Skills in decline, Federer maintains his hold over the masses

Saturday June 29th, 2013

Roger Federer's wizardry with a racquet has inspired breathless praise from fans and players alike.
Javier Garcia/Icon SMI

WIMBLEDON, England -- You can still, days later, find some blind soul here who insists that the inevitable hasn't occurred, that the loss doesn't mean the end is nigh, that Roger Federer will find a way, dear God, because he's Roger, dear God, and he must, dear God, because the rules of nature and time just can't apply to Roger. This is irrational, of course, but it is to be expected. There never has been a tennis cult quite like the cult of Roger, and at the core, all the keening across Planet Fed now boils down to one desperate question: Whatever will we do without him?

Because even those who've long refused to admit the obvious have no choice. It was Wimbledon where Federer lost so emphatically on Wednesday -- Wimbledon, with the memory of seven championships and the grass he loves, Wimbledon without Rafa lurking, Wimbledon with 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky, who had never beaten a top-10 player, standing in his way. Wimbledon is where the faithful were sure that Federer would regain his magic touch. He did it just last year, and the title shot him back up to No. 1. If not here, then where?

Now he's lost. And it can't be chalked up to Black Wednesday. It can't be chalked up to dodgy courts. It can't be chalked up, even, to an off day. "Didn't feel any different today, like I felt something coming," he said afterward. No, Federer didn't play badly. He just was a step slow, a millisecond late all match, as he had been all year. His final backhand fluttered and fell like a wounded dove. He'll be 32 in August. He looked puzzled. He hadn't looked puzzled -- not at Wimbledon, not like that, not even when losing to Rafael Nadal -- since he became the Roger Federer that reached 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals.

Do you know how we know? Because we watch tennis players like we watch no other athletes. Golfers walk in and out of camera view. Boxers fight a few times a year, for less than an hour. But we fixate on tennis players year-round, for three and four hours at a time, staring as they serve and towel and sit and drink, ponder and frown, cry and look puzzled. It used to seem odd that the first question asked when people found out I cover tennis was about a player's sex life, but it makes sense. Stare at someone long enough, and you can't help but wonder about it all: Parents, religion, fashion sense, politics, tipping. Out of that calculus springs interest, then fandom, and then -- for the very rare player -- an investment verging on the religious.

Federer has been that player for a decade now. Nadal has millions of devotees, and Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have their share. But the most telling part of David Foster Wallace's 2006 essay may be its title, "Federer as Religious Experience," because no other player is so often compared to a deity. There have been banners flown reading, "If tennis is a religion then Roger Federer is its God;" there are hats that say, "In Roger We Trust." In 2007, a Wimbledon church felt the need to post a signboard message reminding, "God Made Roger Federer." It didn't take. "There's a bumper sticker in India, which says, 'Sorry God, I worship Federer,'" said commentator Vijay Amritraj.

"It's amazing, but he has left that kind of impression with people. That's why when he loses, like he did here, it's hard for people to take."

Anyone connected with the sport can relate a time -- or many -- when some otherwise balanced acquaintance got this dreamy look and started rhapsodizing. "I can't tell you how many people I meet who say, 'I'm Roger Federer's biggest fan. You don't understand: By far,'" said former tour pro Justin Gimelstob, now a Tennis Channel commentator. "And I just think to myself, 'It's been 10 minutes since the last person attested to the same thing with the same level of intensity.' It's so visceral. It's so in their bones. People just get very emotional. I've seen it from people crying to the point where it's dangerous -- for everyone."

No player has ever been more suited for Wimbledon's high-toned environs, but you'd think -- with Andy Murray seeking to end Britain's seven-decade drought -- that last year might've been the time Federer met with some hostility. Not a chance. Fully half the British crowd was rooting for him, and not shyly. Men screamed, "I love you, Roger!" and no one seemed to mind. Who here doesn't?

Federer is not the first to inspire such devotion. There has always been a subset of greats who bring something beyond winning, a quality that allows writers to use words like "ineffable" and "sublime." Even the most jaded players and journalists get that same dreamy look when talking about Lew Hoad or Ken Rosewall or Evonne Goolagong; Martina Navratilova still speaks of being "mesmerized" by what Maria Bueno could do with a ball. The ugly behavior of Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe was countered by the hair-raising beauty of their play; the world will stomach most anything for the sake of genius.

Federer poses no such conflict. "He's one of the few people for which this is fully deserved," Gimelstob said. "For a lot of players, it's a combination of their talent, success, results, their persona, their entertainment value -- someone like Andre Agassi. Roger, I've never seen anyone reach his level of success, and it's so pure, in that he's so magnanimous, so conscious of everyone else, but it's not at the expense of his craft. The guy has an aura. He has that iconic feel. He ... bends time. You just feel like you're around someone special. And the reason you feel that way is because you are."

Gimelstob may raise eyebrows by going all Stephen Hawking there, but what he meant, I think, is that in an age of ever-increasing power, Federer's tennis somehow -- and with seemingly minimal effort -- absorbed most opponents' time-robbing pace and turned it against them. At his best, he halted the sport's seemingly unstoppable evolution.

"There's so much skill, so much grace, so much elegance -- such majesty about the way he's played the game, and of course, the way he's carried himself," Amritraj said. "And in today's version of slam-bang, he's able to have been No. 1 for so long -- and keep that kind of play in motion. Why is the general comment, 'Oh, I love to watch Federer play?' For the last decade-and-a-half, there's been no one like him."

In gratitude, the most fervent Federer acolytes have come to believe their man can do no wrong. They ignore the self-complimentary quotes, that gold-lamé man-bag, the snappish "Shut up" to the French Open crowd last year, the F-bomb he dropped on Murray this year in Melbourne. This is classic jock discourse, but his fans often act as if Federer plays in a tux. When, after winning last year, Federer was quoted here saying, "Dancing with Serena, baby!" about the Wimbledon ball, some refused to believe he'd say such a thing. It was, to borrow from Raymond Chandler, like seeing the bishop kick in a stained-glass window.

Still, looking the other way won't be easy now, because the wrongs will only begin to pile up. Federer is losing more and more to people not named Nadal or Murray or Djokovic; the man who used to win majors in bunches has won only two in the last three-and-a-half years. His wizardry is such that nobody will say he can't win again, given a wondrous draw -- but, then, one just came and went, didn't it?

Yes, there will be flashes of brilliance, moments and matches in which all seems right and the old gears seem to be engaged. There will be a streak of wins when everyone, including me, will be sucked into thinking that the Federer Express is back for one more run. But in truth it's mostly memory now, the greatness: That so-still head and uncanny concentration, the stiletto forehand, the lightness coming in. He danced as much as played. He gave some a glimpse of perfect. But this match was the message: Soon that will be gone.

Whatever will they do?

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