When the dread, the shock, the upset and the tributes all subside, gratitude remains the enduring feeling.
I came to Federer “late”. Or so I thought in 2007, when he was en route to his 10th slam at the Australian Open. The man was in his late 20s, number 1 in the world. There were suggestions that he was going to break Sampras’ record of 14 grand slams. There were whispers that he was looking vulnerable because – shock horror – he lost to Roddick at Kooyong. That was the landscape when I turned on my TV one fateful night to watch the men’s semifinal in 2007 between Federer and Roddick.
I was indifferent to both. If anything, I didn’t mind the idea of a Roddick upset, a fitting ending where Roddick finally gets one against an old foe. But what subsequently transpired in the match made me forget that notion altogether. I don’t remember how I watched or reacted during the match. What I remember was the surreal fog that descended. In a dream like state, I finally understood why Federer inspired both awe and adoration. To this day, I remember stroke for stroke the entirety of the second set, in which Federer obliterated a red hot foe with a bagel, and did it like he was merrily skipping through a field of tulips.
That was my “Come to Federer Moment”. What is yours?
My concern that I came to Federer “late” turned out to be laughably misconceived. We would have another 15 years with this guy. 15 years in which we flew close to the sun, we slayed monstrous expectations, we lost hair, nails, life expectancy as he broke records or fell achingly close. 15 years in which Federer morphed from a slightly reserved Swiss maestro to a giggling, dorky veteran of the tour, a father of four beloved by fans all over the world. I didn’t know then in 2007 that he was only just getting started.
No doubt there will be a lot published about his career and his legacy as this chapter of sporting history draws to a close. But today, when the feelings are raw and I’m feeling just a bit rattled, I want to take a moment to bask in the gratitude of what following Federer’s career has given me personally.
I am grateful that we got to witness beautiful tennis. Let me repeat, beautiful tennis. The kind of aesthetic that soars and uplifts, that elicits sighs of wonder from the crowd because oh, to move like that.
I am grateful that he taught me how hard it is to make it look easy. The ease with which his racquet manoeuvred the ball. The ease with which he travelled, respected each tournament crowd he played before, greeted each generation of new players with a mix of mentorship and defiance. Following his career made me witness in real time how that it was to make it look so easy. Easy takes effort, discipline and character. I could only hope to emulate a fraction of that.
I am grateful that through his career, I understood the value of grit. The later years of Federer’s career were the most dear to me because after all of the success, all of the glory, he did not ride off into the sunset. Nor did he rage against the dying of the light. Instead, he did the most Federer thing he could have done. He turned up, and he competed for the joy of it, for the love of it, for the white hot momentary heat of competition. As he aged, he conceded less and less, but competed more and more. As his body betrayed him in his later years, his grit came in the form of a refusal to retire, both from any match and from his career. It’s ludicrous now to think that the first time the media started talking about Federer retiring was in 2008. Retirement in your late 20s or early 30s was the standard then. Federer leaves the sport with a new standard for longevity and a high benchmark for grit. His first and only retirement was a graceful bow out of this sport.
I am grateful that through Federer I found a love of writing. In a perfect Hollywood ending, I would sit here and write that he gave me an enduring passion for the sport of tennis, that I will remain a diehard fan of this sport, which is so much bigger than him. But this is not a Hollywood ending. I still like tennis. It is by far my favourite sport. But in my world, the sport isn’t bigger than Federer, even though objectively I understand it to be. My life (and specifically my career) has also taken me to different passions, and the intense emotions I once felt in tennis matches have faded to a polite applause. The real lasting impact of Federer on my life has been this love of writing, a reason to tap away on a keyboard because of some inexplicable compulsion that cannot be quelled. Over the years, there have been times when I felt embarrassed by the passions of my youth, the secret language of internet communities littered through this blog. I’ve thought often about taking it offline, but always came to dismiss the idea. I stand by those crazy days of fandom, the secret language and in-jokes of this corner of the internet. This blog stands as a time capsule of my youth, and a reminder that sometimes when you put something out into the world, as I have done on this blog, you find an echo in others.
