It’s Not Easy Being A Legend

Ah, it’s THAT TIME again — time to provide some Fed fan therapy after a major-tournament loss, and not only that, but an old-fashioned derriere-kicking on the terre battue of Roland Garros.

However, this was a loss not dished out by Rafael Nadal — that’s the plot twist here. It’s also the reason why it’s so instinctively easy to view this loss in the worst possible light.

It’s well worth reflecting on what this loss does and doesn’t mean, what it should and shouldn’t mean. Taking the measure of athletes and competitions is the fun (and challenge) of being a chronicler of sport, something I’ve done for a paycheck since the year 2000, albeit not for tennis. Moments such as this one test the ability of a sportswriter to accurately calibrate its magnitude, to properly assess it in a larger context. Naturally, when Roger Federer loses in straight sets in a major, and to someone not named Nadal or Djokovic, alarm bells will be raised.

Plenty of people will also lose perspective. It’s time to get it back.

An assessment of Federer’s loss must begin with the acknowledgment every clear-eyed Fed fan surely knows (but might not publicly admit to): When you’re a legend, you’re not held to the same standards as everyone else. More specifically, the athletes who build uncommonly special careers are — for that very reason — questioned and picked apart to a conspicuously severe extent when they don’t do the very thing they’ve done for so many years: live up to everyone’s hopes and expectations. If many of your adoring fans call you a God, the global press corps will be that much more eager to write the narrative of mortality in moments such as this one. If many of your fans call you a King, columnists and fans of rival players will relish the moment when a remarkable athlete becomes a commoner, removed from the lofty reaches of mighty competitive power. This is the counterintuitive truth about the greatest athletes who walk and live among us: The reality of their almost impossibly outrageous and consistent high-level success is precisely the thing that makes humbling losses appear to be such spectacular, almost unpardonable, disappointments. If you’re accorded such over-the-top praise as an athlete in your best moments, you know – and your fans know it as well – that you will get pounded and eviscerated in your worst moments.

What is tricky about this autumnal stage of Roger Federer’s glistening, glorious career is that after two and a half years without a major title, Gramps/Pants/Granny Smith/Woger/Wogie/McFudd reminded us all of his capabilities at Wimbledon in 2012. He reclaimed No. 1. He outlasted Juan Martin del Potro in an Olympic (and Olympian) epic. He was the second-best player on tour behind Djokovic.

He held back Father Time.

The trap produced by 2012 was and is obvious: It created the idea that Federer could continue to defy time at that level, with several months of high-quality tennis. From February through August of 2012 (excluding Miami, Rome and Roland Garros), Federer genuinely did show that in his early 30s, he would not quickly fade from the scene the way other tennis players do at that age.

This is the high wire on which Federer now walks: He IS still an enduring force in the men’s game, but the power and consistency of his forcefulness are not what they used to be. It’s very hard to sift through this thicket of tangled and nuanced truths. What today’s loss to Tsonga does — and this is how it might be supremely helpful — is to remind Federer’s fans (and tennis journalists, for that matter…) that 2012 cannot be seen as the standard by which the rest of Roger’s career should be judged. Yes, there’s a certain amount of pain associated with such a realization. Father Time always claims athletes, even if some of them — think of Jimmy Connors and Ken Rosewall — remain relevant at age 39. Federer, despite a transcendent career, isn’t exempt from this dynamic just before turning 32.

Here’s another trap that emerges with respect to Federer’s career: When in his prime, he backed up one peak year with another. What Roger did from 2004 through 2007, and especially in 2006 and 2007 as a two-year combination, represented the maximizing of his gifts and abilities. However, at age 31 and no longer the best player in the world (not even the second-best; if Andy Murray returns to his Australian Open-level form at Wimbledon, Fed would become the fourth-best player on the planet, still quite impressive for an old man in tennis terms…), the notion that Fed could back up his 2012 with an equally strong 2013 was always going to be remote.

The hope for this season was to keep making semifinal appearances at the majors and hopefully benefit from the off day Novak Djokovic suffered in the 2012 Wimbledon semis. Monthly excellence from one tournament to another was going to be hard to replicate after all the heavy lifting Fed did in 2012, a long season that included the Olympic grind as well. This loss to Tsonga — one of the few straight-set thumpings Fed has endured at the majors (only five such defeats since his loss to Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros in 2004) — points out that Federer simply won’t scale the mountain as often as he once did. Again, there’s pain associated with that realization for a Fed fan, but it’s nothing more than the laws of averages taking their toll on an athlete who has held back the forces of age better than most.

Here’s a final point to make about Federer’s career as it is seen by journalists after lopsided losses against a deserving and thoroughly superior opponent: There’s an underlying but unspoken aspect to the word “decline” which makes the term simultaneously accurate and vicious. Separating the accuracy of the “D-word” from its less pleasant connotations is perhaps the foremost thing that Federer’s fans and critics have to keep in mind on days such as this one.

The critics, you see, are right: Of course Federer is in decline. Of course Federer can’t summon up the ol’ magic with the frequency or reliability he once did. That’s been established and explained in the above paragraphs. Fed’s peak years concluded in the spring and early summer of 2010, when Robin Soderling snapped the streak of 23 straight major semifinals and Tomas Berdych snapped Fed’s run of seven straight Wimbledon finals. Nadal stood on the mountaintop in his titanic 2010 season, Djokovic floated above the clouds in his epic 2011 conquest of the ATP, and Fed’s career moved from the freshness of springtime into a kind of indian summer. He’s in autumn now, albeit a rich one; the colder autumn still awaits.

Decline? Yes. Unquestionably.

Let’s draw one very simple distinction, though: Federer’s decline is a slow and gentle one, not a dramatic and conspicuously abrupt fall from a skyscraper.

