By Tushar Kanade
There is a famous dialogue in 2008’s Iron Man, when Raza, the Commander of the Ten Rings who abducts Tony Stark, converses with his captive for the first time. He says, “The bow and arrow once was the pinnacle of weapons technology. It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific in the east, to the Ukraine in the west: an empire twice the size of Alexander the Great’s, and four times the size of the Roman Empire. But today, whoever holds the latest Stark weapons, rules these lands…and soon, it will be my turn.”
That dialogue and movie resonate with us Millennials more than we know. Watching this dialogue play out repeatedly over the years made me wonder how we have seldom come to terms with the existence of, and the identities surrounding, an ‘empire’. Certainly two of the last century’s three superpowers come to mind: the United States of America and the British Colonial Empire. However, USA’s geopolitical dominance post the Second World War, and even after the conclusion of the Cold War, never has been or perhaps will be as poetically explicit as old-fashioned territorial empires. The British Empire, while territorial, is perhaps only early-20th Century lore now. Anyone old enough to recognise the dynamics of an empire at the peak of British power around 1914–1922 is unlikely to be alive today.
Despite this inexperience with its identity, pop culture since as early as the 1980s has built quite a number of narratives surrounding evil emperors and their devilish empires. Star Wars fans will be quick to jump on the titular reference of 1980’s Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the high point of the original trilogy, or even the magnificently destructive First Order they witnessed in 2015’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Cultural narratives have also foreshadowed the Microsoft-Apple duopoly in the computing world for instance, when the pair of eventual technology giants looked up to (and in capitalist-philosophy gnaws, looked down at) ‘evil’ IBM in their growth years over the next two decades. This reference was perhaps most glaringly (and definitely most explicitly) used by Ronald Reagan, then serving his first term as the 40th President of the United States of America, in a famous, hard-line speech in 1983, when he dubbed the Soviet Union as an evil empire.
Nevertheless, how relevant is this reference in a world of ubiquitous, transparent empires? Do you lend powerful corporations and their relatively young founders, like Facebook, Incorporated‘s Mark Zuckerberg or Tesla’s Elon Musk, the new empire-emperor metaphor? Do we have an effervescent equivalent of a modern-day empire?
Watching the Australian Open unfold over the last two weeks of January, and its culmination on a Sunday afternoon of poetic genius, I could only revisit these questions with utmost aplomb. We may not have witnessed a dominant territorial empire, nor witnessed a dramatic ushering of an era of superheroes. However, in Roger Federer’s remarkable tryst with the sport, and its resultant ushering of several super-heroic rival-athletes, we witnessed expressions of both: a symbolic roll-call to assemble the very best gladiators and knights the tennis universe could cough up, announced most dramatically through his own establishment of a tennis empire for the ages.
A global dominion
A mere mention of sporting empires erupts a cauldron of discussions and debates, none of which isolate how a player’s legacy or a sporting era has been negative; or as Reagan would prefer, evil. Rather, what it spurts is a confluence of historical perspectives; what it inspires is a re-telling of recent poetry in motion; and ultimately, what it rekindles is another round of conversations to determine just what is most important in sport and what makes it even more relevant than it was in the past. The mushrooming of sporting empires affords hardcore sports fanatics a chance to celebrate the aesthetic value of an idealistic empire.
In a simple instance of a functional syntax, the word once again brims of elegance and raw attractiveness: words often used to describe Roger Federer and his illustrious tennis empire.
What is our definition of an empire? A kingdom may be successive wins in one country, one tournament or one surface (grass, clay, hard) over multiple years. As an extension, an empire may just be a collection of many such kingdoms. We shall consider the most important tournament(s) won in a country to be a territorial conquest of that country, for it is assumed that the tennis universe could not conjure a better conqueror than the last man standing in each country at the end of each year.
Due to the global nature of tennis tournaments even when compared to other sports, a potential tennis empire is closest to a figurative worldwide dominion. Your tennis empire can literally stretch from Tokyo, Japan in the east, to Indian Wells, California in the absolute west, an empire nearly 10 times the size of the Roman Empire.
What begins as an earnest attempt to conquer Australia shifts to spots of territory peppered across the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. The tennis universe then assembles in the middle of the year on the two havens of the sport, in Paris and London, where the humble tennis ball was first hit more than a century ago. After conquering the grass and the clay either side of the English Channel, players disembark to Asia only to converge in New York and then again in London, to face off against whoever are the last men standing at the end of a literal, body-busting, mind-numbing World Tour.
One lonely warrior ends his 11-month seasonal grind atop his very own global dominion. He is, without doubt, the tennis-equivalent of a world-conquering emperor.
