The Pain That Doesn’t Destroy (by Matt)

PJ: Matt is a much braver, stronger and infinitely more coherent than I can be right now. Thank you, Matt.

Andre Agassi, in his widely-praised autobiography, wasted no time in getting to the point: “I hate tennis.” Agassi was made to hate tennis as a chore, a burden, an oppressive task that so fully consumed his days that he took no joy from it for long stretches of time.

Today, even though I was discharging my duties as an American collegiate football writer for College Football News, I watched Roger Federer’s U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic. I read Twitter when the match was over.

“I hate tennis” was a fairly common theme.

The pain, the pain, the pain of this match is beyond words. As Roger said in his press conference with that “what can I do?” shrug, “It is what it is.” We saw it, we couldn’t believe it, but it happened. Words not only seem unnecessary. They are unnecessary.

The pain says it all.

It will linger. It can’t be helped. We know it.

There’s a part of me which strongly suspects that most Picket Fencers, as Federer fans, aren’t really ready to read anything right now – not for the first 24 hours after this stomach-punch loss. The hurt is too fresh, searing and real. I could just stop here, and you probably wouldn’t mind.

However, we have a blog to maintain, darnit, and making sense of unpleasant events is a necessary part of human life. So, your guest Woger blogger will try to make sense of this event and place it in its proper context.

First, let me say that as a collegiate football writer here in the United States, the U.S. Open semifinals always occur on a Saturday, when (American) college football games are played. U.S. Open semifinal day is always a workday for me (the same is true for American broadcaster Chris Fowler, who works for ESPN as both a tennis play-by-play man and the host of ESPN’s “College Gameday” studio show; Fowler spent Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Michigan-Notre Dame football game). I can watch matches, but I can’t hang on every point because I have to follow dozens of football games across America. I readily acknowledge that if I didn’t have sportswriting to fall back on, I might be viewing this five-set loss to Djokovic in a different way.

Then again, my personal story is connected to this larger fact of work interfering with my full immersion in these last two Federer-Djokovic semifinals at the U.S. Open. You will see where this is all going in a very short amount of time.

I spent last year not watching the Fed-Djokovic U.S. Open semifinal because I wanted to focus on my work. Yet, as I read Twitter and saw the tennis tweets amidst my football feed, I realized that the match was the only thing I could think about. I did not watch a single point of the match, but instead of watching football (as I was supposed to do), I was glued to my Twitter timeline  ( @MattZemek_CFN , not my tennis feed, @mzemek ). For this reason, I decided to watch this year’s semifinal even while composing a live journal of a football game between San Diego State University and the United States Army.

This reality – approaching the 2011 semifinal in a manner different from the 2010 semifinal – forms the basis for this essay and this attempt to give meaning to the pain of a Federer fan right now.

In 2010, Federer’s two lost match points came on Djokovic’s serve. In 2011, they came on Fed’s. In 2010, Fed played passively on his match points. In 2011, he played aggressively. In 2010, Federer was the favorite. In 2011, the slight underdog. In 2010, he had won a major tournament, while in 2011, he hadn’t.

In 2010, Djokovic hit really hard when trailing on match point. In 2011, he did the same. In 2010, Djokovic did everything Andy Murray should be doing, but isn’t. In 2011, he’s done the same. In 2010, Federer’s all-too-human mind couldn’t handle the reality of losing two match points. In 2011, the same thing happened.

What’s the point of these two undeniably tormenting paragraphs – one in which 2010 and 2011 are so different, the other in which they’re so very alike?

Well, that’s the point, fellow Fencers. Federer was criticized for being too passive on last year’s match points; he was aggressive this time around in a dead-even semifinal. However, Djokovic – on both occasions – hit very tough shots under pressure. Fed managed his match points differently in 2010 and 2011, but ended up with the same result. What can you say about that? It’s hard to talk about regrets when the same situation emerges two straight years at the same tournament, only for different responses to bring about the same outcome: Djokovic displaying some desperation, some boldness, and a lot of theatricality, but – through it all – persevering with the guts of a burglar to affirm his bona fides as a competitor.

On the second and more overlooked match point of this 2011 epic, Fed hit a great body serve that Djokovic returned quite well. Fed’s inside-out forehand approach might have put him in good position on the point, but Djokovic was going to get there with a very reasonable chance of hitting a passing shot. Nole was lucky on his 40-15 return, which clearly possessed a certain degree of desperation; yet, when he went for broke, he made his shot. Not everyone can go for broke and succeed. Djokovic does this, and that’s why he’s having an all-timer of a year.

It is what it is.

Federer melted down after Djokovic saved those two match points, but on the match points themselves, it’s hard to feel too much of a sense of regret. Two points — when a match is decided by that margin, it’s clear that the battle was essentially a draw. However, someone has to win four points by two, and someone has to lose. Federer loves this sport the way few of us ever will. He chose this sport as his livelihood, his passion, his vocation. I can’t hate tennis after this. The drama and richness of today’s moment is why we watch, why we care.

