This was supposed to
be his year of redemption. Of resurgence from unexpected depths, of fresh ink
on the stamp of greatness. Most of all, this was supposed to be the year of
winning, again. It started in right earnest, in Qatar, in a nondescript
tournament that everyone plays because, well, the Sheikhs have money and they
are not shy to fling it around. Australia came next, a grand slam. He was
playing well, even ferociously well at times, as if he wanted to wash away the
setbacks of the last year by a few swooshes of his hands.
The semi-final was the first real test of the year. Novak Djokovic had pummelled his way from the back of the court and denied his opponents even a quarter of an inch. This year even his on-court theatrical self-admonishments had the ring of destiny about it. It was a battle between a young man and an old man (He was 29, an age when tennis players are staring at the setting sun). It was a battle to claim greatness. It was a battle to reclaim greatness. The past had run into the future, but could not run past it. Who can stop a player whose time has come? Djokovic won in three sets. The loser that day, a wiry 29-year old man, slumped in a chair, and buried his face in a towel.
Was he thinking? Was he crying? Was he numb? Maybe he just wanted to soak the sweat away.
He had been stellar in parts, though not in the parts that mattered. And so even though he was outplayed, the hopefuls—investment bankers whose dreary existence turns beautiful when he plays, lovers of fine art and wine, the cynics of the world for whom watching him play is their secret sin, and the little boy who can’t understand why he just has to watch this guy—did not give up hope.
At the press conference that night in January, the man admitted that the other player was simply better on the day, and was gracious with praise. He appeared a good loser, not something he was accused of being when he was winning everything. He often crashed the victor’s party, if not by words then tears. Often, he cried in victory too, snatching even tears from the loser.
For the first time in five years he didn’t hold a grand slam, and many wise people in the press box were already thinking of farewell columns, of end-of-an-era stories, of explorations of the passing-the-baton procedures.
One of them asked if it was a handing-of-the-torch moment considering that the Spaniard, his great rival, too hadn’t reached the final of the year’s first slam? His pithy response was, “Ask in another six months.”
It’s been almost ten months since, all the grand slams of the year are over, and he hasn’t won any in a year for the first time since 2003. This season has belonged to Novak Djokovic, the Serbian whose 10 titles include three slams.
Maybe last January in Australia the torch did pass, but not in the way it was envisaged then. The Spaniard is still at the top, still making to the finals. Only his rival has changed.
Instead of the Swiss, the man he battles for trophies is the Serb. It’s been a losing battle; he has lost six titles to Djokovic. The cries of “Vamos Rafa” reverberate through the stadia of the world, and it does not feel out of place, just yet.
For years the answer to the Spanish war cry had been “Shhh…Genius at work,” a reference to the man from Basel, a slogan which now, sadly, seems out of date.
This brings us back to the Swiss, who is 49-12 this year, and has just one title to show for it: The Qatar Open, an ATP 250. He has failed to win a single ATP Masters 1000 events (winner gets 1,000 ATP ranking points), and has been knocked out in two slams when he was leading two sets to love.
For anybody else, two slam semi-finals, one quarter final and one final would be a great season, for him it is an ordinary one. He is still good enough as those results show, but not good enough to get past those who are ahead of him.
The forehand is still magical, the backhand at times looks better than before, and he can still peel the paint off the lines. What has changed is that, somehow, all this has not been enough to result in big victories. The men at the other side of the net have found a way to deal with his shots; more balls from the top guys come back at him than before.
The competition has become better, what once was almost the exclusive domain of Rafael Nadal—to hand a beating to the Swiss—is now a club that includes Dojkovic, Jo Wilfred Tsonga and even tormented talents like Richard Gasquet. This is also partly because of his success, the all-winning-monster he has said he created with extraordinary results over years .
The competition has become better, what once was almost the exclusive domain of Rafael Nadal—to hand a beating to the Swiss— is now a club that includes Dojkovic, Jo Wilfred Tsonga and even tormented talents like Richard Gasquet. This is also partly because of his success, the all-winning-monster, he has said, he created with extraordinary results over the years.
It forced the tour to raise its level, and it now seems to have found its mark.
While many others can get the better of him, the chief tormentors remain Nadal and Djokovic. The Spaniard is the significant other in the Swiss’ career story, and together they have given tennis one of its greatest rivalries.
Nadal leads the head-to-head 17-8; 14 of his victories of have come on clay courts of which he is the undisputed master. The duo have since 2004 met in eight slam finals and Nadal has won six of them including the 2008 Wimbledon final, considered one of the greatest matches ever played.
The Swiss has won two Wimbledon finals and lost four French Open and one Australian Open final to Nadal. Tennis, experts say, is all about match-ups, how your game fares against the opponent’s. One of the joys of watching the game is to see how great players find a way to win the most difficult of match-ups.
This is where one of the greatest of all time has failed. He has not found a convincing way to get past the left-handed, physically imposing game of Nadal. He has tried everything, from aggressive play to passive play, from short points to long rallies, from tears to denial, but is yet to find a way.
A lot of it is also in the mind; for a great player he has choked far too many times against the Spaniard. Nadal, four years younger, is not going anywhere, and anytime he meets the 30-year-old for a title clash the odds are going to be in his favour.
The other big impediment in the way of the man, who was number one for 237 consecutive weeks, is Djokovic who has just started his reign at the top.
Dojovic is the perfect modern player: A tremendous two-handed backhand, powerful forehand, unmatched court coverage and jaw-dropping retrieving skills. He has no weaknesses, is an all-court player and hardly makes mistakes. He is so good right now that even his mishits fall inside the line, and he has the champion’s belief. And nobody, not even Nadal seems to be able to beat him.
