"Federer as Religious Experience."
That's the title of the essay on the Swiss tennis player
Foster Wallace's ecstatic reverence for Federer became the definitive text for a legion of fans -- in which I include myself -- who have this last week suffered the blank and aching sadness that often accompanies the collapse of a belief system.
On July 6, as I watched Federer lose a four-hour 48-minute five-set match to the up-and-coming Spanish superstar
For as much as even his own fans admire his play, there is nothing lithe, elegant or graceful about Rafael Nadal, oh he of bulging biceps and perennially itchy butt. A spectacular athlete, Nadal has risen to the top of men's tennis with strength and determination. He's a bruiser (case in point: on Sunday, he directed 25 percent of his serves to Federer's body; Federer chose that aggressive line only four percent of the time).
And Nadal's a scrapper. He has a canny ability to use the angles created by his opponent against them, employing shots that, while not quite good enough to end rallies, still keep an opponent heaving balls back, often on the run, in a Sisyphean nightmare from which only an error can provide release. Tennis analysts call his style of play "counterpunching."
For three years now, Nadal has neutralized Federer's talents on clay courts. The pulverized brick at the French Open -- tennis' slowest surface -- allowed him to grind the Swiss down. But in two successive finals at Wimbledon, in 2006 and 2007, Federer had managed (just) to raise above Nadal on a surface that acted as cynosure for all his talents. (Federer has an uncanny understanding of how to harness the living ground under his feet with shots that the grass propels past opponents with unexpected furtherance.)
But even on the hallowed ground of Center Court (so often compared to a cathedral), Federer was humbled on Sunday by Nadal's dogged consistency and refusal to be awed by even his most artful plays. The victory upended the romantic but now so obviously fanciful belief that loose, creative, attacking play will triumph over obstinacy and revanchism. Watching Federer succumb to Nadal's will, I felt like I was watching an angel fall. Nadal had grabbed his ankles and wrestled him to the ground.
So what now for us lost and suddenly godless Federer fans? Where do we go from here? In his great book
Nadal is no Connors, who supplemented his bullying play with verbal aggression on the court. He plays fair and is magnanimous in victory. And if his words are to be believed, he is as big a Federer fan as any. Nadal always says of Federer that he is the greatest of
And what now for Federer himself?
The greatest fear will be that he will walk away from tennis as
Rolex -- one of this trilingual Swiss gentleman's main sponsors -- likes to run an advertisement with a picture of Federer and a caption that reads "unrivalled." To be unrivalled is also to be solitary, even lonely. Federer now has company. For better or for worse, he has joined the rest of us mortals who are struggling against our limitations, in search of a beauty that is just beyond our reach.