What It Means To Be Roger Federer, By Akin Adesokan

Akin Adesokan

With his second-round loss to an unknown Ukrainian player in this year’s Wimbledon, tennis great Roger Federer has missed reaching the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time since the 2004 French Open. Federer fell to Sergiy Stakhovsky 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 6-7 on Wednesday June 26, at the famed tennis Championship which he has won seven times, and of which he is the defending champion.

It was a stunner. Here was the one and only Roger Federer, arguably the greatest male player of all time, winner of 17 Grand Slam and 79 tournaments total, with the highest number of weeks at No. 1 in the ATP ranking and many more distinctions, being routed by a 116th-ranked journeyman. The event quickly overshadowed the upset of the previous day, when Rafael Nadal crashed out in the early rounds for the second straight year. One other ominous sign of Federer’s fate: until the previous week when he won the Halle tournament in Germany, he had not reached the finals of any tennis event all year.

It is beginning to look like the twilight of the god.

Until Roger broke into the tennis world with his triumph over Mark Philipoussis at Wimbledon ten years ago, I never cared much for the career of a single tennis superstar. I liked Boris Becker in his prime, but viewed him as distant and ancient. I admired the Williams sisters and liked to see either or both of them win.  When they played each other, I often rooted for Venus, who had more grace on-court. There was something insincerely infantile in the way Andre Agassi broke into tears and piled his hands on his head after every win. Martina Hingis came across as a mean-spirited sore loser. It was enough to know that Pete Sampras was a Florida Republican for him not to have my sympathies, win or lose.

For Roger, it is different. I am happy each time he wins a match, and I am sad each time he loses. The two emotions, of equal depth and degree, are, I have found, more for myself than for the player. Once he is eliminated from any event, my interest wanes. I would still watch the remaining matches, but there is no one left to root for. Watching Roger play has been described as a ‘religious experience,’ by none other than the late American writer David Foster Wallace, himself a tennis player. In analyzing my feelings, I have often wondered if my secular devotion to Roger’s fortunes is a way of making up for the lack of religious devotion in my normal life.

And it helps to know that Roger’s grace and beauty are not limited to his prowess as a tennis player. He is a dedicated philanthropist, a good part of his wealth going to his Roger Federer Foundation’s work which builds educational and medical facilities in a number of African countries, including Malawi, South Africa, and Ethiopia. I was intrigued to learn that his mother, Lynette, was born in South Africa which, as he says in an advertorial, makes it natural that he would care about the quality of life of African children.

A true class act, Roger plays fair, and rarely challenges court calls that go against him. He is known to have picked up an opponent (Nadal) from the airport before a schedule of charity matches.

Yet Nadal remains his greatest rival, the player who dethroned him at the finals of 2008 Wimbledon, ending his five-year reign at the All-England Club. Since that harrowing defeat in “the greatest tennis match ever played,” Roger has won only five Grand Slams (US Open, 2008; French Open, 2009; Wimbledon 2009, 2012; Australian Open, 2010). He has been beaten at major events by virtually all the top-ranked players, with the exception of David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet.

Not only is he not invincible anymore, he now comes across as very vulnerable, losing matches he should have won, like the quarter-final duel with Jo-Wilfred Tsonga at the 2011 Wimbledon, and playing as if he means to lose. I can never understand why on crucial points he goes for the backhand slice against a power player like Nadal, who is also faster and can hit a ferocious forehand from anywhere in his own side of the seventy-eight-by-twenty-seven-foot rectangle.

But Roger is not done. Losing to Stakhovsky, he admits that some losses hurt more than others, but that he will continue to compete, a statement reminiscent of his 2010 declaration to The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins: “I’d like to stay in the game as long as I can… The moment I feel I can’t do it anymore, I’ll stop, but I hope that’s a long time off.”

I hope so too.

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