Empire maps and sporting eras
How do we go about mapping The Original Emperor’s vast empire? Do we only consider Roger Federer’s peak years? Do we begin with his early career flashes of brilliance and end by the time he started resembling a vanquished king than a ruling emperor? Considering he just sat on his Australian Throne for the 5th time, it would be foolish to cut off this narrative to his peak years. Besides, he always did arrive at King Novak’s Courts over the last 3 years, falling in 3 Crown Battles to the sport’s Serbian ruler: once in front of the largest on-court collection of ardent disciples, at Flushing Meadows in the most prosperous city-state in the postmodern world; and twice on the hallowed lawns located in SW19, Wimbledon, the sport’s original seat of dominance and order, the homeland of the stiff-upper-lip and strawberries and cream.
We can surely break apart his empire into distinct quanta, each quantum representing a different era of players, playing styles, and periods of dominance.
But many writers and analysts have done so with intriguing results, even divided reception; and their works can often come across as disparate sets of analyses and commentaries, because they assume that the player himself was someone else in each of those eras! They distinguish Federer’s 2004 version from his version in 2008, and then again in 2012 (or any other year for that matter). But these distinctions are only valid and indeed true when analysing his physical embodiment in each of those years: on average, there will obviously be qualitative differences in the entire collection of shots, manoeuvres, and physical instincts including footwork, volleying reflexes and serving finesse that he employed every time he set foot on the tennis court in each of those years.
While physical conditioning can be observed with reasonable accuracy, not a single commentator can verifiably and accurately gauge the mental conditioning of a player, even if we can visibly see momentum shifts in a single game, set or match. Indeed, an athlete’s physicality, as well as his mentality, does evolve over time, yet the individual is a representation of a cumulative set of such experiences. A player’s mentality is often unverifiable over a few matches or even tournaments. It is only reasonably estimated when we look across the entire canvas of tournaments played throughout a single season, or even multiple seasons.
It is, of course, partially confirmed when we begin to appreciate the tilt in a specific rivalry with another player.
On January 29, 2012, exactly five years before Roger Federer won his 18th Grand Slam, witnessed Rafael Nadal’s seventh successive loss to his other great rival, Novak Djokovic. Nadal’s 7 straight losses to Djokovic from March 2011 to January 2012, across 4 Masters 1000 Finals and 3 Grand Slam Finals, is a textbook example of such a reasonable mental conditioning estimate. Both players were playing at their physical endurance and match-fitness peaks, yet it was Nadal who crumbled under pressure time and again in that 10-month period. But some may argue that this is valid only against particular rivals, and not the entire field.
A player’s mental conditioning tilt is further affirmed when we notice that he is healthy and yet consistently falling short of his benchmark performances against even the rest of the field. Again, Rafael Nadal in the 2015 and 2016 seasons is a prime example; in a rare occurrence defying his past, he was largely injury-free in a majority of both seasons. There were only marginal decreases in his physical attributes, none consistent enough to throw him off his game or impact one side of his gameplay (serve, forehand, movement) tremendously. The same can be said of Djokovic post-French Open 2016, where he has now lost in three successive Grand Slams, with a crushing defeat at the US Open Final and two early exits. You can conclude, respectively, that their slump in form was, and is, decidedly mental.
The same analysts who bucket eras as distinctly as possible ignore the above analyses, often succumbing to the most clichéd narratives around a player. 2009’s Federer won the French Open and Wimbledon Championships in quick succession, a feat accomplished only by 2 players in a 29-year time span. He did so with a gameplay not much distinct from Federer’s 2008 plan. Yet, many commentators seemed to have ended his dominant era in July 2008. After all, while he was resurgent in 2009, it was also due to the fall of Rafael Nadal at the French Open as well as his absence at Wimbledon; his fall was noted even in Federer’s 2010 Australian Open victory (which was, until a fortnight back, his last streak of 7 match-wins in Melbourne). History books will tell you how the next seven years would yield just a single Grand Slam trophy, a statistic he just doubled this past week.
Yet, on Sunday, the man appeared as hungry as he did coming into his first Wimbledon final 14 years ago. And so he did way back in 2009 as well, with a mentality that accommodated his painful defeats in the recent past. It was the same man, if only a wearier, more layered version of his past, with an acceptance of many more nuances (tournament scheduling and its impact on his body, for instance). If there is a mentality-measure we can reasonably make, it is a measure of what happens to most ageing athletes under match-pressure. And Federer seems to have defied the trends observed with practically every other player in the past, including the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and indeed Bjorn Borg.
