In 2008, when Roger Federer lost the best and most gargantuanly epic match that a tennis court has had the honour of witnessing, I shut myself in a room for 4 days and questioned what life was about. I even cried for twelve minutes.
Today, exactly six years later, I find myself in a very similar situation, but exhibiting an entirely different reaction.
I’ve been following tennis since 2003. It was my first love and will always remain fiercely special to me. I would still leave everything I am doing to play, write about, coach and be connected to the sport in a professional aspect. It’s especially hard to see tennis the way I’ve seen it because I was and still am a terrible player. I’ve seen players gifted beyond belief throw their careers away to puff three cigarettes a day or catch those two extra hours of sleep. I’ve felt like shoving their noses in the ground and telling them to understand the value of what they’ve got. That’s where your basic talent comes in. You can’t be taught to see a 200 km/hr serve in slow motion, you either see it or not.
Love for sport, like any kind of love is cruel. It haunts you till you’re forced to break for closure and mocks you while it flirts with someone else. You have to take a call one day and tell yourself you’re never going to make it.
Most kids have an obsession for an atheletes as they grow up. In India, we have a defacto obsession for Tendulkar. It’s there. You don’t need to be told to have it. It’s inborn love. It’s like liking chocolate, everyone around loves the sweetness of it.
Appreciating Federer’s genius was something I learned on my own. It was like appreciating wine, to like an athelete playing a sport that’s entirely alien to the people around you.
I can’t possibly begin to list the reasons why I shamelessly adore Federer’s game, if one can call it that. I’d prefer art, or craft or something that doesn’t sound that mundanely boring. The list of exemplatives that would start from his forehand, the fluid golden whip that it is and end with his movement, that a ballet dancer would look up to in reverance continues to baffle me to date. The fact remains that he was my first real idol, someone who I knew I would never come close to emulating as much as I would like to.
That’s the beauty of supporting an athelete or a club as a kid. They grow with you. You look at their victories or defeats as a personal win or loss. I remember crying like a baby when Federer lost to Nadal in 2008, and I was strangely proud I did. Men cry without shame over sport and war. For me, it was a mark of real atrachement. I had invested everything I had in an individual that would never know of my existence, but would dictate my day to day life so much. I feel sad for people who don’t follow sport, because they will never know what it means to have that nightmarish feeling of your heart pounding at match point for a tournament you have no physical connect with.
Some of my strongest memories are attached to Federer’s matches. I remember lying in tuition class, citing stomach ache to watch him beat Nadal on clay in Hamburg for the first time. I remember my father and I resolving a two week fight by hugging it out after his win over Roddick at Wimbledon. I remember, (and this happens to date) some of my best friends asking me to swear by Federer because they know I’ll never dare to put his life on the line for anything at all. I remember watching him live in Dubai, which remains one of the best experiences I’ve ever had my entire life.
I was broken after the final at Wimbledon then. I was equally gutted after the final today. There’s a difference in outlook though. Back then, I hated the opponent with every small bit of childish rebellion could gather. Today, I respect Djokovic. I acknowledge his presence as the superior player of the day. And I thank him for a being a part of a spectacle I will never forget my entire life.
I think more than the exuberance of the wins, the grace of losing respectfully is a trait that you learn in sport. Because mind you, it takes all the mental strength you have to walk up to your opponent after a five hour match, smile at him and say “Well played”. It’s learning how to lose with someone as invincible as Roger that has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my adult life. He taught me that despite perfection, life can get the darker part of us sometimes, and if it does, we look it straight in the eye and try again, and keep trying again. And again. And again.
A day will come when Federer will retire, and I’ll sit down and think about how it would be to not seeing his familiar brush strokes on TV, and seeing him weave out winners out of then air. But what I will have is a storehouse worth of golden memories.
One day though, I hope I meet his kids. I’ll tell them how their Father made the world dance without music. All he needed was a racquet and a court.
It’s my pleasure to have been a part of the audience while he conduced, for ten straight years. Tonight’s loss wasn’t a negative. It was one of the most beautiful sporting moments of my adult life. I’m happy, and even more fortunate I was alive to see it.