When Roger Federer tumbled out of the fourth round of the Australian Open last Sunday, we winced.
Federer has lost big matches before, some famously, and although he is 37, old for a champion, we do not think we have seen the last of him. Yet what we do hear now is time’s winged chariot at his back.
What a run it has been. It would be enough to love Federer for the man’s grace, but there is also the angelic, one-handed backhand, the envy of two generations of junior players; the gliding footwork that made him seem to float just above the court; the uncanny timing and reflexes.
In England, the last thing players see above their entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court are the lines from Kipling, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same...”
This is what Federer has done more consistently than perhaps anyone else who has played the game.
Ten years ago this week, there seemed to be an exception. Federer played the Australian Open final against his great rival, Rafael Nadal, and went down to defeat in five sets after more than four hours.
All of the other sports popular worldwide are team sports, or individual sports, like golf, except for boxing, whose popularity is waning. Tennis is single combat. Into the fifth hour of a match like that one in 2009, fans have their hearts in their throats. Brilliant athletes are stretched, psychologically as well as physically, almost beyond endurance – and yet there they still are out there, alone against a worthy opponent and fate.
At the awards ceremony, Federer, the runner-up, had just lost his chance to win a 14th major title. Handed the silver platter, he stepped to the microphone, sobbed, and said, “God. It’s killing me.”
Federer, who had always made it all seem so effortless. He was human after all.
He did not rage; he quietly wept. But the most startling sight was when the camera switched to his wife, Mirka, in the stands, her hand over her mouth in horror.
Nadal tried to comfort him, threw his arm over his shoulder, pulled him in tight. “Sorry for today,” he said at the microphone to Federer. ”Remember, you’re a great champion. You’re one of the best in history.”
No one needs to be told now. Federer has 20 Grand Slam titles, the most of any male player ever, followed by Nadal at 17. But these numbers do not tell the whole story.
Thirteen years ago, he already was already bidding fair to be the greatest the game had seen. That year, David Foster Wallace published what may be the greatest sports story ever written (greatness attracts greatness), “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” In it, he wrote, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal.”
Federer has epitomized it. If he has reached the end of his long road of winning titles – no other looks in reach for him this year, on clay, where Nadal still dominates, or on grass or in New York – we feel like Wordsworth when he said, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.” We are so fortunate to have been here to see it.