Last week, when asked about his mental toughness being inferior to his rival Nadal, Federer was candid in dispelling any such myths, “Earlier, I would run out of gas or start checking out after two hours of being pushed. It didn’t come naturally for me, the whole mental toughness.”
He added, “I wanted to create a kind of aura that if people played against me, I was not going anywhere mentally and physically. That took me years to build up. Only when I started to win consecutive Grand Slams, and I was able to show that tenacity week in and week out, that’s when I felt like the locker room was actually starting to respect me. Before that, maybe I had that image [of mental inferiority] sometimes. In the years since, I don’t really think I’ve had this.”
“My mental toughness has always been overshadowed by my virtuosity, my shot-making, my technique, my grace. That’s why when I lose, it seems like, “Oh, he didn’t play so well.” And when I win, it looks so easy. I had that already when I was a little boy. You know, “Why don’t you try harder?” I mean, honestly I tried everything that I possibly could. Just because I don’t sweat like crazy and I don’t grunt, I don’t have this face on when I hit the shot like I’m in pain, doesn’t mean I’m not trying hard. It’s just how I play. Sorry,” he said.
There is much to believe in his reflections above on his own assessment.
Roger Federer, in essence, does represent a player bereft of mental conditioning swings for pretty much the entirety of his career. Sure, there remains an asterisk around his Spanish conquistador’s superior head-to-head rivalry, but that discussion deserves a far more nuanced treatment. It will hinder our understanding of Federer’s career-long patterns against the hundreds of other players that represent pretty much 97% of his 1300+ matches played till date. (1332 total career matches played at the end of the 2017 Australian Open, with just 35 of them played against Rafael Nadal). A case can also be made for David Nalbandian, his early-career nemesis from 2002 to 2004, yet we are not talking about seasonal blips in rivalries. Against everyone else over a 14+ year period, the man has shown up and played to the extent his physicality allowed him to at any given point in time for years.
Why then shall we distinctly analyse multiple eras of the same player as well as his dominance against varied fields? Why not combine them in a single stretch of 14 years, from 2003–04 to this very day in 2017?
We shall therefore not sequester different periods of dominance more than is necessary, focusing instead on how his career actually resembles a canvas of ever-expanding colour palettes, with a few new strokes of brushwork put forth each year that he continues to play. This collection when viewed side by side and consumed all at once, akin to a museum that displays an artist’s entire platter of artwork on a single wall, would allow us to truly marvel at the magnanimity and indeed the longevity of Federer’s empire.
Analysing Federer’s longevity begs us to analyse a number of matches he played being the most ‘Federer-ish’ he could be. Many others will choose a few of the legendary Grand Slam Finals he has been a part of: the 5-set Sunday evenings spent at the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Wimbledon Championships, the 5-setter at the 2009 Australian Open Final, or even the 2009 French Open Final against Robin Soderling, his maiden Roland Garros victory lending a special tone to the match.
My quartet of picks may not be everyone else’s selections. However, my picks do include matches at all 4 Grand Slam venues, including 2 Finals. These are 4 equally special matches that exhibit, in chronological order of their occurrence, a 16-year development spaced out in 5-year phases:
1) 2001 – Teenage Federer’s raw stylistic perfection on Wimbledon’s grass
2) 2005 - His sheer quality at his peak on US Open’s DecoTurf surface;
3) 2011 - His geometrical creativity on Roland Garros’ crushed red brick; and lastly,
4) 2017 - His career-resurgence at age 35 on fast Plexicushion, Down Under.
That last match may be pretty obvious and has been extensively analysed over the past two weeks. So let us first begin with the way he announced himself to the tennis world.
A royal announcement
Two years before he won his maiden Grand Slam Championship, at Wimbledon in 2003, he was already touted as a ‘rising star’, a compliment showered mainly due to his titanic upset of 4-time defending champion Pete Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon.
We can note a number of things through this match. Federer’s gameplay in this time and era is absolutely grounded on the Serve & Volley paradigm laid down by the best of the 1990s, a field of players led by his legendary opponent in this match himself. Additionally, as noted sports analyst Brian Phillips reflected a few years ago, this match was mostly a battle between Sampras and his mirror image, a doppelgänger who was quite simply younger, faster and seemingly as natural on grass as the much more accomplished Defending Champion. Finally, this was a one-of-a-kind match, being the last all-time classic on Wimbledon featuring a legendary 1990s player, playing and losing to an upcoming teenager who would be a major force in the 2000s and beyond. A poetic passing-of-the-guard moment.
