Roger Federer and the infinite greatness of being
From growing up with Roger Federer's matches to facing the inevitable day of watching him bid farewell - an ardent fan tries to make sense of what this departure means for tennis.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a...whimper
T.S Eliot's famous last lines from The Hollow Men have often haunted me but perhaps they haven't felt so palpably true till I stumbled across Roger Federer's nonchalantly "❤️" captioned video message on his social media handles one fine September evening announcing his farewell from competitive tennis - once and for all.
The Laver Cup 2022 - slated for 23rd-25th September will mark the Swiss Maestro's final time on a tennis court as a professional player and then that would be it - another star slipping from the tennis galaxy, arguably the biggest and most beloved of them all. There is no flourish, there is no razzmatazz, there is no-nothing but an all-consuming suddenness and a gnawing hollowness of what's to come next - the world ending with a whimper.
20 Grand Slams and several fairytales later, the 41-year-old tennis legend's "bittersweet decision" is difficult to make peace with, at least, yet. Unlike the tennis fantasy that every other Federer fanatic nurtured - the one where we passionately refused to write him off ever and see him, clad in white, lift a ninth Wimbledon trophy on the grass courts he ruled over once, before bidding this same farewell - reality had some other plans.
Earlier in September when Serena Williams was playing her final match in front of an electric crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, I was batting away hot tears, watching the inevitable happen. As Serena did her final twirl on the court, my mind anxiously went to Roger Federer, like always. What if he decides to retire too? What if that comeback never happens? What if the rumours about fluids...being there in his knee are true and the end is hurtling towards us? What if...?
The unending questions, the ceaseless panic, the single thought of not being able to see Roger Federer craft and cast more of his magic - all of it is enough to leave me, and countless others who have grown up with Roger Federer briefly at a loss of purpose - such is the influence of his greatness, we do not know how to fend for ourselves when orphaned wholly by it.
But it is inevitable and truth be told, the breadcrumbs of this day's arrival had been laid out too clearly in the last couple of years - what with Federer undergoing repeated knee surgeries to Federer struggling to find his flair, his body refusing to cooperate - but the heart does hope, does it not?
"Hope" is the thing with feathers - and for Federer, it always fluttered, never refusing to bow down, and rest.
So every time someone dared to question his comeback, in utter denial and mindless confidence, I have gone to his rescue - Yes, Federer will come back. Yes, the Wimbledon dream will happen. It's Federer - he is the stuff of fairytales, surely his ending on the tennis tour will be what "happily ever after's" are fashioned on?
End of the PeRFect spell?
The memory is still stark as yesterday, so much so that in my mind, I have bookmarked the event as 'The Day I Discovered Roger Federer' - because, little did I know, as a scrawny kid in the sixth standard with no sporting inspirations to fawn over, I would find my life change, once and for all.
It was the classic Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer showdown in the 2009 Australian Open Finals that I stumbled across the magic that Federer was, quite literally, flipping through television channels once-upon-an-afternoon post-school - and there he was, in a cool blue Nike shirt and his auburn curls, moving with balletic grace across the court - weaving magic with the forehands, drawing awe and danger with the often-criticised one-handed backhand and making the heart skip a beat with his aces down-the-T.
But what's more? He went on to lose that match to Nadal, his first-ever loss in a hard court Major final, and shedding all touches of the divine, in a most human way, Federer started crying, the tears flowing easily as choking on his own voice, he gasped, "God, it's killing me," before handing the mic over to Rafa, in what was the pinnacle years of their rivalry.
And voila, I had discovered the phenomenon that was Roger Federer, a little too late but still just in time for him to cast his spell around me, spilling poetry and magic into each other, causing mini-explosions in both the heart and the mind and making sport, lovable, for a change? Here was an athlete feeling the sport, here was an athlete playing with his heart - and that was enough to endear him to me.
But it wasn't easy to be a Roger Federer fan - the taunts came easy, the comparisons several, especially with the arrival of his arch-rival Rafa Nadal and subsequently, Novak Djokovic - yet a quiet reverence prevailed among all nay-sayers of Federer.
Federer is weak. He isn't even muscular and strong like Nadal. Federer isn't as athletic as Djokovic. Federer is perhaps, not the greatest of them all.
Yet none of it ever did ruffle me - in being a Federer fan, I was secure, the greatness of his being showcasing itself not just in the poetry that he managed to script on-court but also by simply being himself - warm, loving, most relatable, still thinking of himself as the "young Swiss ball kid" whose dream came true, even in his farewell letter at 41. Such is the man.
From impatiently waiting to go home from school on particular Australian Open match days when Rod Laver Arena would light up with a Federer match to snatching away the television remote during primetime soap-bingeing time and making the whole family watch Federer in Wimbledon to crying with him during his 2009 French Open win - that even inspired me to base my SUPW assignment on him (a flashy handkerchief where I painted Federer's winning moment if you must know), the love for Federer was evermore.
Not only that, the Swiss legend was the reason for my first butterflies of love and the first pangs of heartbreak - his matches were not just another regular affair, they demanded all my emotions, making me feel things I didn't know sport could inspire.
So when Federer, in a comeback match at the Australian Open in 2017 against Rafa Nadal, again, contested an epic five-setter and by the end of it declared that he wished tennis wasn't this cruel and there was the option of a draw whereby he could share the trophy with Rafa, I couldn't help but marvel more.
From that to when Federer, despite being the better player, lost to Djokovic in the finals of the Wimbledon in 2019, in a harsh tie-breaker, I didn't know how to gather myself together again - the loss once more felt way too personal. With Federer, the emotions were always too real.
Through 24 illustrious years on the tour, the Swiss Maestro has gifted us with moments too many for us to cherish forever, each perfectly poetic, each perfectly magical - and for any Federer fan, thoroughly emotional - making it all the more difficult for his goodbye to professional tennis, so heart-wrenching to process.
While we do that, in our own little ways, we can only say thank you, Roger, for everything - the magic, poetry, et al.
Tennis will never be the same again, but your spell will forever remain.