Finally, I am grateful for the friendships. The most surprising part of this crazy kooky ride was that I made friends. Not superficial, small talk, fair-weather friends. But meaningful, respectful, at times vulnerable friendships. The kind of friendship that calls you on a dark day, that you can depend upon in a pandemic. Together, we have met in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, in London, New York and Paris. We have laughed, cried, swore and screamed. It seems crazy to me that so many of our lives intersected across the world because we all had a moment of inspiration delivered by Federer, a moment so profound that it rendered each of us forever engrossed. It seems even crazier that we happened to live during times when – with the help of technology and social media – we can turn this brief intersection of our lives into a long walk, side-by-side down the path of life, filled with coffee, wine, laughter and tears.
To Federer, and to you, I am forever grateful.
This is your therapy, Federer fans.
There’s a special kind of disappointment that comes from watching Federer lose to Djoko – the kind of disappointment when you realise the world isn’t full of rainbows and kittens, that taking chances, being adventurous, and living closer to the edge doesn’t always end in glorious redemption. For those of us who want to be inspired by someone who plays tennis with courage not passivity, the disappointment of a Federer defeat to Djokovic is a sour, bitter pill to swallow. We’ve had occasion to swallow this pill a few times in recent years.
Still, this defeat stings less. It stings less because Federer was physically ailing. From the start of the tournament, his serve has been average (although he seemed to have found some rhythm on it since the last set of the Sandgren match). The forehand has been a bigger problem – not a Gille-Simon-induced-Shankville kind of problem. At the Aus Open this year, it is the movement to the forehand that is the problem – it has been less dynamic, hampered at times. The forehands on the run have had less penetration through the court. From what Federer has been willing to disclose, it doesn’t appear to be something that requires significant recovery. A semifinal run in the circumstances, with no warm up and physical ailments, is a decent result.
Since I’ve never pretended that this blog is anything other than my own therapy for being too emotionally invested in a totally chill Swiss guy, here is my offer of therapy to you, Federer fans.
At the age of 38, Roger Federer is still capable of creating legends and inspiring stadiums full of people even when he doesn’t win. I’ll always remember the Australian Open 2020 by the fifth set tiebreak of the Millman match, and his off-the-cuff emotional revelation of ‘the demons, they’re always there‘. I’ll remember the 7 match points he survived against Sandgren, which I watched from a scoreboard on public transport, as the rest of the tram groaned around me, captivated by the same scores as I was, touched by the simple idea that you respect your opponent and yourself by making him earn the win, and sometimes, he doesn’t.
And the semifinal against Novak? I’ll remember the relentless ‘fake news’ of Federer withdrawing before the match, and Roger racing out of the gates to an early lead just to shut the doubters up. No, he didn’t win the first set, and there were some serious demons resurfacing in that appalling first set tiebreak. But having watched Federer slay the demon when it comes to Nadal, I’m going to have a little faith that he’ll slay this teeth-baring, shirt ripping demon too.
And Federer fans – don’t stress about the slam count. If you think that there will be no case for Federer as GOAT even if he doesn’t hold onto the slam record, you think too little of the man.
The weeks at No 1, the longevity and consistency of his career, the 1500+ matches played with no retirements, the grace and respect with which he has travelled on tour and engaged with other cultures, the way he has raised the level on the ATP tour beyond what we thought was possible, the way he brought the world to tennis as a sport – all these things paint a picture of a giant among giants. Someone had to be the shoulders on which Rafa, Novak, and the Next Gen stood. Federer has been and will always be that person.
Afterthoughts (a.k.a therapy)
You’re here because he lost. In the most frustrating manner possible. After two amazing years, Federer leaves Melbourne in 2019 on the wrong Sunday. And here I am, tapping away as a therapeutic exercise. May you also find comfort, or at least food for thought, in these words.
It was the kind of match where he couldn’t convert breakpoints on second serves, couldn’t find the court on his passing shots, couldn’t find his forehand when it mattered, couldn’t win ugly, even when there were moments of the kind of beauty we’ve grown accustomed to seeing – no demanding – from him.
Tsitsipas is a huge young talent with the combination of explosiveness and shotmaking that might just keep me interested in tennis when Federer finally decides to call it quits. I can live with Tsitsipas winning. What I am disappointed about is the utterly dissatisfying way Federer lost.