If there ever needs to be a rousing start to a career, this was it. The playbook was simple:
- Establish your stylistic gameplay on a surface few have mastered.
- While doing so, defeat a grass court specialist.
- While you are at it, why not simply defeat the most dominant grass courter in history who also happens to be the 4-time defending Champion?
- Do all of the above on the Mecca of this sport: Centre Court, Wimbledon.
It was a truly special match and a sign for things to come.
The original empire
We arrive in the midst of Federer’s peak years, his establishment of a four-year empire, so vast and (in sporting timelines) so long-lasting, that it would put most dynastic empires of the past to shame. In this period, he gobbled up 11 out of an available 16 Grand Slams, a rate of consistent success that some equate to be the symbolic equivalent of Australian cricket legend Don Bradman’s 99.94 batting average.
Even Bradman’s countryman and tennis legend Rod Laver was prohibited from ever achieving such a multi-year period of dominance due to the Grand Slams’ ban on professionals from 1963 to 1968. More than the rest of Federer’s otherworldly feats for the record-keepers, this remains a statistic that is unlikely to be surpassed in this sport for generations.
At his peak, Roger went beyond merely crafting a kingdom on one surface, the way Sampras did on grass in the 1990s; the way a young Nadal would on clay from 2005–2008; or the way Djokovic would on hard courts from 2008–2011, before attempting to emulate and perhaps surpass Federer’s all-court legacy in recent years. Federer leveraged his all-court supremacy and heightened endurance to optimise season-long success, year after year, in a bid to stitch together his hard court and grass court kingdoms with a princely state on clay, nearly forging a totalitarian empire. This phase included an undefeated grass court dominion and multiple 35+ match winning sprees. If not for one stubborn Mallorcan ruler of tennis’ Middle Kingdom, that little princely state on clay would have long become Federer’s final conquest, a true worldwide empire.
The four seasons displayed the following match-records:
- 2004: Won 74 / Lost 6: Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open
- 11 Championships from 11 Finals
- 2005: Won 81 / Lost 4: Wimbledon and US Open
- 11 Championships from 12 Final
- Entered 15 tournaments: 12 Finals, 2 Semifinals, and 1 Quarterfinal
- 2006: Won 92 / Lost 5: Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open
- 12 Championships from 16 Finals, all four Finals losses against Nadal
- Entered 17 tournaments, reached the Final in all but 1 tournament
- Lost to only 2 players in the entire year:
- Rafael Nadal: Finals of Dubai (ATP 500; Hard), Monte Carlo (Masters 1000; Clay), Rome (Masters 1000, Clay) and the French Open (Slam; Clay)
- 19-year-old Andy Murray: 2nd round of Cincinnati (Masters 1000; Hard)
- 2007: 68 Won / 9 Lost: Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open
- 8 Championships from 12 Finals: 2 of those 4 losses against Nadal on clay
He had a 94% match record for three straight years. Only 9 matches lost in two years: this was an aberration. Federer himself may likely not have grasped the magnitude of those numbers upon first realising what he had just achieved.
There are many superlative matches in this period, particularly in 2004 as well as 2006, two triple-Grand Slam seasons, but my second match pick is from 2005.
Just marvel at his 2005 empire, which sits right in the middle of the most dominant 4-year period in the history of tennis from 2004 to 2007. You may wonder how much of an oddball this double-Grand-Slam year might have been, sandwiched between three triple-Grand Slam seasons. However, if you were to watch just one of the many matches that year, you would better appreciate the superlative quality he espoused in his dominance even in his cheapest Grand Slam season of that period.
In many ways, it seemed as though he was using 2005 as a figurative launchpad for the following year, when he would play some of his greatest tennis, and indeed forge the greatest single season empire the tennis universe would come to witness: his 2006 Season (till Djokovic’s 2015 season came along with its own arguments). It remains his Mona Lisa, a masterpiece amidst half a dozen equally monumental artworks. Yet, his 2006 masterpiece was sourced from his 2005 sketchbook, when he let out a barrage of free-flowing attacking tennis after 2 successful seasons as the World’s Number 1.
Here is a glimpse of the vastly different player that Federer was in 2005, against a prototypical pre-2000 Djokovic: none other than American legend Andre Agassi.
Here are some major takeaways:
- Roger’s backhand is supreme, and he is able to carve many more absurd angles than the post-2008 Federer-fan may have noticed. It is a testament to his play which was never really imperfect at his peak, with this ‘flaw’ only exaggerated by his rivalry with Nadal in pretty much all analyses.
