I always wondered if Roger Federer collects art, visits museums, shrugs on a tuxedo and wanders off to the ballet to see racket-less versions of himself. Dancers, in their exquisite athleticism on a stage, in their suppression of pain during performance, are clearly athletes. The reverse occurs less frequently when an athlete produces such a harmonious yet lethal rhythm we liken it to dance. Dutch TV was so taken with footballer Marco van Basten that they did a split-screen comparison between him and a ballet dancer. In our imaginations, we have done the same when Michael Holding ran in, Michael Jordan climbed air, Cubans boxed. But Federer owned more grace that appeared legally permissible.
From 2004-07, when he won 11 of his majors, his winning was rivalled by the method of his winning, his whispering feet, the symmetry of his stroke, or what we might call his elegant reinterpretation of tennis. Some days I wanted the scoreboard to be shut off, the umpire dismissed, the opponent required only to complete the illusion of a contest.
But this was the was of Federer, the past. The present of Federer is being “amazed” by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga at Wimbledon, when once he did the amazing. The present is a mail on Thursday from my mother—who has no affection for sport but like so many others was lured by his beauty—that read poignantly: “Inconsolable—no more tennis viewing for me.” Federer may still have life, as Brian Phillips wrote wonderfully, but it doesn’t alter the reality that this Federer, whose months without a major title we now prosaically count, is different.
Out of tune: This was the first Grand Slam match Federer lost after leading 2-0. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
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Yet I am taken by this experience of watching an old Federer (or a new Federer occasionally finding his old self). His matches contain a tension, they are almost stressful, for once you sat back calmly as if at a theatre, now you crouch forward on the couch, you might not change a sitting position, the sort of superstitious nonsense that was never associated with him. His face seems different, though maybe it’s only our own uncertainty reflected back on him. Once he casually strode courts as if they were athletic catwalks, now he looks as if he’s in a match, as if he is forced to compete, as if he’s not entirely sure. His polish has worn off and he won’t admit to it—for how can he admit to it, for this would be Superman accepting he can’t locate a phone booth any more. And so he cries, he’s been sarcastic, he’s been defensive, he’s been human, saying after Wimbledon, “I don’t feel discouraged,” when this is what the others were supposed to say.
Age is tugging at his designer collar just enough. When he got to the French final it was a surprise and since when did Federer in a final surprise? At Wimbledon, even when fluent, there was just the suggestion that if he’s not on his game then he’s in trouble. That aura of command now has small rents of hesitancy. It’s there against Rafael Nadal, it was there against Novak Djokovic at the French where he had 25 break points but converted only four, it was there against Tsonga. But he beat Djokovic in Paris, despite all this, and for people who are new to tennis, this is instructive: One way to tell how good he was—the best ever I have seen—is by how good he is as he descends.
But mostly, what is fascinating and different about this Federer is the waiting. In his prime, he had 6-0 sets on four occasions in Grand Slam finals, one long majestic dance through a set, but now he is a limping Baryshnikov, so now you must wait for the one shot no one else can imagine, or construct, because they neither have the wrist nor daring nor conceit nor dazzle to play it. Once the shot just came. Forehands of audacious angle; slices of such nuance that they dazzled Martina Navratilova when she knocked with him; half-volley drives which was art at its most nonchalant.
Now the anticipation is sharper for even if he doesn’t win, and it doesn’t matter for me because he’s won so much and anyway so many can win, not everyone can do this. But the anticipation is longer because forehands that had the sound of a cane cutting air and ended points like a full stop now come back and those flicks are errant in angle or length. But then from a hideaway of a tired imagination, from an arrogance not yet eroded, from feet that remember a dance step, it comes. A sudden running backhand flick, with no backswing, as he did against Djokovic at the French; a lob against Tsonga so fine it belonged in an embroidery catalogue. And then, right at this moment, all rhythm and timing and grace, time freezes, and what will happen later, that he might fold, that he may follow it with a chunked backhand, that doubt will infect him two service games later, is irrelevant. For right now at least this long kiss goodbye is just fine, for now at least the perfect dancer has returned. It is enough for me.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com