The Falsity Of Forever

Great athletes collect their share of “forevers,” the moments and achievements no one can take away from them. This championship seven years ago, that comeback four years ago, this resurgence one year ago, that classic match five years ago — no one can alter certain passages of history once they’re written into the great book of life.

Yet, life goes on — past glories, as rich as they might have been at the time and as comforting as they might still be in quiet moments between competitions, give way to the present day and its new challenges. Even though thousands of obstacles have been surmounted in the past, there’s a new hurdle to be cleared today. The cheers of the crowd echo through the pages of time, but they can’t drown out the groans of lamentation that define the present-tense reality of sport for a fading champion.

This is the falsity of forever, and it’s precisely what Roger Federer is confronting as he prepares for the 2013 United States Open tennis tournament in New York. You can be a great Broadway performer for many decades, but in tennis, you get one decade of opportunity if you’re lucky. Many a Broadway play has been written about the harsh mistress known as Reality, and right now, Federer knows that his decade of tennis primacy has run its course in many ways.

It’s been something to behold, and it will forever be remembered with boundless admiration by tennis fans and chroniclers alike, but a decade of supremacy eventually loses its hold on “forever,” because time is the enemy of the athlete.

For a full decade, Federer inhabited the top 5 of the ATP rankings. For nine full years, he made the quarterfinals of majors without cessation or interruption. Those two realities alone do so much to underscore the extent to which Federer has held up under pressure over an extended period of time. For so many years, he’s been the target, the standard by which his contemporaries have measured themselves. In 2006, Rafael Nadal’s sustained dominance at Roland Garros, coupled with his emergence at Wimbledon, unmistakably showed that the Spaniard had joined Federer as a transformative figure who was going to be a measuring-stick player for everyone else on tour.

The point remains plain: Federer hasn’t simply been a man his competitors have needed to beat on a given day; he’s been a man who — like Nadal and now Novak Djokovic as well — has required the rest of the ATP Tour to substantially improve itself. It is so difficult to remember what the ATP Tour was like in January of 2003, when Rainer Schuttler reached a major final and every major tournament was up for grabs, with no player exhibiting sustained, year-long command of the sport. (Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt came the closest.) Djokovic unfurled one of the great tennis years of all time in 2011, and Nadal is wowing the masses as we speak in 2013, but it was Federer who — after a slow ascent in 2003 — began to change everything in 2004. Comprehending an ATP Tour without Federer as a central figure is something that just doesn’t come naturally.

The falsity of forever, though, reminds us that this reality was going to emerge at some point. This is the harsh law of that unforgiving paternal presence we call Father Time.

Fans and journalists can perhaps quibble on the margins about the 2013 Roland Garros tournament or Wimbledon as well, but the following claim is — at the very least — a reasonable one: This U.S. Open might be the first major tournament since the 2004 Roland Garros event in which Roger Federer is not expected to make the semifinals. Think about that. For nearly a full decade, one man has been regularly expected to find his way to the last four in a major tennis tournament. Arriving at that moment when expectations are downgraded is something that the athlete in the arena never wants to contemplate. Fans of that athlete are just as reluctant to do the same. Cognitively, it’s anything but easy for the brain — so wired to process one kind of world — to suddenly shift its thinking.

Yet, it’s where we are. It’s where Federer is. Memories generally keep their forevers. Present-tense performance doesn’t. It gives one pause. How, then, does one process this tension between the past and the present for Federer on the eve of the U.S. Open?

The human body is a mysterious organism. When Rafael Nadal was uspet by Lukas Rosol a year ago at Wimbledon, he didn’t come back to the tour for several months, and he lost to Horacio Zeballos on clay when he returned to action. This year, Nadal lost to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon… and responded by winning the Canada-Cincinnati hardcourt double before Federer or Djokovic.

Federer is no stranger to the body’s mysterious ways. When he went to the locker room to have his back examined in the first set of his Wimbledon fourth-round match against Xavier Malisse in 2012, it seemed that his tournament — like his quarterfinal streak of 32 straight majors — was about to end. Following that medical timeout, Federer hit groundstrokes with the soft pace of Bernard Tomic and looked like an alien creature on the court. Somehow, he dug out that first set and, eventually, the match. Somehow, the back improved as the second week of Wimbledon unfolded. Somehow, Federer marched to his seventh Wimbledon and his 17th major, forging one of the three or four feats that will eclipse all others when his full story is written.

This summer, the mysteries of the body have remained in evidence for Federer. When you decide to take the court, you’re fit to play — this is the time-honored and quite appropriate Australian ethos of tennis competition. Yet, it’s not an excuse (merely a matter-of-fact reason) to point out that Federer’s body was balky in a Hamburg (ATP 500) semifinal against Federico Delbonis, and one week later in a Gstaad (250) second-rounder against Daniel Brands. His body — which he has luckily been able to shield from significant or prolonged injury over the past 15 years — became the enemy of Federer and his tennis game.

