Philosophy 179 – Yes, It’s A Graduate School Course
Dear Picket Fencers,
Honesty is not always the best policy. There are moments in life when other people aren’t ready to handle tough truths, moments when the soothing or polite lie is necessary.
This is not one of those times.
In this guest post, it would all seem so flat, hollow and one-dimensional for me to write only about Roger Federer’s heartbreaking and historic loss to an inspired and spectacular Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. It’s worth opening up a piece of my soul, because – after all – all of our souls were cut open today at SW19.
I’m 35 years old. Until I was about 24 or 25 years old, I couldn’t take tough sports losses well. In my teenage years, I would be angry. In my early twentysomething years, I would dwell on such setbacks for weeks if not months. What does my current self think about my younger incarnation? No, not that I was pathetic, but that I cared so much. Sports does that. It’s funny how sports does that, and with the blessing of wisdom – which comes through the passage of time – I can see that sporting events don’t matter in the long run of life. Yet, sports feel so close to us. We see events in full on a television. There are no backchannel dealings, no hidden corridors in which the real action (of politics or economics or military mobilizations) takes place. Sport, unlike so much else in the whole of life, is comparatively intimate. We can’t control the way Roger Federer plays in the majors or anywhere else, but he feels so close to us. Many people here feel their lady tubez to the extent that Wogie McDodgie is flicking forehand winners all over a hallowed lawn. Success feels so attainable in sports, which is why failure – from McFeduruh, an Aussie Rules football team, or any other favorite of ours – cuts deep.
This failure hits especially hard when success has been so customary over the years. Seven straight Wimbledon finals turning into two years of quarterfinal losses? My God, it doesn’t feel like Wimbledon anymore. A run of 18 out of 19 major finals reached (2005 Wimbledon through the 2010 Australian Open) turning into six majors without a championship? This is not the world we recognize. Federer was relatively healthy this Wimbledon, and a hot player STILL took him out before the semis? This is wrenching. It’s Federer’s favorite tournament. How can this possibly be happening?
Let’s acknowledge the pain. I feel it. You feel it. It’s supposed to hurt. We wouldn’t wuv Woger the way we do if days like today didn’t hit hard. For the Aussies in the crowd, you watched (or heard about) the Tsonga stunner early in the morning on Thursday, so this is still the day of Federer’s defeat. For everyone here, a word of advice: Don’t tell yourself to “get over it” or that it’s lame to be so down.
The deal I’ve made with myself as a sports fan – the sports fan who has outgrown my younger and less mature self through the natural and organic unraveling of time – is to give myself a full day to mourn and, in that process of mourning, come to grips with the exquisite agony of loss in a meaningful event. Yes, none of us should allow the next three weeks to be ruined – there’s no debate about that – but one should not think it’s inappropriate or lame to mourn a loss in the first place. In 24 hours, one should be able to realize that while Afghanistan hotels get bombed and African children starve and Syrians get murdered, a Swiss guy getting served off a lawn by a supreme physical specimen from France is not the biggest burden to carry. Yet, it’s the mourning process that takes us to those places. It’s the sports mourning process that allows us to take Rudyard Kipling’s words to heart, posted just beneat the entrance to Centre Court: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”
I hope all of you – especially the younger Federistas in the crowd – can see that sports mourning, if done in a day, can be cleansing and actually rather meaningful.
That’s part one of this essay. Now, to part two, which focuses a little more on tennis history.
Maybe some of you are critical of what you think was Federer’s passivity in the face of Tsonga’s onslaught. Maybe some of you (I encounter them on Twitter and Tennis.com) think Federer was too complacent, that he didn’t have the glint of battle-warrior passion in his eyes. Maybe some of you think Federer should have tried more things. I understand – all such sentiments come from a place of caring. Such sentiments aren’t objectively right or wrong, but the verdict from this guest contributor is that they come from what was mentioned above, namely, the feeling that sports are closer to us and therefore give us the feeling that events are within our – and Roger’s – control.
Tennis reminded us today that the opponent has a say in the matter. Let that sink in.
This isn’t golf, in which Tiger Woods only has to play the ball. Federer had to play a man who crushed Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Australian Open semifinals (gee, I think Nadal had to have looked pretty damn passive on that night in Melbourne) and, at Wimbledon, exceeded that “Rafa rout” with a display of far greater guts and resilience (if not start-to-finish perfection; Tsonga needed four games to wake up against Federer today; not so in Australia three years ago versus Nadal). Federer could not lift his level. Not this time. It’s shocking because we’re not used to seeing it. We’re so accustomed to Fed finding that extra gear or managing to stay on court long enough to wait out the storm and get that one error which turns the tide.
That error never arrived from Jo-Willy, a man with a reputation for cracking who – on one heaven-kissed afternoon in his injury-plagued career – smashed that reputation the way he smashed serves past a helpless Wogie.
Seeing Tsonga find that rare place of sustained excellence – that treasured mountaintop athletes refer to as “The Zone” – only makes Roger Federer’s career that much more of an absolute miracle. In order to understand this, I need to rewrite tennis history so that you can see the way things might have been… but didn’t become:
CUE BLURRY SCREEN AND FADE TO A BETTY DRAPER PREGNANCY-STYLE SCENE FROM SEASON THREE OF MAD MEN:
[Obviously, I (Doots) inserted this picture. Sorry Matt, couldn’t resist.]
