It’s early July, it’s a Sunday, and it’s still mostly lush and green at the All-England Tennis Club even if the grass has worn a little around the edges of the courts over the last two weeks of Wimbledon.
Maybe the same kind of description befits Roger Federer: a little worn around the edges career-wise at nearly 33, but still capable of finding green pastures results-wise when the occasion demands. He’s no longer a dead cert to be in the men’s final on a yearly basis, but on this early July Sunday in 2014, he’s there once again, with a chance of a record eighth Wimbledon singles title that would finally claw him free from fellow seven-timers Pete Sampras and William Renshaw. That said, he’s going to have to claw himself free from, and win three sets from, the redoubtable Novak Djokovic first. Subjectively speaking, it’s only Federer’s sense of occasion that seems to make this anything other than a pretty even, 50-50 battle in terms of pre-match prognosis.
There’s plenty of fervent and rhapsodic commentary across the Internet about the tennis skills and the personal charm of Federer: certainly enough for us to suggest that there’s not much more we can add to what’s already been said. But one thing about the Internet age (and the age of relatively cheap air travel) is that it has become easier to follow news and sport from all manner of locations.
Just as Paul Simon offered fifty ways to leave your lover (the number being symbolically important rather than mathematically accurate in the context of the song), we proffer some places and circumstances in which following Federer matches and catching up on the Swiss player’s results became a bizarre yet palpable rite of passage in its own way. Bizarre because a) we’re unlikely to ever meet the man; b) our tennis skills are rudimentary and we have a pretty good life of our own to be getting on with; yet palpable because, as former Wimbledon women’s champion Virginia Wade once perceptively articulated, a lot of tennis fans feel that they are living vicariously through Federer when watching him play even if they happily acknowledge that they can’t match his particular brand of talent. Plus c) where one happens to follow any sporting event is particular to oneself and takes on a vividness in its own right. We can only hope that what we have to write about this might chime with others instead of sounding self-indulgent. If it does we answer for that.
Let the list commence.
Completely wiped out from night shift work and going on a morning caffeine and pastry special in order to watch Federer’s victories on the other side of the globe against Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzales in the respective 2006 and 2007 Australian open finals. Being way too fidgety and sleep-starved in the early stages of both matches when both opponents demonstrated the sheer strength in depth of men’s tennis since around 2003 and really forced Federer onto the back foot;
Completely wiped out from night shift work and having to re-embark on afternoon living in the middle of a night shift watching the 2003 and 2004 Wimbledon finals. Same characteristics as above only more protracted. Somehow Andy Roddick’s frightening yet productive thwacking of the ball for the first couple of sets in the latter final seems more pertinent a memory than how Federer finally dealt with it;
All of the 2004 Wimbledon tournament and how others appeared to be living vicariously through Federer themselves. No sporting occasion in my lifetime has ever seemed more like a festival, as if people badly wanted the chance to see Federer playing even if they knew that in itself wouldn’t secure him the title. Two good examples being the eagerness of 1999 Wimbledon women’s champion Lindsey Davenport to watch a Federer match on her day off and Goran Ivanisevic almost surpassing himself for mercurial excitability when discussing the man himself on BBC television. I remember being in a CD chain store (one of those which has not outstayed Federer’s career) on the first or second day of the tournament and the woman serving me empathising with my anxiety to rush back with CDs in hand to watch the man himself: ‘It’s not about the serve, it’s not about the return, it’s about the everything.’
Watching on Ceefax (the prehistoric computerised BBC forerunner to the Internet) as the scores blinked up and renewed themselves in the 2005 Australian Open semi-final. A reminder that other people do know how to keep Federer at bay. Maybe the sheer torture of following a match in such laborious fashion might have eclipsed watching Federer unsuccessfully play a hot dog (a shot between the legs) at match point up against Marat Safin (who played brilliantly to beat Federer and then defeat Lleyton Hewitt to take the title). The match in its entirety is here; the hot dog is at 2:54:00.
Being in tropical Brazil when Federer won the 2005 US Open and was (unusually) reduced to second fiddle in terms of sport geekery on my culpable part. Blame England’s cricketers for finally winning an Ashes series against Australia on yet another continent or land mass around the same time. The Brazilian beaches and gorgeous acai sorbets awaited me; doing some Internet gannetry on Kevin Pietersen’s epic moment of series-clinchingness somehow got in the way.
Moving house the day of THAT 2008 Wimbledon final. A curiously flat experience, or perversely vivid because it was flat. I just didn’t expect Federer to beat Rafael Nadal in a third Wimbledon final in a row. I’m sure millions did get absorbed in the match, and I did indeed find a Federer – Nadal Wimbledon final truly absorbing – just in 2007. Then I really had no idea who would win and Federer somehow pulled it out of the fire in the face of a mesmerising onslaught from the young Spaniard. Same can be said for the 2009 Australian Open final, when Nadal produced a masterful piece of matchplay over five sets to prevail on his less favoured surface (hard court) and provoke that rareity: Federer moved to tears by defeat. Maybe it’s a sign of real life and bathos intruding when you find yourself doing the laundry before the removal man arrives and following the match on a bad-quality analogue radio where the breathless passages of commentary don’t actually lift you from your torpor. I apologise to all Wimbledon 2008 finalites if that does sound like heresy.
And so to the Scandi connection. It doesn’t actually entail a match, much less following the lesser ATP tournaments, although I was doing that a lot via a very good internet cafe in London that served up sluicingly refreshing tonic water and lime cordial during the course of 2004. That was the same year I went to Stockholm for the second time and found myself wandering the side streets running parallel to the main shopping drag, Drottninggatan. They seemed ridiculously civilised and quiet compared to London (just as Drottninggatan often has about as much in common with Oxford Street as it does with Easter Island).
Amid the urban greenery, as if driven to a quiet moment after a frenetic work-hard-play-hard existence back in the big London smoke, I suddenly thought: ‘It’s the French Open soon. And Wimbledon. It’s Federer’s acid test. If he wins these both then the sky’s the limit.’ That was the holiday when I first saw the Gustav Vasa ship, improbably retrieved and brought to the surface of the water in Stockholm in 1961 some 333 years after it sank. The effort of building and then retrieving the vast ship denotes humankind’s capacity over the centuries to the test the skies.
On a smaller (yet still intimate) scale, Federer reached for, but did not completely scale, the sky heights in 2004. He went out to three-time former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros but still finally realised his position as the truly dominant force in the game, winning three majors and the end-of-year Masters and going 72-6 for the year.
For all the statistics, it’s the manner in which Federer in that year produced one of the most beautiful yet devastating displays in sporting history, his demolition of Hewitt in the 2004 US Open final, which evokes that old ain’t-just-what-you-do-it’s-the-way-that-you-do-it truism (especially true of an athlete where, as we have seen, the aesthetics play a big part). I severely doubt that if – and if – he beats Djokovic today, it will be as easy. That’s why I also hearken back to what I thought on that May evening in Stockholm ten years ago which serves as good advice as the final looms: it’s sport. Don’t get precious about it. Enjoy it while it lasts. Vicariously or otherwise.