Roger Federer: The God of tennis has become mortal

Author : Harish Alagappa
Roger Federer: the final goodbye?

Roger Federer: the final goodbye?

It has been 20 years since Jurassic Park came out. No. It’s been 14 years since The Matrix was released. Nah, still not feeling it. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final instalment of the greatest film series ever created by the hand of man (and woman), will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in a couple of months. I feel slightly odd, but I did watch it on the day I took my last class 10 board exam.

Roger Federer is mortal.

Good Lord, I’m growing old!

Nothing quite reminds you of your own mortality and the impending march to the grave like watching a childhood icon fade away into insignificance. As children, we are not sullied by the cynicism and mistrust that is such an integral part to an adult outlook towards the world. We still believe in values like honour, dignity, fair play, and sportsmanship. Children are willing to suspend disbelief sufficiently enough to think that certain individuals are the very embodiment of the things that we crave to be; we admire their genius, their tenacity, their spirit. We revel in their accomplishment as if they were of our own doing and firmly believe that these people are not mere human beings, but incarnations of a celestial persona who have deemed us worthy to witness their feats of brilliance.

Heroes are the creation of boys and girls, not men and women. That is why our fathers will forever maintain that a Sunil Gavaskar or a Kapil Dev were far better than the Sachins and Dravids that we so fervently worship; just as their fathers before them maintained that Vijay Merchant and Mulvantrai ‘Vinoo’ Mankad were the best. To us, the heroes of our childhood were the best heroes. Whenever we see them play, we are transported back to an era when the world was still full of possibility and wonder when things like EMI payments were dad’s problem, not ours. And that is why it hurts so much to watch them fail, as they inescapably will.

Between his first Grand Slam win at Wimbledon in 2003, to his last slam title, again at the All England Club in 2012, Roger Federer made the semi-finals in 32 out of the 37 Grand Slams he was a part of. He made the final in 24, and won 17 of them. There was a five-year period from the 2005 season to the 2009 season, when Fedex delivered like, well, FedEx. He made the semi-final of each one of the 20 Grand Slam tournaments held in those years, made the final of 17 of them, and won 11. He was untouchable, he was Superman. Like the son of Krypton, he too had his weakness. Clay was Federer’s kryptonite, and Rafael Nadal, who was responsible for 5 out of the 6 Grand Slam final defeats that Federer endured in those halcyon days, was his Lex Luthor. But he was still, by universal acclaim, the greatest tennis player in the world, maybe even of all-time, and undoubtedly the most dominant athlete across all sport.

And now, this. A loss in the US Open pre-quarterfinals against a 31-year-old Spaniard whose best career-best ATP ranking was 5th back in 2006 (he must’ve looked like an ant to Fed back then), and is currently 22nd in the world. Spain is certainly not where Federer is going to spend many vacations in the future. And many suspect he is going to have a lot of free time on his hands soon. Is this the end? Many thought Federer was finished two years ago. Like 2013, he didn’t win any Grand Slams in 2011. However, he made the semi-finals in three of them, reaching the final at Roland Garros. His total win-loss record for the year was 64-12 and his year-end ATP rank was 3rd.

Federer bounced back at Wimbledon in 2012, after winning no Grand Slam in 2011

Federer bounced back at Wimbledon in 2012, after winning no Grand Slam in 2011


Statistically, 2011 was no different from his performance over the couple of years that preceded it, it was an aberration; what stock brokers would call a market correction. Like the champion he is, Federer bounced back the next year, winning his 7th title at Wimbledon and his 17th career Grand Slam. His win-loss record for 2012 was 71-12 and he ended the year in 2nd place in the ATP rankings. Federer would liked to have included an Olympic gold medal to his conquests in 2012, but not even he could have stopped the forces of destiny and the collective will of the British public that won Andy Murray his medal.

This year, though, has been a different story. He’s only reached the final in 2 out of 13 tournaments, a far cry from even 2011, when he reached the final in 6 out of 16. His only trophy from the year came from the Gary Weber Open in Halle, a tournament where the next highest seeded player was world no. 9 Richard Gasquet. His win-loss record for 2013 stands at a lowly 35-12, a win percentage of 74%, his worst performance since 2002. His losses have been numerous and I hate to say it, humiliating. A second-round exit from Wimbledon, in a four-set loss to a man ranked 116th in the world was not befitting the most successful player in that tournament’s history. And a fourth-round exit from a Grand Slam he has won 5 times, the most in the Open Era along with Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras, seems to have forever darkened the halo of invincibility that once surrounded him.

Tommy Robredo’s muted victory celebration and post-match musing on Federer’s apparent lack of confidence show that the fear that Federer once inspired in his opponents has now turned inwards. He is afraid of himself, afraid of losing, and his competitors fancy their chances. The optimist in me thinks there might still be a second encore; he might return in 2014 to dazzle us all once again. But I doubt that’s going to happen. Believe me, I would be absolutely overjoyed to see it, but it is an unlikely event. Roger Federer is possibly the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen. But on this day, and perhaps for the rest time, he is no longer a Tennis God. Roger Federer stands before us, a mortal.


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