I woke up this morning thinking about two matches, both of which made me nervous about what was to come. The first match was the Sampras/Federer 4th round match at Wimbledon 2001. The parallels between that match and this one have been well discussed, but it was enough to make me nervous. Was Tsitsipas really going to be the Federer to Federer’s Sampras? I comforted myself with the knowledge that despite the comparisons, Federer has far surpassed Sampras as a player, as a statesman of the game, and generally as an athlete who has handled ageing with the kind of ease, ambition and dignity rarely seen in sport. In the immediate aftermath of his loss, I still believe this to be true.
The second match I thought about today was the Federer/Soderling quarterfinal at Roland Garros 2010, not that it was a parallel with this match today. Soderling was no newcomer, and Federer had won the opening set convincingly in that quarterfinal, before being clobbered off the court in the next 3 sets. It was the match that snapped his consecutive semifinals streak. Remembering this match today, I almost laughed at how dejected and heartbroken I felt at the time. I stopped writing, tweeting, and generally thinking about tennis for weeks. And now, almost 9 years later, few people remember or talk about that loss.
So perhaps in remembering these two matches when I woke up this morning, my subconscious mind had suspected that Federer might lose today, and then given me the tools to cope with the loss.
So here is what I have learned in the last 9 years about handling losses, even if they were losses you vicariously lived through.
- Early round losses are disappointing, but they rarely hurt the way the 2009 Australian Open hurts, or the 2011 US Open, or all of those losses where the end was tantalisingly close, when we arrived at match point only to have it wiped out in a flash. Compared to those losses, this was nothing.
- Early round losses also don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, really. Millman? Robredo? Seppi? All tiny footnotes in the career of a giant.
- If you have enjoyed faves win all these years, you owe it to them to watch through their losses too. For me, that has always been the deal.
- Guess what? The guard has never stopped changing. Media narratives are so lazy. Whenever a young player beats Federer, it is immediately branded a “changing of the guard” without much thought or analysis. But the guard has never stopped changing, and Federer has never stopped fighting back and reinforcing his position. I recall a certain Serbian family declaring “the king is dead” more than a decade ago. But the old king is still here, defiantly playing on and ignoring those who are too quick to tell him ‘it’s a changing of the guard’. Ignore the noise, and focus on the man whose love for tennis has kept him at the top of the game for almost two decades.
Who’s actually excited about clay for once?
Life lessons learned from a late career Federer
It’s a lovely problem to have (and one that I didn’t think I would ever have again) to be wondering what to write about after yet another Federer slam victory. To analyse the match itself would be to miss the bigger narrative here of records and Federer’s place in sporting history. To focus on history risks repeating everything that has already been said and will continue to be said about him – that Federer is GOAT. Duh.
I’ve been wondering lately about the impact that Federer has had on my life and it occurred to me that this late career version of Federer, this dad-joking, dorky legend in all our lunchboxes, has been a profound inspiration to me for the way that I approach my life and career, even more than the peak Federer of 06-07. So rather than focus on the title last night, here are some life lessons I have learned from late career Federer, gathered from my thoughts on 2017-2018.
- ‘Who cares, it’s just tennis!’
Not the reply that you expected from Roger Federer, but when asked by Courier after his semifinal win about whether he had a trophy room for all of his titles, Federer gave this unexpected response. He went on to say that he does enjoy going through some of them with friends at times, mentioning – among other things – his Olympic gold medal, not one of his more prominent career achievements, as something cool that he could share with them.
Watching this late career Federer, I couldn’t help but be struck by his ability to keep his success in perspective. This is in stark contrast to Bernard Tomic’s ‘I just count my millions’ comment when he crashed out of qualifying for the Australian Open. One player has done so much, yet prefers not to be reminded of his trophies in every room of the house, and enjoys sharing his successes with those dear to him. The other tries to seek comfort in money while failing to keep his demons at bay. Just a reminder that perspective, the ability to recognise that your life is larger than your profession, is a key measure of success.
- Love and cherish your community, and they will help you soar.