We know it will open us up to immense pain if the outcome goes the wrong way, but we watch in the first place hoping for the big payoff. In each of the last two U.S. Open semifinals, we were one point away from that payoff (twice), but didn’t get to celebrate.

It is what it is.

There’s one more thing to say about the way this match ended: Federer’s second match point went begging because of an inside-out forehand that just missed. Well, Fencers, what if another inside-out forehand – in the 2009 French Open against Tommy Haas – had just missed? I’ll take today’s missed inside-out forehand over that one.

Similarly, Federer lost multiple match points against Djokovic in each of the last two years at the U.S. Open, but what about the seven set points (five in set one, two in set two) that Djokovic lost to Woger in the 2007 U.S. Open final? What about the time when Federer faltered late in the fourth set of this year’s French Open semifinals, but then got the break at 4-5 to even the fourth set at 5-all and then win the tiebreak he had to have? Beyond the Fed-Djokovic rivalry in particular, what about all the times that Federer has won a handful of points to stunningly turn around a major-tournament championship match? The 2009 Wimbledon final and the second-set tiebreak against Andy Roddick serve as perfect examples of Fed’s ability to win those two, or three, or four key points in the heat of a razor-close match on the final weekend of a major tournament. In this match against Djokovic, Federer simply didn’t win those two or three extra points.

That’s tennis, the sport that can and does turn on two or three points. It’s a sport that invites pain, but Federer signed up for that pain. By watching and caring about Woger, we signed up for that pain, too. By accepting this pain, we can take away the pain’s power, the power to destroy us and make us hate tennis the way Andre Agassi once did before he re-embraced the sport with a fresh love and appreciation.

In conclusion, Roger Federer has played tennis several years more than Novak Djokovic and, for that matter, Rafael Nadal. Rafa -as a consequence of his accumulated miles and collective travels – is beginning to taste what it’s like to lose in finals (and he’s likely to lose to Djokovic on Monday in the final). One day, Djokovic will also lose more than he wins… it’s just that such a moment isn’t likely to appear anytime soon.

The ultimate thing to keep in mind is that if you play long enough and continue to put yourself in the arena against legendary opponents, you will get bruised and beaten. You will win your share of glories, but a large enough body of accumulated experiences will lead to that many more matches which are played on the razor’s edge. If you play on the razor’s edge, you will lose matches that are close to being won. If you play on the razor’s edge, you will lose matches in the blink of an eye, in the two or three points that go begging. If you sign up for tennis, you accept the possibility that you can have your heart ripped out.

It is what it is.

Federer is the man who has closed down so many tough matches at major tournaments – he is, right now, the greatest major-tournament player the sport has ever seen. No one has won more major titles. No one has made more major finals. In 2012, Fed will likely break Jimmy Connors’s record of 31 major semifinal appearances (or at least tie it). This is a man who has toed the service line countless numbers of times and pulled through. If you play long enough, though, you will run into great opponents, opponents like Novak Djokovic who will dig incredibly deep to beat you and play with fearlessness in pressure situations. The inside-out forehand you made in Paris in 2009 won’t land in this time. The set points you improbably saved against yourself (Djokovic was serving at 6-5, 40-love in the first set of the 2007 U.S. Open final before getting broken by Fed) will be saved by your opponent. This is what tennis players sign up for. This is what tennis fans are willing to risk; it’s a risk akin to Djokovic’s “damn the torpedoes” return at 40-15 and 3-5 on Federer’s serve today.

Roger Federer has won more than I ever fathomed he would win when I became a true-blue, frazzling, stomach-churning devotee in 2004. Because winning championships is the standard Fed has set, anything short of that feels incredibly painful. Yet, the bounty of what Federer has already accomplished makes today’s match – like the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal – a simple product of repetition: If you make the rounds long enough, you will suffer what you once dealt to your foes. If you accumulate enough matches, the painful outcomes that once rested on the heavy shoulders of disappointed opponents will pierce your own anguished heart.

Roger Federer signed up for tennis knowing that he could win 16 majors… and suffer the fate he’s suffering right now. The pain is profound and poignant. It’s also a pain that doesn’t destroy.

It is what it is.

Living with this exquisite agony is the price paid for living with Roger Federer’s beauty, grace, and competitive fire (it was a marvelous war with the Djoker today, outcome aside). If I can live with the inside-out forehand that just missed, and with the saved match points from Djokovic’s end, I can also live with the 2009 French Open and the 2007 U.S. Open as well.

I can still love tennis. I can still go on without being destroyed.

Hugs and caresses of comfort to each and every one of you.

