Somewhere in the last week, I had a realization. We love watching two people going to war against each other. It happens very often, but the best wars happen when there is something at stake. Something big, significant, and possibly life changing. We’ve seen such wars before, in different sports. Chess, Badminton, Boxing, Martial Arts, Football, and so many more. However, the most recent one that we’ve witnessed is magnanimous by proportions and the only one of its kind.
Federer and Nadal put up one of the greatest, if not the greatest, shows of competitive tennis at the Australian Open 2017 finals. The spectacle surrounding this match was enormous and insane, no other match in a long time has had so many people waiting in anticipation. I remember, before the match started, I feared, like many others, that the match might not live up to the hype surrounding it, but what followed proved me wrong, and I’ve never felt more happy to have been proven wrong.
I’ve seen a lot of tennis matches in my 12 years of watching tennis. I’m not a tennis player, haven’t even so much as stepped foot into a tennis arena as a spectator, or for any other reasons at all. But I started watching tennis anyway. A few matches were boring, some were riveting, a few were intense. But there was a small set of matches that were just impossible. They defied logic. Now, the 8 year old me was an idiot, a cricket lover who knew nothing of tennis or the people associated with it, but he was attracted by the sheer beauty of Federer’s game. Am I exaggerating? Maybe a little about the number of matches I watched as an 8 year old kid. But I’m certainly not joking when I say that the reason I started watching tennis was Roger Federer.
Federer wins the Australian Open, 2017 | Credits: The Guardian
It has been four weeks since the world’s Federer fans rose up in unison and celebrated the resurgence of the Swiss’s class and mastery; got high on the ecstasy that came with Federer putting up a display of tennis that was long awaited. The match was host to so many moments that made your jaw drop and eyes widen and protrude in shock as you begin to question your eyes and brain and your knowledge of physics. These moments are only understood when one realizes the sheer excellence of what had just transpired right in front of your eyes. The Swiss has always given the audience such moments ever since he burst on the scene in the infant years of the 21st century. One spectacular example at the Australian Open this year is undoubtedly the 26 shot rally in the finals. Set 5, Federer was leading the set 4 games to 3, and Federer was looking to seize the chance to gain an advantage and subsequently convert the resulting break point, while Nadal was looking forward to taking the advantage and leveling the set with 4 games each. Federer had already come back from a dismal position from 1-3 and seized three continuous games to go ahead to 4-3. Usually, in situations such as these, Nadal switches to a different mode of playing, one that borders on absolute savagery, and Federer had succumbed to it many times before. However, things were a little different this time. They stood toe-to-toe, trading blows and standing up to each other all through the match. But this particular rally, which both played under extreme pressure, is magic. Federer’s brilliance in that rally was in the way he replied to Nadal’s strength-powered shots. The 14th shot in that rally, where Federer replied to Nadal’s forehand with a backhand that sent everyone falling off the edge of their seats in amazement because the angle that Federer had sent the ball in was insane. That shot brought with it a loud gasp from the spectators there, and they grew restless with each passing shot in the rally, and brought about a loud roar when Federer took the rally home with a simple forehand directed right at the other side of the court. The finesse and the resolve of the Swiss, there’s nothing like it.
Tennis, like all other sports, is not a sport that is aimed at beauty. Tennis calls for a very high standards of self-discipline. It is a complex game, because other than the physical part of it, it is as complex as chess. The battle demands the best of each side, because it isn’t a sport where just physical prowess will guarantee a victory. The sport is as much mental as it is physical because understanding the opponent, predicting his moves, and doing all that and responding with the right move while keeping eyes on the ball with the knowledge that the person on the opposite end of the court is doing the same is not an easy thing to do. However, at the highest level of the game, the game is no longer just a battle. It is an expression of art. The war is no longer just a fight for superiority. It becomes a display of human beauty, with an appeal so powerful that it could be called universal. The beauty doesn’t lie with the human body at the highest level of any sport. It lies in what is created there. The magic that comes from the two parties fighting it out mentally as they think and move in sync is, in its own and every way, an expression of beauty that transcends any standards or norms that are held as a bar for anything that’s short of the highest level of the game.