- Roger is extremely fast, sprinting across with graceful urgency on almost all opportunities. Since Agassi is a proto-Djokovic with a comparable style (even if a much slower version at age 35), we get a glimpse of how a 2005-Federer may have fared against some of the shots 2011/2015-Djokovic employed, including his famed Return of Serve.
- Agassi led the match in the third set, and with the American crowd behind him, it looked like he could run away with the Championship on crucial points. A quick couple of pushbacks arise from this observation:
The crowds were roaring for Agassi! Federer was not always the crowd favourite at all venues even as he was busy building his legend which may come across as a massive surprise to post-2006 fans. The way the match ended in four sets, underscores the style Federer employed even when coming back from a deficit: a free-flowing brand of commanding pressure and attacking tennis. Federer is known to be a fearsome eagle when he is leading the match or the set, wasting little time as he flies ahead with precision and class; infamously and begrudgingly, he would also be known in later years to crumble under the pressure of a chase if he is pushed around too much, like a high-flying hawk unable to generate enough thrust once he loses altitude. But in this match and indeed many more matches in this four-year period, at the peak of his powers, all of these latent analyses can only seem to be hogwash.
No wonder how a vintage Federer clawed back from a deficit of 3–1 in the 5th Set, in the 2017 Australian Open Final. He simply had to reawaken his royal superiority, knowing very well that it was his most instinctual game-play. He would nod in agreement at this very reflection in the days following his latest win.
The last empire
Every empire has a dramatic moment in history that commences its decline. For Federer, there exists a 1-month period in the middle of the recession year that is over-analysed as the time when his mind’s Berlin Wall finally crumbled. Just over a month removed from Iron Man’s release in May 2008, we witnessed Federer’s heaviest soul-crushing defeat. This was at the hands of his career-assassin, a warrior who may have resembled Genghis Khan in another time and age, with his terrifying lasso-whip forehand more than compensating for the bow and arrow that won Khan the entirety of Asia! It was, of course, Rafael Nadal, he who exemplified the art of using weapons with vicious aggression, with his 4th straight victory coming at his bastion: the 2008 French Open.
The date may be nearly 9 years old, but to life-long Federer worshippers, it may seem as fresh as his Australian Open victory this week. Many pundits, serious observers, current and former players, as well as tennis analysts acknowledge the most dramatic moment in Federer’s career to be his 2008 Wimbledon loss to Nadal. Yet some others (including me) consider his French Open loss as his absolute psychological low: a 6–1, 6–3, 6–0 loss of such epic proportions that it must have played with him a month later in London, more than he cares to admit of course. (See what I did there? I simplistically estimated his mental conditioning, after trying to argue earlier how this is improbably difficult! Call it the casual analyst’s temptation.)
The end of this period exhibited Federer’s last multi-Grand Slam year when he finally conquered the clay courts in Paris and followed it up with a return to the sport’s helm at Wimbledon. It capped off nearly a decade of tennis at the top, with just one true rival in the form of his career nemesis.
While we would experience Federer’s return to the World’s Number 1 Ranking once (2012) and his contention for the top spot on two other occasions (2014 and 2015) long after this period was over, we would never again see the sustained focus that helped him forge worldwide territories with as much command as in the past.
A slain emperor’s last stand
Let us fast-forward six years. We would watch him break multiple records in his continued stint in the top-three, witnessing him extend his glorious legacy. But, we would also experience the rise of two dangerous, gladiatorial super-players: a beastly Spaniard named Rafael Nadal, and a robotic Serbian named Novak Djokovic. Their titanic clashes would come to rule the post-prime-Federer Era and 2011 was where it all began. Their rivalry would dwarf Federer’s lopsided showdowns against Nadal, and many would wonder if they would individually and collectively surpass Federer’s legacy as the Greatest.
This was the period Roger Federer would unwillingly abandon his pursuit of global empires, focusing instead on maximizing the few chances he would be afforded to rule a kingdom at best. In his internal tussle between sustaining longevity and wrestling an empire, this period beckoned him to focus on his longevity to start playing a much bigger role.
It is precisely here that he started distinguishing himself from past champions and sporting legends. A 26-year-old Björn Borg would burn out and retire in the wake of his fiery rival John McEnroe’s inevitable rise. A 31-year-old Pete Sampras would retire, basking in his 14th and final Grand Slam trophy after two dismal seasons. What would be expected of a 30-year-old Federer?
It is here that his self-identity would be morphed from an unassailable conqueror to a battle-hardened survivor. But each time the survivor within tried to surface, he was vanquished without too much drama by the demons of his past. He eagerly, patiently waited for a moment when this transition could be rendered complete.
