A Wrinkle In Time Called Roger

There were three stats that caught my eye during this week. 

The first two were about football, both American and the more universal variety. Lionel Messi, it appears, has been responsible for scoring or assisting around 10% of all the goals that have ever been scored at Barcelona’s iconic home stadium, the Camp Nou. The stadium has seen 4,000 goals (and counting) across decades and yet 1 in 10 links back to one man. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback in the NFL, has appeared in 15% of all Super Bowls held all time, punching his latest ticket to Super Bowl LII (52) after he led the Pats to an AFC championship. 

Both of these are mind boggling, demonstrating the sweep of dominance these men bring to their sport. Both of these require that elusive, unicorn-esque sporting mix, of longevity and excellence. Brady and Messi are as good an example as any you will ever find. Now, let’s talk about the third stat. 

With his brilliant win at the Australian Open that propels him into the ultra elite 20 Grand Slam titles club, Roger Federer has been in the men’s singles finals of 15% of all Grand Slams ever held in the Open era (30/200) and has won 10% of them. His resurgence since most analysts and commentators quietly wrote him off post 2013, has been incredible (and one that I have written about in the past). But even by fairy tale standards the last 12 months which began at the Rod Laver Arena where he prevailed over Rafael Nadal in a final for the ages have been unbelievable. He has won 3 of the 4 Slams he has been in during that period, like it is pre-2008 Roger. 

He faced a stern test from the Croat Marin Cilic, but even as Cilic threw everything he had at him, Federer seemed to have his racquet strong tension programmed to ‘kitchen sink’. Watching the final involved the usual mix of utter disbelief at his dazzling genius and unbearable tension when he inexplicably switches off or shanks a few shots. I screamed at the TV per usual, almost punched it as I fist pumped after a crucial break in the fifth set, and was on my knees overcome with joy and relief as the hawk eye revealed he had won the championship point. Just like he had done in 2017 bringing an incredible end to a great tournament. But back then I had leapt in joy over my sofa as a 5-year wait had ended. I was elated for Roger the underdog, coming back from injury, but showing that he still had the skills and the temperament for the highest level. This year, it was different. 

It is a strange thing to grow up watching a player, stranger still when the player and you are practically the same age. This time, throughout the tournament, I had felt quietly confident about Federer’s chances at the Australian Open, knowing that bar a Nadal, he probably had several keys to pick any knotty locks any of the other opponents could throw at him. What surprised me about my gut feeling was the fact that at age 36, there could have been a case to be made for Federer to be outmuscled and out run. The case was made over the years during the Grand Slam drought between 2013-2016. Several times. But as I shed a tear along with Federer as he got emotional thanking the fans, I couldn’t still understand why two things should happen. One, the genuine feeling of just as humbled and overwhelmed as the first time that Roger feels at winning a Grand Slam. And two, a feeling of emotional catharsis disguised as sporting fandom that washes over me (and I am guessing every Federer fan) when that happens. As he said at the press conference later – “I’m happy I can show emotions and share it with the people. If I got emotional, it’s because it was a full crowd again. No people in the stadium wouldn’t make me emotional, I’ll tell you that. This is for them really also.”

It has always been a genuine wonder to experience Federer, but this particular final, his genius was annotated in the back of my mind with the fact that all of this eventually and inevitably is heading towards a close. A friend and a huge Federer fan texted me saying that he couldn’t have gone to sleep without hearing Federer say ‘see you guys next year’ to the fans. In the emotional thrall that he was, Federer forgot to say that, as is his custom, in the post trophy presentation speech. He clarified the point later in an interview to ESPN and I immediately texted my friend so that he could go to sleep in peace. But considering the mortality of Federer’s career, even for that fleeting moment, made me realise how insane it is that I expected Federer to win every match this year. Even when Tomas Berdych had him 0-3 down in the first set. Even when Cilic was finding the impossible angles and had him down a break point in a high pressure first game of the final’s deciding set. In the moment I was almost sure he was invincible. 

There was a beautiful moment at the end of the final when the great Rod Laver took a photo on his phone of Federer holding the trophy aloft. A legend of the sport from the last century fanboying over another from this century. With an implement and a gesture that belongs firmly in this century. It is the kind of ethereal juxtaposition that makes the ephemeral appear eternal. Time remains undefeated in the history of sport and there is nothing we can do about it, but it is only the scale of time which can help us put the rarity and magnificence of someone like a Federer in perspective.

And I am here for it. Tears and all. 


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