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 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:


[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.


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.]


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About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

19 responses to “Philosophy 179 – Yes, It’s A Graduate School Course”

  1. Caroline Paquin says :

    Simply… wow! Great writing, Matt, really.

    Love the comic relief, Doots! 🙂

  2. marcoiac says :

    Nice guest blog! and nice picture inserted by doots. nice touch!

  3. A_Gallivant says :

    That was really good to read because I keep going in and out of grief about Fed’s loss today. I think you nailed it on the head about what the passage of time really means for us as Fedfans. You are right, these feelings I’m having about his loss have been rare and it’s a lot to handle, particularly when it feels like the match slipped out of Fed’s hands and I keep imagining a different end. Ugh. But you are right, Fed has escaped many hot players in the past and today he didn’t. A part of my sadness is that I was caught up the wonder of Wimbledon, the meaning Fed has expressed that it holds for him and a desire to see him silence his critics with #17.

    It’s funny I had resolved to not expect Fed to win the USO in order to lessen the pain of the disappointment I might feel. I thought it simply wiser to count him per Wertheim, a contender just not a favorite. Now I’m not sure if that was just the pain talking. We’ll see.

  4. Katarina_YYZ says :

    Great post, Matt. Like you, I am addicted to sports. Stopped watching dramas, sitcoms, movies, crime series, etc. The ultimate reality TV is sports (what they call reality TV is baloney). The dramas and storylines that play out are real, and though these athletes are millionaires, they still care about winning, sportsmanship, etc (well, some of them care).

    And, yeah, whenever Roger loses, everyone wants to know if something went wrong or if he is finished; they never just say ‘the other guy beat him.’

    Still hurts though 😦

  5. qtaro says :

    No doubt I was sad and at a loss. Couldn’t even hide it in front of my students today. Thinking to myself that even with Tsonga’s brilliance on court today Fed could’ve tried more things to level the match. All those possibilities. And the visible frustration in his body language and face….since I know that Fed cares about this tournament even more than RG (which only made me slightly frustrated this year as he lost the finals), as a fan I feel how hard it must be for him to swallow the defeat…

    I know in my brain he tried as hard as he could, but in my heart this year’s Wimby’s over for me. Was excited about a Sharapova-Lisicki encounter yesterday, but now I don’t care much. Indeed a great post as a philosophy course – and I totally agree. Tsonga really had to out-perform himself to win, and that’s something that only enhances TMF’s greatness. Still, how I wish the outcome were otherwise…. 😦

  6. roadrunnerz says :

    Awesome post. Especially the revised history part. Makes me want to wave it one front of everyone going on about Fed’s mental weakness and complacency right now.

    I remember reading some post where someone said Fed’s mental tenacity is less than that of any other past champion. Unfreakingbelievable. Yup, the guy with the most majors in history is a mental midget. Got it.

    Sure the losses hurt, but I can’t say I feel gutted afterwards anymore. ‘Cause honestly no other loss could ever hurt as much as Wimby 2008. It was all uphill from there. And, yeah, to some extent everything does feel a bit like gravy after he won the French and #15.

    Whenever someone points out Fed’s lack of mental strength I think back to Andreev at the 2008 US Open, Haas and Delpo at the French in 2009 (did anyone ever prove his mental tenacity more than Fed at that tourney?), and Roddick at the 2009 Wimbledon. And then I laugh hysterically.

    I don’t for a second doubt that Fed wanted this one. But, as you pointed out, Tsonga had a little something say about it too…

    As long as Fed keeps loving the game, I’m along for the ride. Win or lose.

  7. Deborah (shackle52) says :

    Obviously, this was just what I needed to read. God, what other sports figure can inspire the quality of writing, the depth of understanding that Roger does. I watched this match, the first of the tournament I thought I would see in its entirety, on my laptop, by way of a buffering livestream because the hotel I was staying in for business lost it’s satellite feed. I had to spend the rest of the day chewing over the loss on an airport shuttle and while waiting for a delayed flight home. I totally connect with the passage of time stuff. I lost my mind over Roger in 2006 and while I knew that incredible run he was on at the time could not last forever, each loss reminds me what I missed from 2003-2006. As tough as this period has been, I have to agree with a previous comment: nothing will ever feel as bad as Wimby 2008. II hope Jo is able to keep playing at the level he showed. I try really hard to tune out the naysayers and the haters. For some reason, they want Roger to pay in blood for every positive thing they ever felt compelled to say as if they can somehow weigh down the lofty heights he soared.As I watched him wait for Jo so they could leave the court together, I was so glad no one else could see my tears. His grace and elegance is like no other. For me, as long as he picks up a racquet, I’ll be there to cheer – Go Roger!

  8. Ramesh Prabhu says :

    Great post Matt! I love the whole “what might have been” scenario, which lends a completely different and true perspective on Roger Federer’s greatness. Draw a a tiny little black circle on a big white board, and ask people what they see. Most, if not all will tell you that they see the little black circle. You’d rarely, if at all, hear people say they see this giant white board surrounding the little black circle! That little black circle represents the fallibilities of Roger Federer, while the white board represents his greatness! Every now and then we need a little bit of perspective, and thank you for providing that with this post.