Then came the 2011 French Open.
“This was the match of the tournament, hands down the match of this year.”
No wonder. The highest quality match Roger Federer ever played at the French Open. If there was a time he played comparably, it was the Final that followed two days later against Nadal, a Final that was the best he has ever played against Rafa at the French Open when compared to the four losses he endured against him in Paris in years past.
Particular points in focus? Watch the video from 09:15 when Federer was serving at 3–3, 30-love in the fourth set. That was Novak Djokovic at his very best, grinding his way into Federer’s defence the way he ground into every single player that year. Federer was absolutely stretched through the latter half of that point and was scrambling to stay in the point. However, just like his 26-shot rally in the 2017 Australian Open Final against Nadal, Federer would make inroads into the point with shockingly sudden transitions. Moreover, despite being on defence initially, he still looked more than capable of generating shots on-the-run and crafting angles from literal standstills.
“A Federer Moment!” screamed David Foster Wallace’s spirit, who would have perhaps written yet another seminal piece on this very match if he were still alive. Only the extended court coverage provided by Court Philippe Chatrier allowed such deep, wide points that would be impossible on any other clay court tournament in the world. It was a purposeful expansion of the geometry of this sport, one that Nadal has benefited from time and again.
Remember, Novak Djokovic was red hot coming into this tournament and into this match, with a perfect 41–0 match record for 2011. This was the best start to a year since John McEnroe’s 1984 season when he went 42-0, a streak that itself culminated in McEnroe’s meltdown in the French Open Final.
Unsurprisingly, Djokovic was the overwhelming favourite, having defeated Federer a number of times in that winning streak. From Indian Wells to Miami to Rome to Madrid, he defeated peak-Nadal in 4 straight matches: all Masters 1000 tournaments, all Finals, and all in a matter of two months. Two of those finals were on clay when Nadal lost as the defending champion at both Madrid and Rome. The stars were aligning for Nadal’s second loss in his then 7-year history with the French Open. This would have been bigger than Robin Soderling’s 4th Round upset defeat of Rafa in 2009.
Yet, amidst all the hoopla over the dethronement of the King of Clay, it was Federer who mustered a vintage performance to thwart Nole’s dominance. He had been sidelined for far too long that year by his two younger rivals, and he just about made up for it with the most aggressive statement of intent, playing spoilsport to Djokovic’s perfect start to the year. It was Djokovic’s ambition that propelled him to this magnificent start, and Federer’s dogged resilience that kept him competing even as he was eliminated in almost all semifinals he entered in 2011.
Pure, ruthless ambition can seemingly overpower desperate, rugged resilience time and again, only until resilience transforms into a native survival instinct. Federer’s statement was a survivor’s cry: a revival of some of his on-court kingship amidst a desperate onslaught by the pair of Kings who were ruling the sport he once ruled. It was a Clash of Kings, only Federer wasn’t considered anything more than a conquered foe. And in one lights-out match, he regained the royal moniker all over again.
This statement, this intent, was important. He would end the season with a 3-tournament unbeaten run in the indoor arenas across Switzerland, France, and England. The following year, he would win his 17th Grand Slam and last Wimbledon title, reinstated as the World ?1. It was a scheme of events put in motion partially because of that very match against Djokovic in mid-2011: a match that could have easily been avoided by the seedings, with a meeting against Andy Murray yielding a potentially dry victory for Federer; a match Djokovic would forever remember as the day his French Open Career Grand Slam push was delayed by an agonising half decade.
Longevity of kingdoms
This is a quick stopover on Federer’s late-age resurgence that also saw a severe dip. A career-low-point arrived in 2013, with a back injury, compromised foot-speed, difficult scheduling, experimental enlargement of racquet-size and his earliest exit at Wimbledon since 2002, all taking space in a matter of 4 months! These were dark times for the retirement-averse star well past his prime.
Yet, the manner in which the resurgence took place still makes little sense. The next two seasons showcased some of the most intelligent tennis from this ageing great. He reached two Wimbledon Finals and a US Open Final, with the 2014 Wimbledon Final being touted as one of the highest quality finals in all of tennis history.
While he lost all 3 of these finals in some nail-biting matches, he only lost them to Novak Djokovic playing in the midst of the most historically dominant year of tennis since Federer’s own 2006 season. In fact, Djokovic himself would call his 2014 Wimbledon Championships victory over Federer his highest-quality major final victory. He said,“Sincerely, this has been the best quality Grand Slam final that I have ever been part of. I’ve had a longest final against Nadal in the Australian Open in 2012. But quality-wise from the first to last point, this is definitely the best match. It’s the most special Grand Slam final I’ve played.”
