magic, waving that Wilson wand like only he can,
And as he turns 36 today, he is essentially redefining what he meant for the world. We thought he was the greatest tennis player ever. He is telling us he is much more than that. At 36, he is still evolving, still improving. We thought his best years were behind him. He is asking us to look forward, maybe his best hasn’t even come yet. That’s not something you usually say for athletes when they are nearing the end of their career. But then, there’s nothing usual about Roger Federer.
Happy Birthday, Roger! May the grass always be green.