At the 2017 Australian Open final, it was 5-3 in the fifth set, with the game score at 40-30. Rafael Nadal’s final shot flew out across the baseline by a couple of inches. For Roger Federer, no moment could have been sweeter. He sprang up, an expression of wild, child-like joy on his face, a reminder of tennis’ greatest achievement: He had just won his 18th Grand Slam.
As a beaming Federer lifted the trophy again this year in Melbourne—for the 20th time—it was a reminder of how a distraught and defeated Federer had cried openly at the same spot just a couple of years earlier. He has shed more tears in Melbourne than at any other venue.
At 36, Federer still plays with a grace unmatched by any of his peers, and few in the 145-year history of modern tennis’ have come close to matching his skills on court. Rod Laver, Australia’s closest answer to Federer—and a great player—always comes to watch, if only to see what he could not do. The sheer artistry of Federer’s movements draws comparisons to classical music, fencing and dance, even to Andrés Iniesta’s movements across the football field.
If a shot is out of reach, Federer weighs the odds of getting to it, and his chances of winning the point before reaching for it, or just letting it go. It is the hallmark of an athlete acutely aware of both his abilities and his body. In the long scheme of five sets, a few lost points don’t amount to anything.
When Nadal and Federer play, Wimbledon’s royal box is filled with a range of famous faces, and—like true royalty—they remain silent and in the background. Someone in the crowd even holds up a sign: “QUIET! Genius at Play."
The deathly silence of tennis is all the more funereal when Federer is on court. Partly, it is the nature of one-to-one combat, so different from the noisy team play of cricket and football. Maybe, in the cause of supporting great tennis rivalries, the audience itself is doubly focused. The very idea that the players are alone makes you want to watch them perform alone.
The silence of a crowd, sometimes as large as 15,000-20,000, is only an affirmation of that wish. At an Andre Agassi-Federer match at the US Open, where I was present, Agassi stopped mid-serve when he noticed some movement high up in the stands. A man was carrying his beer glass to his seat. Play resumed once he sat down and had his first sip.
In the earlier Wimbledon titles of his career, Federer, like any player, relied on the mistakes and weaknesses of his opponents to win points. In the charged 2001 fourth-round match against Pete Sampras, he sensed that the older master was on the way out, so his game assumed a dimension in which age and match fatigue became a prime target.
Sampras began to wilt not so much from Federer’s aggression, but his own lack of will. The match signalled the fall of Sampras as much as the rise of Federer.
In match after match, as Federer’s confidence grew, it was easy to see his transformation from an extraordinarily talented player to a deeply intelligent one. His game changed. It was not as if there was anything new or visibly noticeable; no sharper forehand, no addition of a slice, no speedier runs around the court. No, every shot was much the same, but it was clearly a uniquely Federer shot, something just right for his physique; his movements on court seemed almost sluggish, but he was always where he needed to be; and nothing about his serve spelt the flash of Goran Ivanišević or Juan Martin Del Potro.
Still, without serving that many aces, Federer kept winning more points than anyone else. He made no noise as he moved around, none of the blood-curdling grunts of Nadal or Maria Sharapova, no tantrums like his Swiss counterpart Stan Wawrinka, no awkward double-handed backhands like Novak Djokovic.
More than any physical change in his game during the early 2000s, Federer began to play with a private confidence; it was as if he had been lowered into a rectangular arena that had been made just for him. Its geometry had become his own, and he learnt to manipulate its angles whenever required.
It was not merely a matter of getting the ball back with speed, and placement, but about lending an angularity that could be developed as the point progressed. More than that, even knowing when the angle itself could be used for the winning shot. Federer adjusted his back swings and follow-throughs with the foreknowledge of the stroke. His favourite shot, the inside-out forehand, took him to the backhand side, and so far out of the court that it had to be an outright winner. It usually was.
I don’t know whether it is in the nature of the game or the recognition of the difficulties of setting the ball in motion, but the idea of giving a player two chances seemed unusual in any sport. Unlike the single shot in cricket, tennis constructs the point in a continual exchange. Every stroke carries with it the hope of completion, and tests the opponent’s resolve.
Federer uses the court like a chessboard, positioning himself in a careful defence, from which the surprise attack occurs. At the 2017 Wimbledon final, Marin Čilić’s hard shots, fired like bullets, fell by the wayside when confronted with the lean angular austerity with which Federer retaliated. It was like watching an enemy onslaught of heavy firepower at close range.
Federer merely took refuge in the bunker till the ammunition ran out, then rolled easily into enemy territory. With Čilić nursing a blister in the later stages of the match, he was certainly not in the best physical condition, but it was hard not to notice the frustrated rage on his face.
Even off the court, Federer’s demeanour rarely changes. Unlike other athletes of renown, he is the epitome of stoic convention and stability. His parents—though divorced—are always at his matches. He married his long-time girlfriend Mirka. She travels with him, looks after his business interests and their four children.
When he has time off the circuit, he doesn’t jet-set to a ski resort, but takes the family to the local zoo. Unlike golfer Tiger Woods, he has an unblemished family record; he makes no political statements, like basketball’s Michael Jordan, nor has he ever been accused, as cyclist Lance Armstrong was, of using performance-enhancing drugs.
His wholesome image carries him into a future retirement where the charitable work of the Roger Federer Foundation will come to the fore—education projects in his mother’s home country of South Africa, some in India—and the hope of stretching the funds to public health as well. Doubtless, Federer knows his tennis-playing days are numbered.
I knew mine were. In the late 1970s, when I was a student in the US, I too had hoped to make it to the professional circuit. The rigours of daily practice for the university team often stretched to 4-5 hours, first with the coach, hitting forehands, backhands, serves and volleys, then with the ball machine—the routine, an agonizing energy sapper, left little time for anything else.
Aching from six-hour weekend workouts, the team would take the evening train from Philadelphia to New York in September to watch the Björn Borg and John McEnroe US Open Finals, in 1980 and 1981.
Architecture school took a back-seat. Tennis was so all-consuming that it left you wasted and spent, thinking incessantly about top spin and wide-angled serve. I practised with Bill Monroe, a physics major who constantly debated between two possible careers—one as a research physicist at MIT, where he would work on “the Grey Cavity Phenomenon" or some other entirely fictitious idea he would make up in the hope of getting a future Nobel; the other as a world top 10 tennis player, moving up the rankings with every tournament.
Ours was meant to be a tennis rivalry like Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi and Nadal-Federer. The last I heard, Bill was teaching physics at a New Jersey high school. In 1983, two years after Federer’s birth, I hung up the racket and became an architect.
A good thing too. If you begin to examine sport for what it is, without its historic or international connections, a first-time observer will notice only the silliness of physical effort directed to no fruitful end. Two men swatting a ball across the net till it gets caught in it. Or 22 running after a larger ball pinning their hopes on getting the ball caught in the net. Or something yet more popular in India; 10 men spread in a circle, watching two others at the centre, all seemingly stationary, till a ball is tossed and someone—in an act of self-defence—hits it with a flat stick and the place comes alive.
For most of the year at Wimbledon, in the early dawn of weekend play, the actions that are acted out on court only reinforce the comical view. It is hard not to see the silly and funny side of two people brandishing a piece of metal with some strings. However, as July begins, the weekend players move out of the club grounds and take up their favourite positions behind the pub bar. In their place, 128 men and women became honorary members for two weeks.
Among them is a shy man who takes away the silliness, and makes it look all too easy.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect.