Win 16 grand slam titles, and we begin to assume you might just be good at tennis.
Reach 33 consecutive grand slam quarter-finals, as has Roger Federer, and we hardly know what to think.
Really, to go from the 2004 French Open third round against the clay-mighty Gustavo Kuerten all the way to now and seemingly towards forever without ever so much as tripping up once, just once …
Novak Djokovic once lost a French Open third round to Philipp Kohlschreiber … Pete Sampras once lost a US Open fourth round to Petr Korda … Boris Becker once lost a US Open second round to Darren Cahill … John McEnroe once lost a US Open fourth round to Bill Scanlon …
In the grand parade of pre-quarter-final exits, some big shots lose to names that make you nod and think, OK, that could happen.
Andre Agassi once lost a Wimbledon fourth round to Todd Martin … Stefan Edberg once lost a US Open fourth round to Aaron Krickstein … Becker once lost a French Open first round to Goran Ivanisevic … Sampras once lost an Australian third round to Mark Philippousis … Djokovic once lost a Wimbledon second round to Marat Safin …
Some stars lose to names you remember but which don't tend to come up in conversation.
Ivan Lendl once lost a Wimbledon fourth round to Henri Leconte … Edberg once lost a French Open fourth round to Guillermo Perez-Roldan … McEnroe once lost a US Open first round to Paul Annacone … Sampras once lost a French Open third round to Magnus Norman … Edberg once lost a US Open first round to Alexander Volkov …
And some stars lose to names that still sound like it didn't really happen.
Nadal just lost a Wimbledon second round to Lukas Rosol … Sampras once lost a French Open first round to Gilbert Schaller … McEnroe once lost a French Open first round to Horacio de la Pena … Becker once lost a Wimbledon second round to Pete Doohan … Sampras once lost a Wimbledon second round to George Bastl …
Some stars go through the drastic phases that mark many human lives, so their losses make sense at the time.
Agassi once lost a French Open first round to Safin, a French Open second round to Thomas Muster, a Wimbledon second round to Tommy Haas … Jimmy Connors once reached 27 straight grand slam quarter-finals, the record before Federer. The understatedly amazing Lendl reached 27 grand slam quarter-finals from the 1982 US Open to the 1990 Wimbledon while falling shy only twice. The great Bjorn Borg played 20 slams from the 1975 French Open to the 1981 US Open, won 10 of them, reached five other finals and missed only one quarter-final. Still …
Still, Connors lost a 1983 Wimbledon fourth round to the scary-serving Kevin Curren … Lendl lost a 1984 Australian Open fourth round to the scary-serving Kevin Curren and that 1985 Wimbledon fourth round to Leconte … Borg lost a 1977 US Open fourth round to Dick Stockton.
Well, almost always.
Clouds permitting, Roger Federer will play a Wimbledon quarter-final today against Mikhail Youzhny. Simply by walking out there, Federer will remind us he is not only a great player but a great survivor.
He will have come through 33 first weeks all the way across eight years and 132 first-week matches against people very good at tennis by any normal standard. In all those 132 he will have played rising stars and falling stars, players who can beat most anybody on any given day, players who couldn't do a thing against him, players who scared his fans, famous players, less-famous players, anonymous players who might make lightning bolts because everybody has a bad day.
Well, almost everybody.
Win 16 grand slams, you're a great player, but reach 33 straight quarter-finals, you're something else, so here's Federer, survivor again last Friday night from two sets down against Julien Benneteau, as with Haas at the 2009 French or Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon 2010.
Survive that much and soon, somebody points out that the match on Friday gave Federer 5,459 games won in grand slams, besting Andre Agassi's 5,438, a record of such extreme trivia that it led Federer to a series of skilful wisecracks, including, "I thought playing longer might make me really break it."
Survive that much, and the very exacting task of withstanding all manner of ball-bashing humanity to reach the Broadway part of every tournament seems somehow expected, almost mundane. Federer is in a Wimbledon quarter-final. We have come to think it among the most reliable parts of life.
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