Not a shame at all to be second place to such a great champion at his very peak.
The last ages
Looking ahead, let us now reflect on how the standards of the sport were truly elevated in comparison to other wide-ranging sports, even if Federer were to retire today itself. Federer’s sporting empire from 2004–2007 remains the stuff of legends. But the decade that followed is even more astonishing. No other sporting icon has single-handedly dominated his sport for such a long time-period (4+ years) or maintained a top-3-rank in his twilight years and beyond for nearly a decade later
There are many who can legitimately claim to have achieved one of the above ([a] is much more likely in the case of legendary players of other sports) or some measure of a combination (some, like Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar in his 24-year career, sustained top-10 status for longer periods than Federer did, for instance; some others, like 4-time Olympia Jay Cutler exhibited occasional resurgences resulting in them scaling newer heights). But no other sportsperson has dominantly achieved both.
Some proclaim Federer’s longevity and sustained excellence is unparalleled, and how no one else has managed to statistically surpass his achievements over a ten-year period in modern sporting conditions. Not German Formula One legend Michael Schumacher, not Indian cricketing stalwart Sachin Tendulkar, not American golfer Tiger Woods. Perhaps the closest contemporary parallel is with Jamaican sprinting legend Usain Bolt (for many, even American swimmer Michael Phelps), although the comparative of tennis with sprinting (or swimming and other sports) remains extremely convoluted.
Only a few of the many factors that complicate such inter-sport comparatives include:
- A vastly disparate frequency of competition (how many matches per year?)
- Maintaining sprinting/swimming fitness is premised on a supreme, unrelenting focus on technique and form (angular difference in body strokes lasting just 1 minute would chip off lap-times while only resulting in few insignificant unforced errors in tennis)
- A natural loss of hormonal balance that affects both sports in a much more pronounced manner than it does other sports like tennis or cricket (a dip in testosterone levels would shave precious seconds off finishing times, but may not materially affect the pace of each shot off your racquet)
- Barely any tense drama overcoming career-long rivals (except boxing, most others are team-sports, have had few rarefied rivalries or are partially non-confrontational in nature)
Through his effortless playing style, inhumanly gifted reflexes and stoic mentality, Federer simultaneously combined the ushering in of a new class of sporting superheroes (with Nadal and Djokovic joining him in the years to come) whilst reinforcing the old-fashioned royal appeal of forging dynastic empires.
Despite his long-lasting empire, he has appeared even more vulnerable in recent years.
Yet, vulnerability strikes a distinct chord of reverence than immortality ever will. He was seemingly invulnerable, sort of an immortal being, in earlier years, lending his legacy and his persona a God-like reverence. But his struggles with being human may have sweetened his appeal to a far greater fanbase, including a growing number of casual fans.
This comparative of vulnerability and immortality is a fascinatingly strange predicament for the young, sub-25-year-old Roger Federer-fan. A sizeable number of his current generation fans were in their late teens when the Greatest Match of All Time was on full display on the revered lawns of SW19: the Legendary Gentlemen’s Singles Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in July 2008.
Most have merely heard or read of his ‘greatness’, scrolling through pages of records and statistics and parsing through scores of reverential literary pieces, the most famous of which still remains the late, great essayist David Foster Wallace’s 2006 seminal piece for The New York Times, titled Roger Federer as Religious Experience. And these same fans have seen Federer’s ageing version where he has remained great but has also been defeated many, many more times than he ever had been in the combined four-year period from 2004–2007 when he effortlessly forged his empire.
Another one of those seminal literary pieces, ‘Still’ Life, written by Grantland’s Brian Phillips on the eve of Federer’s 2011 Wimbledon campaign, examined this very phase of an elite athlete’s career, how there comes a point when you are not the ‘best’ anymore, or the fastest, or the most dominant version of yourself. But that short phase when you are still great and when you still ‘have what it takes’ to compete with the (new) best, is exceedingly short, and steeply bottoms out the remainder of your career. Phillips examined how Federer, even as long back as 2011 was considered to have one of the longest ‘still’ lives, where he managed to stretch out what it means to be in this phase. Even Pete Sampras, the previous undisputed Grand Slam Emperor, could not outlast the short-lived nature of this phase, going down swiftly once his decline began in mid-2001 (precisely at the 2001 Wimbledon, and ironically, at Federer’s hands in the only match these two all-time greats ever played).
It has been almost 6 years since Phillips’ adulation and almost an entire decade since Federer was vanquished at his grass-court kingdom (by Nadal at Wimbledon), relinquishing the emperor’s seat of the sport (the World ?1 Ranking) a month later.