Last night, when Federer faced break points early in the fifth set, the entire Rod Laver Arena burst spontaneously into a chorus of “let’s go Roger, let’s go!” The crowd, who had been excited about the prospect of a fifth set late in the fourth, reverted overwhelmingly to cheering for Federer as soon as the fifth set began. It was clear that almost everyone bought tickets to see a Federer 20th.
Later that night, when the match has been won and Federer was presented with the trophy, he began his victory speech unexpectedly by paying respect to Australia – the cities he’s visited, the tournaments he has played here. His family loved Perth. He had loved his experience at the Sydney Olympics. And Melbourne has been worth the trip each time. It’s not hard to see why the crowd here has always supported him, despite a very Australian tendency to cheer for the underdog. And when Federer choked back emotions and could talk no more, Rod Laver Arena, and no doubt the rest of Australia, let their cheers do the talking for him. Have you ever heard anything like it?
- Big boys do cry.
While we are on the topic of tears, in a world of toxic masculinity and petulance, Federer has never shied away from expressing vulnerability. It is the thing that makes him endearing and authentic, despite living what appears to be a privileged and charmed life. Federer has shown that it is okay to cry on a big stage, that losses should hurt and wins should move you, and that the ability to let your emotions out can sometimes be a sign of a life lived with passion.
- All on board the gravy train.
‘It must be nice for Federer, now that everything’s gravy,’ said one of my co-workers as we both stole some time to watch tennis from the work kitchen. Indeed, one of the best things about late career Federer is that he has broken all records, and anything else he wins from here is just a numbers game. It presents a unique challenge for a player like Cilic, still with things that he wants to prove. How do you play someone with a mindset like Federer, who – in a completely different way – has ‘nothing to lose’?
At this Australian Open, Federer was the giddiest and most relaxed I have ever seen him at a slam, laughing with Courier post-match, turning on and off that ‘smouldering intensity’, giving insightful press conferences and actually enjoying the ancillary parts of a professional athlete’s life like media and PR. When asked on Margaret Court Arena last night about how he could keep going after 20 slams, Federer said:
‘Who cares about that part? It’s about winning and having a great time, seeing you guys now and celebrating all together. It’s so much fun.’
And isn’t it just? This connection between tennis audiences around the world and late career Federer stems not only from his successes, but from his apparent joy and delight in travelling the world and playing tennis. Federer is not only playing well at this stage of his career, he is actually having fun, savouring every moment and creating memories with his family, his team and his fans. And for me personally, working in a profession where some of the most successful people are also some of the most miserable, I am gratified that I have a role model who exemplifies the importance of enjoying your successes, of leaning into each moment that life brings you, expecting magic.
All on board the gravy train I say. Choo choo!
- The secrets of longevity
One overwhelming narrative of late career Federer is his longevity, and much of it has been attributed to his efficient playing style, which has kept him out of injury for much of his career. But there is much more to longevity than technical talent and efficiency. The mindset aspect of Federer’s longevity has been less discussed. I have already mentioned his passion for tennis and his enjoyment of life as a professional athlete, a given for anyone hoping to go the distance in their career. When asked about how he keeps his ambitions strong at this age and level of achievement last night, Federer gave a lot of credit to the people around him –
‘I think by not overplaying, not playing every tournament possible. I enjoy practice. Not minding the travel. Having a great team around me, they make it possible. At the end it’s seeing that my parents are incredibly proud and happy that I’m still doing it. They enjoy coming to tournaments. That makes me happy and play better.
Then, of course, my wife who makes it all possible. Without her support, I wouldn’t be playing tennis no more since many years. But we had a very open conversation, if she was happy to do this or not, years ago. I’m happy that she’s super supportive, and she’s willing to take on a massive workload with the kiddies. Same for me, because I wouldn’t want to be away from my kids for more than two weeks. This life wouldn’t work if she said no.
Many puzzles need to fit together for me to be able to sit here tonight.’
It’s again a wonderful perspective from someone who understands that success is about many moving pieces fitting together, and he is just one of those pieces, albeit a significant one. The secrets to Federer’s longevity, or anyone’s longevity in a particular profession for that matter, is about not overworking, having the right support system, your own personal Mirka, Seve and Ljubi. Or Papa Fed, that person who’s not afraid to tell you that you look like an idiot playing bongo drums.
