x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Roger Federer still pleasing on the eye

The exaggerated response to Wimbledon exit hints at connoisseurs fears that they may never see anyone like the Swiss on court again.

Roger Federer’s record in the past six grand slam events reads quarter-final, quarter-final, semi-final, semi-final, final, quarter-final, not bad for a man whose powers are on the wane.
Roger Federer’s record in the past six grand slam events reads quarter-final, quarter-final, semi-final, semi-final, final, quarter-final, not bad for a man whose powers are on the wane.

"So sad!" went a friend's online comment but, to be blunt, the event hardly warranted sadness.

A phenomenally wealthy 29-year-old man lost a Wimbledon quarter-final in a gorgeous setting in which anybody would be lucky to perform. He lost a stirring five-set match in the mercifully slow wane of a career that shouts 16 grand slam titles. His record when leading two sets to love in grand slam tournaments dimmed to a mere 178-1.

For sadness, it did not rival poverty or human trafficking.

Still, the occasional, maudlin bursts of those who appreciate Roger Federer might tell us something, for this inevitable career descent might just differ from all the other inevitable career descents of our lifetimes. The benign bereavement over this one might owe to more than the fade of a beloved star, but also to a loss of a form of beauty.

When Federer came along in earnest to begin dominating the world in 2003 and 2004, he brought along a version of the game so picturesque that it drew in not only people who already loved the sport, but also people who loved just dropping by to see something - anything - beautiful.

It floated above sport and wrought lame-but-apt comparisons to art. Some have watched him for something more than curiosity about the outcome; they have watched for unimaginable shots at unthinkable angles that could lend uncommon gasps at televisions.

The French veteran, Fabrice Santoro, gazed back through his career at Roland Garros in 2009 and said, "I remember a few matches I played against him and I was looking at him while I was playing, saying, 'Wow, how is it possible to play so well?'"

The Swedish bulwark, Jonas Bjorkman, took a mulching to Federer in the 2006 Wimbledon semi-finals but said, "I just felt it was, in a way, nice to be around and see how someone can play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis … I had the best seat in the house, in a way."

The former pro and eminent commentator, Mary Carillo, said insuperably in 2003 of the first-time Wimbledon champion: "He's making souffles out there."

Even as Federer's downfall remains modest at No 3, with a French Open final berth recently tucked into the dossier, I sense that aficionados might be practising a form of advance mourning for when they no longer can espy the loveliness.

After the loss on Wednesday to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, amid the debates and the assertions of his "softness" so lacking in accuracy that you actually feel sorry for such clueless observers, you could find a smattering of angst.

One: "It's getting too painful to watch." And: "I'm going to miss watching Federer play." And: "It's inevitably happening." And, regarding a potential rankings drop: "A depressing thought." And: "Such a beautiful, flowing game, best I've seen in my 40 years of following the game."

It's not merely the player these people will miss; it's the pleasure to the eye of the game of the player.

That did not quite apply nine years ago when Pete Sampras left Wimbledon in a shocking, second-round loss to the undistinguished George Bastl on Court 2. While that particular luminary had played a profoundly understood brand of the game in accruing his seven titles, and had earned his statement, "You're going to have a match like this once every 10 years", and had earned the right to forecast "a tough next couple of weeks just knowing this is going on and I'm not here", and had proved a victim to his own upgrading of the standard of the game …

He just had not set the aesthetes to dreading his absence.

Fussy as the Federer connoisseurs can be when anyone dares cite the basic human imperfection of their hero, you can feel good for them that they do get more time with him.

While Federer hasn't won any of the last six major championships, he has gone quarter-final, quarter-final, semi-final, semi-final, final, quarter-final, a stretch gaudy by any reasonable human standard. The idea of him up and winning the US Open or the 2012 Australian Open or Wimbledon does not seem far-fetched.

"[It] wasn't a shocker second-round loss in straight sets, some stupid match I played," he said on Wednesday. "It was a great match, I think, from both sides … There's no reason to look too far ahead, to be quite honest."

Forgive those words if they dripped with denial, for they also probably reassured some around the planet. Their odd sadness seems to hint a knowledge they never saw anything like him and never will again.