What were once major finals are now semifinals and quarterfinals. What once was a No. 1 or 2 world ranking is now No. 3 (it will be after Roland Garros, and Fed will almost surely be seeded third for Wimbledon). Mastery of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, which Federer used to claim, is a thing of the past. Tsonga’s weight of shot very nearly beat Federer this past January in Australia; Roger was able to dig out a first-set tiebreak win against the run of play.

Serving at 5-6 in the first set today, he had a chance to create another tiebreaker, but he didn’t get there. He wasn’t good enough, whereas Tsonga — in his physical prime — kept his wits about him and did what has not come easily in a career marked by underachievement but noticeable improvement. Today, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played the role of the steady and focused tennis player, while Roger Federer became erratic and error-prone. It was an example of role reversal that Federer fans weren’t expecting. It makes the loss hard to digest, but this is what begins to happen when you’re almost 32 years old and your opponent is only 28 years and six weeks old, with a few more years of high-level tennis left in the tank.

Yet, Federer fans, what lingers from this Roland Garros? The 36-quarterfinal streak at the majors lives. A 6-0 record exists in five-set matches at Roland Garros. At Federer’s weakest major tournament, he has 58 match wins, tied for the most of all time (though a fellow named Nadal will soon pass that mark, it’s still impressive that Fed managed to share first place for a few days; we should all be that accomplished at our “weakest” major tournament).

None of his fans want to think about the day when Federer loses a third-round match at a major tournament. Only then can we begin to confront the notion of a PRECIPITOUS decline as opposed to a slow and gentle one. Thankfully, we’re not there yet. A proud champion – one whose enduring consistency is nothing short of a marvel – continues to give us moments, such as the comeback against Gilles Simon, that remind us how much he cares about tennis and his place in the sport. 

The counterintuitive truth, though, about Federer’s career in this moment of defeat is that no matter how much an aging athlete might care in the heart of his very being, he’s going to find limits to the very consistency he once forged at an otherworldly level.

The consistency of 2007 was shown in major titles. The consistency of 2008 and 2009 was shown in major finals. In 2013, Roger Federer’s consistency has been reduced to quarterfinals and semifinals, to being an even match for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on an overall level and, on some days, an inferior to the Frenchman.

We should all suffer that kind of a decline at 31 years and nearly 10 months of age. It’s simply hard for many people — fans and critics, journalists and outsiders — to acknowledge the ever-increasing emergence of limits in the life and career of a man who spent so many years ignoring them with great success.

About Matt Zemek

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

6 responses to “It’s Not Easy Being A Legend”

  1. Kathleen Valentini says :

    What a great “lookback” and analysis on Roger’s loss today. Thank you for being so kind & considerate of the GOAT as he struggles at times to still be the invincible young man he once was. Father Time does that to everyone, even the Great Roger isn’t immune to it. Being near 32 wouldn’t be as tough if the game were more like it was even 5 years ago. Tennis has become a sport too physical for most mere mortals. The extreme heavy hitting and physicality now required to keep pace with the likes of Rafa and Nole is ridiculous especially when it’s at the cost of losing the game of grace, style and beautiful shot making. Sad indeed to lose what Federer brought to tennis and to now have to watch the “Grinders” take over 5 hours to complete a GS match. What other sport requires this type of endurance? Who thinks the real tennis fans want to watch a slug fest just to see who makes the 1st mistake to end the point for 5 hours? Sad indeed. Hopefully others who want to emulate Federer’s type of tennis will win out eventually. (Think Demitrov here) Yes, we will be happy for Roger to stay with us as long as possible and hopefully fans, columnists and press corps will be respectful to him and happy that he is still the best Ambassador that tennis has ever had. Great read, Matt.

  2. Sakhi says :

    Terrific analysis and rousing for this Fed fan. I think what’s painful is that even when he was making errors in the Tsonga match, he was also playing the occasional breathtaking tennis. I agree that this will not be a Pete Sampras like tumble but the question is that if Fed fails to make the WTF this year (and that seems likely if this form continues), will he want to continue to play? I am hoping that we will see changes in Fed’s game, and my sense that quicker surfaces will favour his game. I am just happy to keep watching him play, though it continues to be hard to see him lose. The challenge is that Fed never was good at coming from behind (in matches) and now he has to take Father Time by the cojones and show us something magical! I have a feeling there is a lot left to see on that front. Ta.

  3. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    I thought I had left a reply but it seems to have disappeared. This was a terrific analysis and provides important context as we live this stage of Roger’s career. I don’t think I’m alone in hoping Roger continues to find joy in the game enough to continue playing. Of course it is appropriate for the tennis press to commentate on the “decline” of Roger Federer. I just wish they could find a way to discuss it without the other “D” word: diminish. Many in the the tennis press seem to think in order to make the contrast between a 31 yr old playing beyond his prime with his opponents, mostly playing in their primes without undermining or diminishing all Roger has accomplished. We are treated to discussions by John McEnroe about Nadal and Djokovic as the GOAT without them coming close to Roger’s accomplishments.So glad to have writers like Matt with a perspective on what Roger has accomplished.

    • Nan says :

      Indeed Deborah, it is galling to have to listen to Johnny Mac (who should know better) blather on about Nadal and Djokovic as GOAT. They have the potential but won’t be in a position to contend for it for several years. It is disappointing to witness JMac pander to television and those less aware of the history of tennis that way.

  4. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    One more thing, I guess I am incapable of being clear-eyed because while I understand his stratospheric accomplishments mean he will be held to a higher standard, I cannot understand why those who are being touted as closing in on his “goat status” are not held to as high a standard.

  5. Sylwia Jazwinska says :

    Thanks for always keeping things in perspective and making me feel better about each and every loss.

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