Roger Federer and the cycle of life and sport
In 1975, I watched Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final, and one week later I was on a court learning to play tennis. Though small, I had always been a good, fast and smoothly coordinated athlete, playing baseball and basketball and running track. I even foolishly played freshman football as a walk-on at USC, where I finally got to play the last 26 seconds against UCLA in the last game of the season -- what I thought would be the end of my participation in sports. I was crestfallen and cried in the locker room.
But with tennis, I fell deeply, madly, passionately in love with a sport where size didn't matter -- only skill. I modeled my game on that of The Little Master, Ken Rosewall, who dismantled larger players with his footwork and flawless technique. My friends called me crazy when I told them that I've never loved anything as much as I've loved playing tennis. Not stand-up comedy, not acting, not even a woman. Of course, the women in my life have never enjoyed that particular revelation. Some became downright indignant. But I didn't care. The truth is the truth. Maybe that's why I never married. Too much truth. It'll definitely set you free.
My only regret in life is that I was introduced to tennis too late to pursue it as a career. I ate, drank and slept tennis. Still do. In time, I became an accomplished player. And every now and then on the public courts, I'll pass an opponent at the net with a sweet slice backhand and hear someone yell from an adjacent court, "Ken Rosewall." Oh, the joy I feel in those moments.
Not a day goes by that I don't pick up my racket and take a few swings. In fact, when I was in the film Car Wash, I had a very tough time relating to my character's absurd idolization of the comic book hero The Fly. It was insane to me, but that was the job. So whenever I had to talk enthusiastically about The Fly in a scene, I used an acting technique called personalization/substitution where I pretended I was talking about my favorite tennis players of that time -- Ashe, Ilie Nastase and sylphlike Evonne Goolagong. Worked well, didn't it?
I've watched a lot of great matches and players over the years. I'll never forget seeing the smooth, elegant and stylish Adriano Panatta (the only man to topple Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros) win the Italian Open in 1976 before a stadium full of rapturous supporters. Not even the ecstasy of the Paris crowd during Yannick Noah's 1983 French Open victory comes close. When it comes to passionate intensity, the Italians win hands down. Panatta played beautifully to defeat Guillermo Vilas in the final. Flowing. Artistic. I've searched high and low, unsuccessfully, for a DVD of that match.
I have DVDs of Rod Laver's Grand Slam finals matches in 1969, the year he won all four majors as a professional. The amazing shots he hit with the teaspoon-sized sweet spot of his Dunlop Maxply Fort were something to see. He was every bit the shotmaker that Roger Federer is, just not as graceful. "Yes sir, Mr. Rocket," Nastase would exclaim when Laver whipped a fast dipping shot by him, and Laver would blow on the fingers of his left hand, like he was cooling the barrel of a pistol before holstering his racket. I still remember and cherish seeing a 36-year-old Laver face a fire-breathing, 22-year-old Connors at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1975. Connors, in full flight, prevailed in the $100,000 challenge match, but not before Laver turned back the clock for two sets with brilliant, scintillating tennis that showed the world once again just how the Australian earned his nickname.
While I still loved playing over the years, my interest in watching tennis waned. The serve-and-volley style didn't offer enough groundstrokes for me, and when the power game came into vogue, I found it increasingly dull and predictable. That is why I am an unabashed Federer fan. He single-handedly revived my interest in watching tennis. His variety and creativity mesmerized me and inspired me on the court. I practiced and played with renewed zest, and my already good footwork improved dramatically. But I could never get that crossover step he has when moving back to the center of the court. And I can't tell you how many times I've missed some audacious shot and screamed, "YOU ARE NOT FEDERER!!" But I made a few, too.
Like many, I watched with confusion and dismay as Federer suddenly struggled in 2013. I knew age had something to do with his decline, as it does eventually with all athletes, so I had no problem reducing expectations. But the drop-off seemed much more precipitous, given his continued enthusiasm, and the loss to the always solid Tommy Robredo -- in straight sets, no less, after beating the Spaniard in their previous 10 meetings -- at the U.S. Open definitely set off alarm bells. (Even when Federer was playing badly, though, I still enjoyed watching him.) So I said to myself, Let me see how he plays when he comes back from his break for the year-end stretch.
The last three weeks of the season showed me that a healthy Federer can still be a force. He made the final at the Swiss Indoors and the semifinals at both the Paris Masters and ATP World Tour Finals, beating an in-form Juan Martin del Potro, 25, at the latter two tournaments.