Your Woger blogger,

Matt Zemek


About Matt Zemek

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

27 responses to “The Pain That Doesn’t Destroy (by Matt)”

  1. Carol says :

    Thanks Matt, and hugs to you on 9/11.

  2. Cathie (@breadstix) says :

    Thanks Matt. Like you said, painful to read so soon after the match but a great post nonetheless.

  3. Ramesh Prabhu (@zbrain) says :

    “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” ~ Lao Tzu

    Thanks Matt for being today’s Lao Tzu to a deeply hurt and deflated Federer nation. This post is in stark contrast to a few others by self proclaimed Federer fans, who are questioning his greatness. Almost every great player in almost every sport has at some point has had to endure the kind of suffering that Federer is having to right now.

    Pete Sampras, the greatest American player ever, after having dominated the US Open took two of the worst drubbings of his career ever, back to back, at the hands of the next generation, before turning the tables the following year. John McEnroe, one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen, “choked” away what was the biggest opportunity for him to win a French and in the process complete a career slam.

    In all the hurt it is very easy to forget that greatness doesn’t translate to being infallible. His brilliantly fluid strokes, his spectacular shotmaking, and his gaudy records prove without a doubt that he is greatness personified. Despite all of that, his failings prove that he is as vulnerable and as deeply human as we all are.

    Just as every human needs support during their toughest moments, so does the great Roger Federer. As heavily invested fans, we sure have the right to question and criticize, but at the end of the day, as true fans, we ought to be supportive of the guy who has given us countless hours to pure joy, no?

  4. Julie =) (@dootsiez) says :

    Oh boy. I’m not ready for this part yet.

    I’m still stuck on the “NONE OF THIS IS OKAY” part.

    Because let’s face it – NONE OF THIS IS OKAY.

  5. Marie says :

    Well done Matt. I feel a little better now. Although I know the longer Fed decides to play, the more painful it’s going to get. Do I really want to endure that much pain? Hell yes, if it means being able to watch the most beautiful, graceful, and talented tennis player ever to step on a tennis court for as long as god (and Roger) will allow. I hope these losses don’t take too much of a toll on him because my fear is that he’s going to get tired of not lifting those trophies and go away. Now that will be painful. An no Picket Fence post will be able to erase that pain.

  6. LJ says :

    great post matt, hugs to everyone

    I haven’t seen 1 point of the match, and I don’t know if I can bring myself to later on. Meanwhile, I’ve brought out Adele to help.

  7. pban says :

    agree with doots still not ready to accept what happened…..beautiful post though

  8. marcoiac says :

    I totally support this philosophy. The other philosophy I support is to look at the positives. I was irritated by Fed’s passivity last year. In all honesty, I can’t blame the guy for anything. He was aggressive when he had to be, just came up short. Let’s face it, it’s true that lots of matches are decided by few points. But it’s generally true that those few points are won by the better player. Hard to argue that today Fed is a better player than Nole. Let’s just look at the facts. But the good thing is that he keeps playing and trying to better himself. Fed, I mean 🙂
    If he keeps doing this, he can still win major titles. And if he does, how sweet will that be? I think sweeter than any major he already won. And frankly, even if he does not win any major anymore, he still is such a beauty to watch, the way he hits, that I’ll take his losses over any other tennis match played by the other guys. Always.

    • Yalan says :

      I think Roger showed in the first two sets, and most of the fifth set, that he was absolutely the better player – period. He was the better player this match. Nole was the first to snap in the fifth set. Roger should’ve served it out.

      I think this sucks especially hard because he played the match on his terms, and still came up short. It wasn’t a case of passitivity; it was just…I don’t know. Too many mental lapses, maybe. Heartbreaking.

      He’s still the best ever, no matter what. Hard to argue with 16 slams anyway.

      • marcoiac says :

        he didn’t smell the blood. he should have done it at the beginning of the third set, raised his game and kill Nole’s hopes. also, on 1st MP, he served at 108 MPH. he should have dared more, he had two MPs, serve harder at least on the first MP, dude! oh well, too late now 🙂

        • anewor says :

          That was also in my mind, his ‘soft’ angled serve on the first match point which gave Novak the opportunity to hit that freaking forehand! Until now that shot is playing in my mind over and over again! But it is what it is and i reckon if it’s meant to be it will be and this time around it’s not meant to be. Thank you Matt, at least it ease the pain a bit.

    • moodyjude says :

      did you mean Nole is a better player than Fed?

      I could only listen to this match and I really want to watch Fed play, but it will be hard to watch for me, knowing the outcome.

      I did have to smile at the comments at RF forum where Fed has to lose brilliantly and creatively, I mean losing with two match points on his serve, only Fed.

      He is still the the most beautiful and awesome player for me to watch and I hope to frazzle and celebrate for many more years!!!!!

