In sport, the stripping of the cloak of invincibility does not take place unnoticed as in other areas of human activity. The aura of athletic invulnerability often evaporates — excruciatingly for its proud owner — in full public gaze.
A nick here, a cut there and, suddenly, a great champion with indisputable claims to immortality looks defenceless in the face of audacious assaults from mere mortals. For the millions of fans watching this ritual at stadiums and on television, it is a vicarious emotional experience not unlike what the men and women who witnessed public executions in the dark ages might have undergone.
The process can be particularly brutal in a sport such as tennis, which is essentially a martial art. Unlike in team sports, there is nowhere to hide, as the great Roger Federer found out through most part of the 2008 season.
Predictably, ever since Federer departed from the Australian Open championship last January without a trophy in his kitbag, the sports media all over the world indulged in an extended mediation on sporting mortality — with barely contained satisfaction — in the context of the Swiss genius’ career.
The kaleidoscopic waves of responses — sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, at other times merely banal, and often quite outrageous — to Federer’s Grand Slam drought through a major part of the season may be worthy of closer scrutiny now that the Swiss maestro has proved that obituary writers almost always get it wrong in the case of the greatest of champions.
“I don’t think it got to me, but I was aware of it,” Federer said after routing Andy Murray to win the U.S. Open title for the fifth year in a row. “I am a bit disappointed. Sometimes to a point a bit annoyed because all sorts of crazy people started writing to me, telling me I need some help, either mentally or physically. It’s just a pain.”
It is the sort of pain almost all great athletes experience at least once in their careers. And it is only six years since the man Federer has been compared to time and again and the one that he is soon expected to match and maybe leave behind — Pete Sampras — was in a similar situation in the same tournament.
Written off by the media and without a Slam title for more than 24 months, Sampras had just got past Greg Rusedski in the third round of the 2002 championship.
Can Pete win another major?
When he was asked that question, Rusedski reacted as if that was a joke, and then said Sampras would not win another round, that he was history.
A week later, the great man beat Andre Agassi in four sets in what turned out to be his last match as a professional to win his 14th Grand Slam title.
Now, of course, Sampras IS history, a piece of history that Federer himself continues to do battle against, with the Djokovics and Murrays no more than necessary props in a larger narrative.
Hearing Federer talk about the “pain”, I was reminded of Sampras’ words after the 2002 U.S. Open.
“The things which Greg says don’t faze me. I know what I can do out there. I don’t have to prove people wrong. That’s not why I am playing. I am playing to challenge myself and see if I can do it again,” said Sampras.
At Flushing Meadows last fortnight, Federer, like Sampras six years ago, was merely challenging himself, unconcerned about what was being written in the press all year, what was being whispered in the locker rooms, what was being debated in bar rooms and cafes.
For a handful of supreme sportsmen — Pele, Ali, Sobers, Jordan, Schumacher, Sampras in the past and Woods and Federer now — there comes a point when nothing is relevant but their own fire within. What is written and said does not matter. The opposition does not matter. The stage does not matter. Everything comes down to whether they, as men of surpassing greatness, can challenge themselves to do it again…and again.
“It is a different type of flavour, this one, no doubt,” said Federer who had lost the No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal a week before the Open.
Until he hit that final overhead and rolled on the court in sheer ecstasy, this was a hugely disappointing season for the great man — but only by his own standards.
A year ago, when he beat Djokovic for his 12th Slam title in New York, London’s bookmakers would not have offered fancy odds for Federer returning to the Big Apple without adding to that tally.
But then, in sport even transcendence is transient; it lasts as long as the legs can ward of weariness and the mind can keep away excess baggage. Fine skills can take leave of a champion sooner than summer can turn into autumn and add colour to leaves to prepare them for their imminent demise.
For over four years, like the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, we greedily sought and found “beauty and the eternal” in Federer’s game, in what was essentially “transient and fleeting.”
Yet, when the man who magically lifted tennis lovers from the mundane to the exalted suddenly appeared set to fall victim to time’s arrow, the responses were all too predictable.
It seemed we just could not accept a quotidian Federer, stumbling at such little-known hurdles as Mardy Fish and Radek Stephanek, the aura suddenly gone.
Sports fans are incurable fabulists. They are inveterate myth-builders. And when a Jordan or a Sampras or a Federer comes along, their deepest fantasies appear to come true.
But then, every superman athlete is invincible or, to be precise, appears to be invincible — only until he or she can be proved to be vincible, as Federer was over eight months this season.
Athletic decline is as inevitable as night following day. A few great sportsmen quit before the process of public disrobing is put in motion by Father Time. But a vast majority lingers on, raging against the dying of the light.
Of course, in Federer’s case, the maestro is only 27 and he still has a few majors left in him after proving in New York that the shocking suggestion of a form slump that we witnessed was not going to turn into landslide that would bury the genius.
Yet, it may be equally true that we might never again see Federer dominate the game as he did from 2004 to 2007. Nor, for that matter, can we expect him to recreate, match after Grand Slam match, the impossible beauty that adorned his game when he was at his peak.
Marriages between athletic prowess and beauty are traditionally short-lived; there is no happily-ever-after, no matter how much connoisseurs and the great athletes who bring off these unions might wish there were.
True, from time to time, the dancing feet and the sweetly swishing racquet will appear to produce a consciousness-altering spectacle as in the glorious past. This was clear to everyone in the final against Murray as Federer turned the clock back magically.
Few experiences in sport might have been quite as exhilarating as the climb up the peak with the Swiss genius. Fewer still quite as dizzying at the peak. And a fortnight after the great man’s 13th Grand Slam triumph, we would hate to dwell on the descent, which is at once inevitable and depressing.
Then again, Federer too is mortal, no matter how many Slams he goes on to win — only as mortal as Bradman and Sobers and Jordan and Sampras and Woods.
Most Grand Slam finals
Ivan Lendl — 19 (won 8; lost 11)
Pete Sampras — 18 (won 14; lost 4)
Rod Laver — 17 (won 11; lost 6)
Roger Federer — 17 (won 13; lost 4)
* * *
FEDERER IN GRAND SLAM FINALS
Wimbledon: beat Mark Philippoussis 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3).
Australian Open: beat Marat Safin 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-2.
Wimbledon: beat Andy Roddick 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-4.
U.S. Open: beat Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0.
Wimbledon: beat Andy Roddick 6-2, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
U.S. Open: beat Andre Agassi 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1.
Australian Open: beat Marcos Baghdatis 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2.
French Open: lost to Rafael Nadal 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4).
Wimbledon: beat Rafael Nadal 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3.
U.S. Open: beat Andy Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Australian Open: beat Fernando Gonzalez 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4.
French Open: lost to Rafael Nadal 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Wimbledon: beat Rafael Nadal 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2.
U.S. Open: beat Novak Djokovic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4.
French Open: lost to Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
Wimbledon: lost to Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7.
U.S. Open: beat Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2.
* * *
THE TOP TWO
PETE SAMPRAS — 14
Australian Open: 1994, 1997
French Open: None
Wimbledon: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998 1999, 2000
U.S. Open: 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2002
ROGER FEDERER — 13
Australian Open: 2004, 2006, 2007
French Open: None
Wimbledon: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007
U.S. Open: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008