As I embark on a personal career pivot of sorts this year, these are the things that I think about when I think about Federer. We can’t all win 20 grand slams, but each of us can approach life with passion, perseverance, and delight, drawing on the support of friends and family, and giving back to the community that gave us so much. These are the life lessons I have learned from late career Federer.
Happy 20th, Federbitches.
A few years ago, while having dinner with a group of Federer fans, we came to the topic (as we do always) of Nadal.
“I still think Federer has a best-of-5 set win over Nadal in him,” I declared to the table, and was promptly mocked back to Basel.
“Nadal’s too in his head!” everyone said.
“It’s a bad match up for Roger!”
“Nah, it’s over.”
But somehow, I believed. Partly because I’m naturally inclined to optimistic delusions, and partly because – Federer being the kitschy fairytale that he is – this was precisely the kind of plot line that Federer’s career needed. The ageing veteran conquering his achilles heel. Beating the one rival who always eluded him. Redemption in the most emphatic of ways.
As his compatriot would quote:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
This time, he failed better.
And make no mistake, he failed plenty in the final – going down a double break in the second set after playing first strike tennis most of the first set, losing momentum in the fourth after breadsticking Rafa just the previous set, taking a medical time out only to come out cold in the fifth and going down an early break.
But I kept thinking back to one of his more insightful moments in the semifinal post-match interview, when Federer acknowledged that his early losses against Rafa on clay affected the way he played him on other surfaces.
This level of insight was something that – just a few years back – he would get defensive about. Confronting and admitting the mental aspect of his struggles against Nadal appears to have been liberating, and this time, despite failing throughout the match to maintain momentum, Federer kept on asking the question, and found the answer to #18.
What else is left to say? 6 months off. Ranked #17. Coming into the tournament as the underdog no one talked about. Beats 4 top 10 players en route to the title. Defeats his greatest rival in 5 sets after being down a break in the fifth. And with this win, he has gone semifinals or better in his last FIVE grand slams. We could not have scripted this any better.
Happy 18th Roger. You just came of a whole new age.
(You didn’t think I wouldn’t resurface for THIS did ya?)
Picket Fence sighting: yus I’m still around.
Okay, okay, I know. It’s been a while. If this was in real life, my picket fenced patch would be overgrown from neglect and infested with deadly Australian snakes. But it’s no coincidence that this blog went into its dormancy at the same time as the start of my career. A great time in the life of Doots, but some silent years for my little patch of cyberspace.
I was going to leave it like this, unloved and haunted by words from the past until “that post” when Federer retires. But strangely enough I was somewhat inspired today. Inspired in a way that I hadn’t been for a long time, and by a Federer loss no less.
It’s a strange phenomenon when you’re a Maestro fan who hopped on the Mothership during his years of triumph: learning to deal with mortality becomes the greatest lesson he’ll ever teach you.
So here goes five thoughts that couldn’t be contained by the 140 character limit on Twitter:
- The scoreline wasn’t close. And the first two sets certainly weren’t close. Federer is not the only player capable of “God-mode”. For two sets, Djokovic was in free swinging full flight – his groundstrokes met the lines from whatever position he was in, his passes always seemed to land in, even his defensive lobs seemed to come back in awkward positions for Federer. For a second, I (and many others) felt like this was going to be a repeat of the 2007 Australian Open semifinal, except this time, Federer was the one getting Roddicked. The commentators cried “poor poor Roger”, as if a losing fight against age and mortality, and attempting to beat a younger opponent at the pinnacle of his career was somehow making Roger less dignified. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe in pitying anyone, least of all Roger Federer, who’s losing a fair fight on court.
- But it felt close in the end, didn’t it? Unlike Nadal at the French Open final in 2008, Djokovic snapped out of “God-mode” in the third set, and returend to being a mere mortal – albeit a formidable one still. But you could feel the tide turn when the crowd inside Rod Laver Arena chanted “Roger! Roger! Roger!” You could hear the deafening sound of hope when they cheered a Djokovic double fault in the third set just before Federer broke, only to shush themselves in embarrassment. And when Federer held off a tight service game to take the third set, it felt exhilarating. It felt – as tennis should – like anything could happen if you just keep at it. And suddenly, all of your reasons for sticking with “the Old Man” seemed to justify themselves in the roar of that crowd.