The Swiss has shown that he can, but only just on a particularly remarkable day. The man who lost all the matches that matter this year managed to win one for the ages: the French Open semifinal against Djokovic.
For one day, for three hours and forty minutes on a lovely Paris evening, he played like only he can. There was an edge to his persona, there was something more in his shots and his outstretched racquet reached just a few millimetres more to make impossible retrieves. That day he refused to lose. That day the one unbeatable guy on the tour could not find a way to win.
To add to his trophy count, the former number one needs many more days like that. Days that have been difficult to conjure this year. What he has lost this year are not his skills, speed or fitness, but that intangible, the indescribable element that victors have.
That is what Djokovic showed when two match points down in the fifth set against the Swiss in the US Open semi-final. The Swiss served a wide, well placed serve and the Serb just stepped in and whipped a forehand crosscourt return that stunned the former world number one. With one foot out of the game, Djokovic found a way to win a high stakes match.
There is no explanation for the forehand, it is what winners do. It is what the Swiss is not doing these days.
It has been fascinating to watch the decline of a champion. We need heroes, preferably infallible ones, so that one day we can delight all the more at their fall. In their uneasy embrace of mortality, in their missteps, they become one of us—sometimes good, sometimes bad, and mostly average. This seems to be the year when the great one becomes one of us. For too many years he was too perfect, and for too many years he was not one of us.
Now he is, and this presents us with the opportunity to witness a champion’s fight to be a champion again. Many have tried it before; they have hung on even if their skills and body have gone out of control. They had made tenacity their life jacket; some had even buried their heads in the sand and continued to be optimistic. Most times it ends in despair.
It’s called the Dev Anand factor, and develops in some when the much venerated “X factor” disappears. Its premise is that if you continue doing what you do best with progressive deterioration then one day you will give the performance of a lifetime. It has not worked for Dev Anand, who in spite of giving his last hit film in 1978, still dreams of making blockbusters. (He really believed Chargesheet would be a winner).
So far this has come true for only one person. Pete Sampras, the Great One, even the greatest one for many, was for a while in the Dev Anand conundrum: his talent had roughened and age ensured that the body didn’t obey the mind. And yet in 2002, he summoned two weeks of everything that he once was and won the US Open. He was 31, and he said goodbye.
There is another route, too, which very few in professional sport take. It is bidding adieu when the talent is still there, when the game has not withered enough, and when people want you to continue. Bjorn Borg, the man who reeled off 11 slams in six years did that when he left it all at the age of 26. (He did make a comical comeback of sorts in 1991 with a wooden racquet).
The challenge for the world number three, soon to be world number four, is to escape both these situations and it seems he will. The Dev Anand factor still seems to be some time away, his skills, though erratic, have not deserted him, and he has repeatedly made it clear that he wants to play for some more years, even as many ask why should he?
Similar questions were once asked of another great sportsman three years ago. He called on some hidden, untapped reservoirs of resolve and skill, mustered a determination forged by sweat and steel, and conquered the world all over again. Today, nobody asks Sachin Tendulkar any question, they are simply awestruck. We expected Tendulkar to become one of us, but then we are not champions. Our brains are not wired that way; we don’t build mountains and climb them. In the coming months, and the next season we will find out how good a mountaineer the man from the land of the Alps is.
The prospects are not favourable: An old man against a pack of hungry young men. After 16 slams, and 67 titles, after hitting thousands more balls than his competitions, after covering hundreds of yards of court more, does he still want it badly enough?
He says so, at least in his post-match press conferences. It has always been slightly odd, his performance before the press. In his heyday, his precocious statements (“I was too good”, If I play my game, I can beat him (Nadal), were often brushed aside as the matter of fact way in which a genius made sense of the world.
They sounded arrogant, but he said it with such sincerity that he got the pass.
Now, in the twilight, the same statements, (“I am playing well”, “I can win more slams”, “I sure can become world number 1) coming as they do at a time when titles have dried up sound nothing more than a nonchalant denial of the truth. Maybe this is the delusion he needs to egg himself on.
Most professional tennis players would have to be delusional to even think of amassing 16 grand slam titles in six-and-a-half-years, but he did achieve it.
Then there is the increasing physicality in tennis. While the Swiss’ elegant play— what David Foster Wallace in a now cult article called “kinetic beauty”—often masks the tremendous power and spin of his strokes, he is these days outmuscled and collared by younger, bigger players playing with oversized racquet heads measuring more than 100 square inches and hitting flatter then ever seen before. In contrast, the former world number one’s equipment, a Wilson racquet with a head of 85 square inches, looks almost a throwback to another era.
The smaller racquet gives flexibility and demands more precision, something the 30-year-old finds difficult to consistently achieve these days.
Also faded is the Champion’s aura, the cloak of invincibility that great players wear. As more and more players feel they can beat you, more and more will beat you. The player considered by many as the greatest ever will now have to stomach defeats from a generation that has all but taken over from him.
He will be beaten, sometimes outplayed and not just by the top three—and he will have to live with that. He will have to confront his own sporting mortality and his ever-so-slightly-diminished reflexes and speed.
An all-conquering warrior will have to fight when not too much is left to fight for, and when the bargain includes bitter defeats.
It requires courage, which Foster Wallace in that cult article called the closest thing to beauty in a war.
Courage and beauty, in the case of the Swiss, have often been difficult to tell apart. Beauty is hitting a one-handed down-the-line backhand on the run, stretched outside the court. Courage is doing it when you are down a match point at Wimbledon.
Roger Federer has done both.