      • marcoiac says :

        yeah, i meant that at the moment Nole is a stronger player than Fed. of course Fed is the greatest of all time, but right now, in 2011 Fed’s clearly not the best. but still his game is the best looking game in professional tennis 🙂

    • Julie =) (@dootsiez) says :

      Personally, I think Roger underplayed a little.

  9. VanessaLovesTennis (@NessLovesTennis) says :

    Great job, Matt, as always. Tears are still welling. I think it is okay to love Roger and love tennis, but hate the pain. For the first time I find myself glad that the next major does not come through until January. Time to heal. I am actually glad that a prior commitment will take me away from the final tomorrow. I honestly do not think I could watch it. So for now, Vamos Rafa.

    P.S. I am so grateful for The Picket Fence and Twitter peeps. I now know I am not A) Crazy, B) Obsessed beyond reason, or C) Alone. Hugs to all.

  10. Deborah (shackle52) says :

    This is an incredible piece, well written and full of such insight and understanding. I always want Roger to win and if he announces tomorrow he is taking up professional marbles, I’d be right there to cheer on his elegant game. I am probably much older than most who post here so it may be a function of age that has allowed me to bounce back from being a total wreck when he wasn’t able to convert those match points. However, I prefer to think it was my gratitude for finding this amazing beautiful champion in the first place. Yes, it was the winning that brought Roger to my attention, but it was something else that made me a fan and you expressed those elements so well. It’s hard to accept in everyday life when beauty does not prevail and it’s hard to accept in tennis. Great stuff!

  11. Sue Whiteside says :

    Thanks Matt !! Great post and so very different from the usual haters and moronic media. !! No amount of analysis is going to change a thing and its so refreshing to see a totally different take on it!!
    *Sigh*…………………………………..I love this boy so much it hurts !! 😳
    ONWARD WOGIE!! Demolish the lot of them next year !! 😀

  12. Alex (@FedFanForever) says :

    No tears, just perplexed about that 40-15 return winner. It could have easily missed by an inch and we’d be discussing another Fedal slam final now.

  13. flo says :

    Rollercoaster Roger. Jekyll and Hyde. He really rogered that up as only Roger could. Can he record Let It Be already?

    There’s a parallel to Tiger Woods here (not to suggest he’s in the rut Tiger is in), Roger brought so much joy to fans of tennis over the years and nothing can diminish that. The people who delight in seeing Woods struggle and Federer fall apart are the vultures of sports fandom. It’s all about watching icons be torn down and finding amusement through that. But if Federer is mortal (as he’s proven) and revealing cracks in the nervy moments of big matches then that’s how we should appreciate him – as a mortal who reached such heights he had the world convinced that he was a demigod out on the court.

  14. tlkf says :

    thanks for this beautifull written piece! You re so right, sometimes we forget these things because of the pain to see him lose like this sometimes. Thanks for making me see it differently. No matter how long he ll keep on playing and even if he loses (and that hurts so much) he still is the most beautifull, elegant and lightfeeted tennisplayer i ve ever seen! I ll never get tired watching his matches.

    Thanks again. For you great blog


  15. Nerys Blanco says :

    As a player you can be stronger than if when you have Roger Federer lost the match, using dirty weapons.

  16. PSP says :

    Thank for writing this wonderful piece, Matt. Oh well, the pain still lingers no matter what because I do hear his biological tennis clock is ticking. Love you, Roger!

  17. Katarina_YYZ says :

    Thanks, Matt. This actually was helpful to me… the bit about aggressive this year vs passive, for one, and just trying to keep in perspective all that Roger has done this year. He’s really the only one to push Novak this year (and even beat him) so we know Fed’s still got it. As Roger said, he has no one but himself to blame; and as Dootsie said, it’s not OK, but… we have to move on. I will always be in Roger’s corner.

  18. Nancy says :

    I thought I was ready to read about this but I am not, even on this beloved website. I will try to read this next week, maybe I will be ready. Regardless, my comment to my friend after I watched Federer lose in person in Cincinnati “Even if he loses every match from now until he retires, my love and appreciation of his tennis remains the same”

    I came here to say congratulations to all the Aussies at Stosur’s fantastic win.

  19. Pratha says :

    Matt,I didn’t watch that whole match.I watched it till the end of the 4th set,then went to sleep cuz I knew I wouldn’t be able to control my tears if he lost.And I knew it’d hurt for days,like it did last year.When I started reading your post,I was glad I made that decision.But by the time I got to the end of it,I found myself thinking,had I known I’ll get to read something like this,I’d never have left after that 4th set.I’d have watched the 5th set,cried in the middle of the night,woken up in the morning totally heart-broken,come here,and left with a smile on my face and loving Roger all the more in my heart.The pain would still have lingered for a while,but I’d have been smiling.

    Thank you for this fabulous,heart-warming,100% Federized post,Mr.Woger Blogger 🙂

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