There is no possible way to describe the level of Federer’s game. The finesse with which Federer moves and plays evokes emotions with a fluidity and smoothness that is seldom seen in any field of life. His forehand is arguably the best thing to have ever happened to tennis, other than the man himself. His single handed backhand, in a time where the sport is dominated by proponents of the double handed backhand, is the source of a variety of shots that defies logic and physics. His impeccable footwork and excellent awareness of the court aid him in delivering his riveting and deceptive serves. If my description of his game doesn’t really change your opinion of his game, I understand. I know I probably did a lousy job of describing it. But know that whatever I’ve told about his game comes from watching him play on the television. That is my only experience of Federer’s game. Television. I’ve never firsthand witnessed the beauty of his game, and for the standards of my spectating experience, I think I’ve done a fair enough job of describing his game, but watching him play live is something that I want to do desperately.
But all of that is just the technical aspect of Federer’s game. One would realize for oneself that aspect when they watch Federer play. There’s nothing special there. There are people who can do the explaining much better than I just did. That’s not the point of this piece though.
Let’s just put this bluntly: Roger Federer, is for me, the best player to have ever graced the tennis court. I’ve covered one part of it when I discussed about his game, but we have to focus on something bigger. Something more important.
It has been one month since the Australian Open concluded and I can still remember how close I came to shedding tears of joy. The match didn’t evoke awe or shock. It evoked emotion. I cannot remember the last time something moved me as much as the match did. That night was almost definitely the most important night in Federer’s career, for he held a Grand Slam trophy after losing 17 consecutive Grand Slams, finishing as the runner-up in three of them, and reaching the semi-finals in another five. So close and yet so far. And after spending 6 months away from tennis, nursing his injuries, no one thought Federer would ascend the mountain of glory ever again. But that’s what Federer does. Scales the odds stacked against him, and ends up creating moments that stick with the viewers forever.
At the 2007 Wimbledon Finals | Credit: China Daily
So, I guess the question is: How does Federer remain at the top of the sport consistently for about 20 years?
The question is very legitimate. Tennis has rapidly grown in the last two decades, with increasingly sophisticated technology bringing about better equipment and better training methods. Players today are physically stronger and fitter, like thoroughbred horses. The sport is now filling up with players who can send fiery strokes right from the baseline, and that raw power is what is dominating the sport today. And yet in today’s world of tennis, Federer sill remains the best and takes down these players. He defeats today’s players with his finesse. We can, at most, just venture a careful guess into how this is possible, because there’s no way an absolute, rational explanation is possible.
My theory, which I feel very good about, is that Federer was born with, what some might call divine but I call, ungodly talent for tennis. He flies across the tennis court, and the laws of physics do not apply to him. He can make the ball fly a little longer, twist his racket in ways that sends the ball in angles that will not make sense to the human mind. He doesn’t ever slip and fall while playing because he floats across the court, like Ali inside the squared circle. He’s been doing that and getting better ever since I remember watching him.
The greatest examples of this ability I talk about, that I so love, are the finals of the 2007 and the 2008 Wimbledon Championships. None of the permutations of the words I know can come close to describing how much emotion that those matches provoke in me. These matches are the greatest display of Tennis that I’ve ever seen, and probably ever will. Federer and Nadal, the top two players in the world who then shared (and still do) the fiercest rivalry ever, went one-on-one in what I think are the two greatest matches I’ve ever seen. I really don’t care who won which just because of the sheer quality of the tennis that is on display there. If I love Nadal for anything, it would be these two matches. He played the greatest tennis of his life, and made sure Federer did too. Remember when I was talking about the highest level of sport? I was referring to these matches. Do yourself a favor, and go watch it. Stop reading and watch. Now.
There’s only so much that I can say. To talk more about his game would require us to delve deeper and talk about his matches. Once we start doing that, there’s no coming back. I understand that this might all sound far-fetched and over-the-top. And I don’t blame you. But I do mean all of it. I also mean it when I say that Roger Federer is the pinnacle of tennis, and probably human evolution as such. He has been redefining the sport with every passing day and luckily for us, he still is. There simply cannot be another Roger Federer but his level of the sport has set a bar for the upcoming generations to scale. His genius is unparalleled and cannot be recreated, but he is an inspiration. Inspiration to both the upcoming players and to spectators like me, and getting inspired by him is to leave ourselves vulnerable to the greatest demonstration of the pinnacle of human beauty which is the best possible inspiration ever.