Before the season-ending event in London, I wondered, not too optimistically, how Federer would fare against the absolute best in the world in his diminished capacity. He surprised me. Federer easily beat Richard Gasquet and took Novak Djokovic to three sets -- something Stanislas Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal were unable to do in the semifinals and final, respectively. The 32-year-old got through the tougher of the two groups to make the semifinals despite age-related dips in his timing and movement, displaying his vastly underappreciated competitive fire. Hustling, defending, sweating, scrapping and fighting like an alley cat for 2½ hours against del Potro while playing for a spot in the semifinals, he illustrated that you don't pile up 17 Grand Slam titles, reach 23 consecutive Slam semifinals, make 36 straight Slam quarterfinals or win eight times from two sets down on talent alone. I loved watching him fight for what once came so easily. That's right, Roger, show them you've come to play. Show them you've come to play.
However, I knew Federer had no chance the next day in the semifinals against a rested Nadal, who ousted his old rival in straight sets. Still, Federer finished the year strong, and the players who once smelled blood in the water realized that he'd stopped the rot. He's planning to rest and train this offseason instead of playing exhibitions. My worries abated, I'm confident he'll have a good season next year if he remains healthy, free of that troublesome back issue, and I expect him to make a statement at the Australian Open to that effect. But I don't expect him to win it.
It's rightfully Nadal's and Djokovic's time now, just as it was Federer's time when he was their age. A 32-year-old in superior shape is not equal to a 26- or 27-year-old in superior shape, because when skills and competitive desire are virtually equal, youth will inevitably be served. You judge an athlete's greatness by his prime, not his twilight years. That's what we remember him for. Do you remember Willie Mays for dropping a fly ball with the Mets, or Muhammad Ali for getting his clock cleaned by Trevor Berbick? Only if you're that baseball, or Trevor Berbick.
If Nadal and Djokovic are still playing at 32 (and Nadal's knees make that problematic), the same thing is going to happen to them when they meet 26- and 27-year-olds in their prime. They'll no longer be making those supernatural defensive gets and playing six-hour matches. But so what? They have taken tenacity, stamina and the ability to hit offensively from extreme defensive positions to an otherworldly level. You have to drive a stake through their heart to defeat either one of them, and what they are doing now is what I will remember. I will be neither surprised nor dismayed if Nadal wins another five majors to pass Federer for most Grand Slam titles, though Djokovic, Andy Murray and del Potro will make that anything but a guarantee. If Nadal does break the record, I will be the first to salute him. Any major title, let alone 18, is well-earned on that tough tour.
The bottom line is that, like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are once-in-a-lifetime players. We are blessed as fans to witness them, and we should stop the sniping and -- regardless of our favorite -- treat their respective fans with the same class and respect that the players show each other. It's inspiring and puts paid to the Neanderthal idea in sports that you have to hate your opponent in order to beat him.
I lived through the snarling, spitting, hate-filled days of Connors, John McEnroe (another genius with a racket) and Ivan Lendl, and when they played each other, I didn't care who won and most times wouldn't even watch. I much prefer the bonhomie that Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray display toward each other, even though they try to beat each other's brains out. It shows young players and even adults the true meaning of competition and sportsmanship. When Federer cried at the 2009 Australian Open trophy ceremony, it was Nadal who put his arm around him and consoled him. I couldn't imagine Connors, McEnroe or Lendl making such a compassionate gesture. Sadly, I read comments afterward from some Nadal fans and even some commentators complaining that Federer's tears took away from Nadal's moment. But Nadal didn't think so. He was too big a man.
Decline is inevitable in the cycle of life and sport. Ascend, peak, plateau, descend. That's mankind's journey. All one can do, like a skilled pilot, is try to control the rate of descent. It's only going to get harder for Federer. If you read Federer's most recent interviews, he's accepted that reality and embraced the challenge. It's many media members and fans who haven't. And if he's still in the top 20 at 35 or 36, that will be an incredible achievement -- just as it is for Tommy Haas now. It will only burnish his legacy.
I will always remember the Federer of 2004-2007, when he bestrode the tennis court like a colossus saying, I'm here, come and get me if you can. Very few could. He was the biggest scalp on tour. He brought an artistry, grace, fluidity and shotmaking virtuosity to the game that will be nearly impossible to eclipse. But if a future player does surpass him in those qualities, I, as a tennis lover, just hope to be alive to see him because what an amazing player he will be.
I'd love to see Federer win another Slam. Wouldn't that be something? Even if that unlikely event doesn't happen, Federer will remain the most beautiful and popular player in the game until he retires. And when that inevitable day comes, the length of the standing ovation will set a record, as tennis lovers all over the world, and his peers who've battled him throughout the years, will both celebrate him and mourn.
But the game, and life, will go on. And I'll still be playing.
Franklyn Ajaye is a stand-up comedian; an actor who has appeared in Car Wash, Deadwood and Bridesmaids; an Emmy-nominated television writer; and author of Comic Insights: The Art of Stand Up Comedy. He resides in Melbourne, Australia, where he spends his days riding his bike, playing lots of tennis, dancing through the streets like nobody's watching and writing the forthcoming book, I'm Insane: Notes of a Vagabond Jazz Comedian.