Yet, Roger Federer remains in that phase. He is ‘still great’. Proof? The highlights of the last match played on the official ATP Tour in January.
Of course, if you started reading this piece and have either read it in full or scrolled down to the end, chances are that you already seen this instant classic.
While a significant chunk of his legacy was unharmed, there was still a constant tension interwoven in his comeback story in recent times. Would Novak Djokovic surpass most of Federer’s longevity records? Would Rafael Nadal become the third man in history to complete the Career Grand Slam twice? Or indeed would any of the two-match Roger’s Grand Slam tally?
I figure these questions reek of popcorn gossip more than they may factor in his psyche. While he may possess a back-drawer instinct to safeguard some of his preservable records (particularly the biggest one), his comments reflect quite the opposite. Moreover, his performances and his post-match comments seem to have shown a pleasant acceptance of the state of things. He seems to have embraced the one thing he sorely lacked at his peak: defeat.
The mortality of gods
For the longest possible time, the psychology of this uniquely traditional sport had its foundations laid in some of the minutest details.
This right here is a definitive image. Every tennis player, amateur or professional, current or retired, has most likely glanced at images of the Grand Slam trophies. As the sight of Wimbledon’s golden aura beckons, the names of the greatest exponents of this sport can be found assembled on a few square inches of metallic real estate. Off the top of my mind, I can hardly think of any other sport that performs such a tradition. Embellishing players’ names in a symbolic mark that will withstand the times ahead ensures a realistic association with any notion of sporting immortality. Anyone who can muster up such a legendary feat over a fortnight of tennis is eternally carved into silverware. The very best players, though, have their names etched, again and again, year after year, in a poetic bid to perhaps tilt and transfer the very ownership of the trophy itself! And while it demonstrates an elevation of legends, it is also a demotion of lesser men, a mental relegation each time they step on the court against the legends across the net.
This right here is also Federer’s defining image, with his name being carved four times more than the nearest players in history: 18 versus 14 for both Nadal and Sampras. Which is also why it is exceedingly astonishing how he seems to have embraced defeat. In numerous interviews post his historic Australian Open win, he was quoted reaffirming this acceptance. He said to Time magazine in February, “Last year was really one to forget, but to learn a lot from. At the first press conference after the first match [in Melbourne] I said I would be happy having lost today if my body is feeling well. It would have been a successful trip for me. Because the reason why I went to Australia was to find out where my body was at.”
“In practice I knew it was good. Matches are a different animal, it’s a different story. I thought in the best case I could make the quarters, and beat one good player. Maybe two if things went crazy well. That was my expectation. That’s why it feels so much better, this one, because I never thought in a million years I was going to win,” he added.
It would have been a fantasy to hear those words from the Federer we knew in the past. It speaks volumes of his grounded awareness as well as dialled-down expectations from the remainder of his career. And perhaps this is exactly what we fail to realise. We have viewed him as an unfailingly Godlike idol who barely sweats, failing to appreciate his adaptability. His greatest transformation, therefore, will remain an acceptance of defeat with as much grace as his imposition of victories into existence in years past. Perhaps his genius never was isolated in his peak tennis prowess or his beautiful game. Maybe it was the fact that he could stay in it, both God and Human, in a single lifetime of constant grind while never letting anyone really notice just how much he actually changed. He is in his most human element post a major victory, perhaps best exposed in his reaction after winning his life’s 18th Grand Slam Championship Point, against Rafael Nadal.
Notice how, in just a matter of seconds, even his lofty accomplishments of years past belied his pouring of childlike relief and pure joy. He simply failed to remember what he just accomplished, a Godlike victory embraced in the most humane ways of all!
Perhaps the ability to still experience pure joy and relief even after countless conquests and vast kingdoms is the mark of a true Emperor. For only true royalty cherishes one more taste of victory on the battlefield, even if it were to come after years of agonizing defeats and tales of vanquished empires.
Ask yourself for a moment: what is the true mark of the Longevity of an Empire? Is it sheer dominance? Is it the extension of a number of years at the summit? Perhaps it simply boils down to possible successors to the Emperor’s Throne. With two pairs of twin sons and daughters, five perfectly spaced years apart, it seems to be the hottest surname for another 30 years to flaunt in the sport that is all but waiting to be declared their native dynasty.
Through overpowering rivals and pushback rivalries, through a lifetime of immortality followed by equal measures of blood and sweat, Roger Federer remains The Original Emperor of 21st Century tennis.
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