    Nothing, I mean nothing will ever break my heart – tennis wise that is – like the 2008 Wimbledon final that Roger lost to Rafa. Absolutely nothing!!! It left me devastated for weeks if not months. People talk about having a religious/spiritual experience when they watch Federer play, but for me, his devastating loss, at the hands of his nemesis was the experience I needed for my personal growth. It made me question the way I felt, and it made me realize, just like you point out Matt, that in the grand scheme of things, this loss compares with nothing in the real world – people losing homes, children dying of hunger etc.,

    So, yes, today’s was a tough loss for Federer and his fans, me included, but I suspect that Federer will be just fine, his greatness untainted by it. To be honest, I couldn’t care less if he wins another grand slam or not, but I do care that we enjoy the last few years of a career that has given us so much joy over the years, that has allowed us to forget, albeit for a few hours at a time, the problems of the real world!

  9. jbsport says :

    Hello to all.

    It’s my first post here.
    I just read an excellent text by Matt.
    Caroline Paquin inform about this in her blog.
    My english writing is not perfect, hope you understand my points.
    Tennis is a very big part of my life since a long time. I played, I watch tennis pro and I work no far from the courts.

    from Matt:

    “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!”

    Wrong person, Börg was 16-0 vs Gerulaitis.
    Just for your information.

    Long life to this excellent blog.

  10. jfk10s says :

    Thanks Matt for this, for the perspective- Roger was able to find another gear so many times, but today just was not his day 😦 . Just sucks because earlier this year Roger said it would be his dream to win Wimbledon one more time and I wanted it for him, I wanted so badly to see him equal Pete, to hold and kiss the gold trophy with the pineapple on top one more time. It’s hurts 😦

  11. VanessaLovesTennis says :

    This was wonderful to read and wonderfully written. I savor it as I am still in that odd state of numbness that comes with a shock to the soul. I am old enough not to be angry anymore. I no longer point fingers of blame, rant, rave, or go insane. However, I do hurt over these losses and then question my sanity fo being so very involved that I feel shaken to the core. I actually was completely ineffective and nonproductive for the rest of the day due to Roger’s oh so painful loss. I now fully acknowledge that it is the time clock bonging away in my head that scares me so. I have never been to see Roger play in person, and I am starting to fear that I will never have the chance to see him play the amazing magical tennis that only he can produce before he, like an aging prima ballerina, hangs up his tenny shoes and moves on to enjoy the rest of his glorious life. Thank you for sharing this and providing a bit of balm for my oh so wounded soul. I shall now put everything in its proper perspective, not kill my husband for saying “hah hah” when I reported Roger’s loss with teary eyes, and actually accomplish some work today. Bless you Matt for this inspired post. Doots, I look forward to some FedPorn to further soothe me. 🙂

  12. Puffin says :

    Brilliant, Matt! Thank you very much – perspective is a wonderful thing.

    Onward to Berne and the Davis Cup next week, Roger! 🙂

  13. dari says :

    I teared up during the fuzzy what could have been section. great writing.
    this is a new stage for me as a tennis fan. Always played always watched, but never got so attached to a player and their results like roger. I loved Pete and kuerten but wasn’t old enough or emotionally invested enough at the end of their careers to fully experince the late years with them as I think I may be doing with roger right now. Still very uncomfortable with admitting anything or getting near to any “post-mortem, had a great career” thoughts.
    Especially when he beat djokovic like that AT THE FRENCH. Oh well jo played great, roger couldn’t pull the extra gear.
    I just want one more… and then we will see what i say after that 😉
    Thanks for this different spin on things, prob made me feel better than anything else ive read 🙂

  14. peRFect Tennis says :

    Refreshing to read a different view point. But I dont think anyone is questioning the fight Roger has shown on many occasions in the many matches you mention above that have helped shape him into the great champion he is. We have all witnessed matches at grand slam level that made us realize Roger is human (Wimbledon 08, Aus 09, US 09). All Federer fans set their expectations high, and we all know that defeats are part of the game.

    However, the difference between those matches and the Tsonga match is the manner of the defeat. All those matches we sit safe in the knowledge that Roger left everything on court, and he would never need to ask himself what if. But here it is different, there is no doubt Tsonga played good, but the win wasn’t achieved by his great play alone. It was clear to see that Roger lost believe in himself and gave up the match, and he owes himself more than that, after all he is Roger Federer. This loss is far different to any other and came at such an important time. We can only hope that Roger overcomes this and rises once again.

  15. majorfedfan says :

    It was a huge help to read this. I have still been mourning over it, just not able to move past it yet. Was even dreaming about it last night. Always good to hear so many others are also so affected by it. I read somewhere that he only made 11 errors during the match – wow! Almost wish he would have made more because he was going for it more, but it is what it is. Time to move on, but so hard to do….

  16. writersbleedink says :

    I have tears in my eyes and I can’t write anything else. :’)

  17. BS says :

    Great post Matt, well done. Onwards and upwards 🙂

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