Yet, a few weeks later, there was Federer, turning back the clock for the better part of two sets against Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati before his great rival took full control in the third. If there were doubts that Federer could still summon some special stuff, they were erased in that match against Nadal, a match that reminded tennis fans precisely how Federer and Nadal had transformed the sport (and fans’ expectations of it) for more than half a decade.

This was talked about after Federer’s loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros, and it’s worth reiterating in light of more recent developments: The larger reality of Federer’s situation is not defined by an inability to produce quality; it’s defined by a decreasing inability to SUSTAIN that quality for extended stretches, long enough to win a best-of-five-set match against a player such as Nadal, Djokovic, or an ascendant Andy Murray. When a great athlete loses his (or her) hold on “forever,” what’s really being talked about is that athlete’s loss of the top-tier consistency that enabled him (or her) to conquer a sport in the first place.

Questioning Federer’s consistency right now is appropriate, natural and sensible. Questioning his ability to produce quality is… well… rather insane.

Oh, it’s understandable, though: When a transformative figure reshapes reality for a full decade, it’s obvious that pundits want to be the first to say, “AHA! I am the one who FIRST predicted his steep decline before everyone else!” Detractors want to be able to behold, with relish, the moment when a loathed rival ceases to be great. It’s natural for people with different motivations to want to be first on the “Federer has irreversibly lost it” train. We get it.

Analytically, though, we’re in a very unsettled and uncluttered place, one that’s just not very predictable in a short-term context.

In 2011, Federer didn’t win a major and had his guts ripped out by “The Shot” from Mr. Djokovic at the U.S. Open. In the next 11 months, Federer was — for a majority of the time — the best tennis player on the planet, providing a flourish of excellence that a lot of commentators had not expected from him again. In 2013, Federer has fallen into the dumpster. Does this mean 2014 is irretrievably lost? You’d be lying if you claimed to know with absolute certainty how Federer’s 2014 will unfold at this point. As Professor Nadal is prone to say, “We gonna see, no?”

I’m a Federer fan who loves and respects Rafael Nadal. I know that many other Fed fans don’t feel the same way. So it goes. Yet, no matter what you might think about the Mallorcan, the way his career has ping-ponged from peak (2008) to valley (2009) to peak (2010) to valley (summer of 2012) to peak (right now) again is instructive. Nadal’s changing fortunes, especially in light of his two shock losses at Wimbledon in recent years, remind all tennis fans to avoid falling into the trap known as the “One-Match Overreaction.”

Sure, certain matches in the course of tennis history wind up being much more important than others. However, the “One-Match Overreaction” specifically relates to the long-term future of a player — how he’ll perform, how he’ll compete, how he’ll solve (or fail to solve) problems. Single matches are rarely if ever good for making particularly broad and sweeping statements, yet this sadly doesn’t stop people from making such comments. You and I, as Fed fans, saw and felt the hysteria and end-of-the-world panic that flowed through Twitter after the Stakhovsky, Delbonis and Brands losses. Those One-Match Overreactions looked pretty foolish after one of the better Fedal matches in Cincinnati on Aug. 16.

Federer was not going to make major quarterfinals without interruption until the end of his career… not unless he had chosen to retire and pull his own version of a “Marion Bartoli” after Roland Garros this year. That streak was going to end sometime. That’s just life. Yet, when that 36-major streak of quarterfinals came to an end, it was as though Federer’s career had come to an end for many. Such is the dangerous, irresponsible excess of the One-Match Overreaction.

Yet, that excess brings us back to the point that knits together this reflection: Forevers might last in the past, but they don’t persist in the present. The Federer that danced above the ATP Tour from 2004 through the 2010 Australian Open will never fully return. The Federer whose presence in the final four of a major was never seriously questioned for nearly 10 full years has also been relegated to the history books.

Yet, do those realities mean Federer can’t play tennis? That he can’t delight fans? That he can’t pull a Wimbledon 2012 run out of the hat? That he can’t beat Nadal in the U.S. Open quarterfinals (if he gets there, of course)?

Words matter, because words have meanings. Sometimes, it’s the complicated words that demand distinction, but in other cases, the simplest words are the ones that get overlooked. The operative words right now for Roger Federer, his fans, and his critics are “can” and “will.”

If you think Federer WILL not again register certain formidable achievements in his career, you’re being a reasonable person.

If you think Federer CAN no longer achieve richly in tennis, you’re being both a fool and a pretty ignorant student of recent tennis history.

Rafael Nadal Parera would not disagree.


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About Matt Zemek

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

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