Roger Federer will be remembered as one of many great champions in tennis. He had a fine career, this Swiss. A total of 11 major championships puts Federer in rather select company. Yet, his career pales in comparison to Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal. There were several points along the way when Federer, a man with such superabundant gifts, lacked the toughness or tenacity to fight through adversity in major tournaments.
There was the time when Federer, struggling all the way, couldn’t dig out of a 3-5 fourth-set deficit to Nicolas Kiefer in the third round of Wimbledon in 2005, falling to the pesky German in five sets before Sean Connery on Centre Court. Federer mysteriously gave way in 2006 when a white-hot Tommy Haas powered past him in five sets in the middle of the Australian Open, an eerie precursor to the 2009 French Open stunner that allowed Robin Soderling to beat Juan Martin del Potro for the Swede’s first of three major championships.
Federer could have accumulated so many streaks – after all, he reached semifinals and finals at the majors in most of his years on tour – but there was always a nagging loss that left tennis fans and commentators murmuring about this here-one-day, gone-the-next ability from the sweet-swinging Swiss, this mercurial dimension that led Federer to fade away in the face of an opponent’s furious assault.
Who could forget the time when Federer meekly bowed to Tomas Berdych in three sets in the 2009 Australian Open fourth round, or the time when Igor Andreev blasted past him in 2008, with a tired Federer slumping his shoulders after the wear and tear of Olympic travel and competition? It will stick in the craw of his fans that Federer lost to Janko Tipsarevic in the third round of the 2008 Australian Open on a day when the Serbian played the match of his life. Heck, Federer even lost a Wimbledon final to Andy Roddick, bowing 6-4 in the fifth set of their 2009 encounter because the American – serving and hitting as big as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would two years later at SW19 – never allowed a break point over four-plus sets of tennis. Yes, Federer was at least somewhat more consistent than Pete Sampras, who more frequently dotted his major-tournament record with early-round losses and could never reach even one French Open final (Federer at least managed two of them; he had a chance for three this year in Paris, but Novak Djokovic held serve at 5-4 in the fourth set and won a five-set match that carried over two days, thereby denying the Swiss a shot at a third French Open final). Yet, there’s no question that Sampras will be remembered as the better closer. Federer, who had the talent to be tennis’s most accomplished major-tournament performer, actually left a lot on the table with his 11 titles, two French Open finals, only 18 finals total (1 behind Ivan Lendl’s 19), and no large semifinal or final streaks. Oh, and no career Grand Slam, either.
To whom much was given, much was expected. Roger Federer was a distinguished champion, and yet, WITH ALL THAT TALENT, one could reasonably say he failed to fight hard enough to deliver on ALL his promise and potential. Most of it? Sure. Not all of it, though – not by a longshot.
BLURRY SCREEN FADES AWAY AND COMES BACK TO REAL LIFE
See how different history could have been, Federer fans? See how many times this man fended off the tennis barbarians at the gate? See how many times Fed outlasted the hot player, defused the big server, thwarted the tricky opponent, and pulled through in the crucible of a fifth set at a major?
One of the most famous anecdotes in tennis history comes from the always-delightful (and dearly missed; he would be such a welcome presence in a broadcast booth…) Vitas Gerulaitis, who broke a 16-match losing streak to nemesis Jimmy Connors in 1979 and then pronounced, “NO ONE BEATS VITAS GERULAITIS 17 TIMES IN A ROW!”
Well, today, we’re left with the fact that no one is meant to win 179 matches in a row at majors after losing the first two sets. For 178 times out of 178, Roger Federer held off all comers with a two-set lead in tennis’s most important tournaments. That he didn’t do the deed against Tsonga is first an indication of how bravely and brilliantly Tsonga handled the moment (how rare it is for any Frenchman to do so). Second, it’s an indication that this is the last major-tournament match Roger Federer will play before his 30th birthday.
I have no way of knowing this for a fact, but I sense that the real reason this loss sucks for so many Fed fans is that the biological tennis clock is ticking more loudly than it ever has before. Today, Federer did not look like an old man, but he was robbed of a year by the prototypical hot player he would always be able to stop when he was 25, 26, 27 years old. Federer is, like the rest of us, getting older. He’s no less human than you or me. We know that for a man about to hit age 30, he’s actually playing fabulous tennis – he reminded us of this fact against Mr. Djokovic in Paris. Yet, when seeing the young and finally healthy Tsonga bound and fly and whiz past him with springy legs and a game that was made for grass, one could only acknowledge that Federer is not the 2006 version who could instantly respond to and exceed all comers.
Is he lacking fight? Is he losing his edge? Is he not making the right adjustments? No. Roger Federer is simply made of mortal flesh, believe it or not. His number was up today – the number 179.
It’s not willful denialism or childlike clinginess to say this over and over again – it’s merely true: Losses like today magnify and amplify the greatness, the consistency, the otherwordly excellence, of one Roger Federer. The fact that we’ve never had to absorb a loss quite like this as Fed fans – just 6 weeks before Roger’s 30th birthday celebration – certainly makes today’s pain undeniable, profound, and real. Yet, a confrontation of that pain will just as surely lead us to an even greater appreciation of another fact: namely, that this kind of pain has been so distinctly rare.
And that, my dear fellow Fed fans, concludes this course: Philosophy 179.
[For more philosophy 179, you can find Moonpie Zemek on Twatter.]