- Sport can be so cruel, and nets can be Serbian. It felt so wrong after Federer played the point of the tournament that the let cord should conspire against him. But credit to the player who had put himself in a 2 sets to 1 position in the first place.
- Was the third set fight back futile? Was it a mere salvaging of dignity when the end result was certain? Roger Federer could have walked off court today in a 3 set defeat, with the dominant narrative would have been that he has a new rival in his head; that he was past his prime and getting beaten by the young’uns. Instead, he walked away still defeated, but knowing that he was in it til the very end, that anything could’ve happened, and Djokovic didn’t get to Roddick him a la Australian Open 2007. It might matter very little in the ultimate result, but it could matter a great deal in a future match ups to know that he took God-mode Novak to 4 sets.
- Bring on that H2H. Federer will end his career with a losing record against many of his younger “rivals”, and that’s fine. Because he was truly peerless in his own generation.
There’ll be no return to “normal programming”, but I hope to pop up now and then when the occasion inspires.
Ride or die bitchessss.
Aus Open 2014: Fail better.
It’s a somewhat awkwardly phrased, yet oddly poignant line from Irish poet Samuel Beckett:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When I first saw the tattoo on the inside of the Stanimal’s forearm, I found it corny. Melanie-Oudin-BELIEVE levels of corny.
I don’t know … Real belief, true grit, these aren’t things you need to wear on your foot or etch into your flesh. You either have it or you don’t.
But as the week progressed and I gradually forgot about my cynicism, this line came back to me, again and again. It had me puzzled. It had me thinking:
Isn’t tennis all about winning? Certainly, there is nothing in this sport or in any other that regards failure as something to be repeated. How exactly does one “fail better”? And why is this a sentiment worthy of being articulated, appreciated and inscribed onto human flesh? Read More…
Aus Open 2014: Shine on.
Don’t you miss that feeling when Roger Federer comes out of the players’ tunnel and quickly shimmy-shimmies his way around court like he was made of SHINE?
It’s been so long since Federer’s played a match this clean against a top quality opponent. So long since he’s made it to the quarterfinals (okay, two slams. But that’s so long for Mr Shiny). So long since we’ve heard the clichéd use of terms like “vintage Federer”, “full flight” and “majestic” by commentators lacking in vocabulary. Read More…
Australian Open 2014: Frazzle Post
I start with the men’s draw on the premise that we are headed for a Rafole final in Melbourne in two weeks unless someone stops them. But who might actually be capable of tripping the current Big Two?
Murray? Even the most die-hard fans of British tennis would have to concede that Toothface is nowhere near match-fit and ready to win the Aus Open.
Del Poopy? Surely, he is long overdue for a slam win over Rafa.
Wawrinka? There may be some level of cosmic balance overdue to My Friend Stanley after his five set loss to Djoko in Melbourne last year, but given Stanley’s draw, I doubt it.
Here’s a closer look at the men’s draw.
Tales from Brisbane
Happy new year bitches. Long time no blog.
As some of you might be aware, I kicked off 2014 by heading to Brisbane to bask in the sweaty glow of Turderer, and the final loss aside, it was a glorious week. One that had me itching to log onto wordpress and start tapping away again. And ain’t that one of the most liberating feelings in the world.
1. Sensational sports headlines went up all over Australia today: Ashes Whitewash! Hewitt beats baffled Federer! Let’s party like it’s a new millenium!
Theoretically speaking, there is of course no shame in losing to Lleyton. Even as a tour veteran with a bionic foot, Hewitt remains a smart, strategic and persistent player, and more crucially yesterday – not one to falter on key points. In his three set victory over McFudd, Lleyton played some of the most inspired tennis we’ve seen from him in years, and his victory speech showed just how much a title in Australia meant to him at this stage in his career, a poignant moment for fans on both sides of the fence.
Your thoughts …