By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Time is a great leveller. It is also contrarian in how it presents itself. It speeds by even as it seems to be going ever so slowly in the world we inhabit.
All of these aspects of time can then be seen in how Roger Federer’s career took shape and form. It appeared to be going fast while reducing its velocity before culminating in a finish that brought almost the entirety of the tennis world – even his rivals – to tears.
It has now been a few months since the 20-time Grand Slam champion retired. Quite soon, time will have made its mark on this occurrence, pushing it to a day that happened sometime in the past.
For those who will be new to tennis in the days to come, it will be seen as an event that captivated the audience but one to which they had a connection. Away from the realm of celebration and nostalgia, this same theme will manifest on the court as well. Those who will never see Federer play again professionally won’t know what he was capable of doing – except in lore and through the myriad videos available – and there will be newer crops of tennis pros who will only have heard of him as a legend rather than the player who accomplished first-hand what would be regaled about him.
Time will enhance our descriptions of the 41-year-old. In his heyday, Federer had garnered quite a reputation and several notable labels. In some circles, he was seen as an airbender – who had the ability to direct his shots wherever he willed, often plucking them for winners even when the prospect looked to be unlikely – and also as a timebender.
The latter facet showed itself in the numerous times the Swiss lifted himself from difficulties – from the absolute loss of form to various illnesses and injuries – across the years. To a certain extent, the aspect of Federer bending time also ensured the romanticisation of those trouble-filled days. The focus has shifted to how he survived those days, a set and a match at a time, stacking them to become accumulations of tournaments and seasons.
Federer’s trait of downplaying his physical woes in all the years he played had enabled the propagation of the line of thought that maybe, he did have enough resources within him to cross one final hurdle and end his career on his terms.
Not only did that not happen; in the last moment of his career, the receptiveness to what had been perceived as his customary reticence even took Federer by surprise.
He said this to L’Equipe in one of his interviews right after the announcement of his retirement:
“People judge you but they don’t know. There was not one single question on my knee during the press conference, which to my eyes is phenomenal. It was the only thing in my mind. For months, each morning, each minute, and at the very end I’m not supposed to even talk about it? In a way I was happy with that, but I just couldn’t figure out what people had seen. Either I’m very good at hiding my problems. Or people just don’t understand. Or even they are too nice to talk about what hurts.”
Regardless of these eventualities playing out in real time, Federer’s continuity and flow across professional tennis seasons stemmed from him not trying to gain or regain control over time, as others in the profession – both present and past – were wont to do. On the contrary, he played with an awareness that except for his game on a given day, he had no control over anything once he stepped on the court to play. In that sense, he did really bend time – making progressions of his own while seemingly adhering to its periodic reappearances in his career.
Not only was this easy for him to accept early on, but time drove home the point later in his journey. The fall from his highs in 2008, followed by further dips in 2010-11, 2013, falling short again in 2014-15, and then the first knee injury and surgery he had in 2016, all channeled and galvanised Federer. In the results he proffered each time he rebounded from these tough periods. He also seemed to be acknowledging that he was finding it much easier to accept he wasn’t the same player who had come through the ranks – first, as the 18-year-old kid who turned pro in 1998 and then as the 20-year-old who toppled the seven-time Wimbledon champion, Pete Sampras, on Centre Court in 2001.
Federer maintained this status quo of adhering to time in the way he exited the sport. He had known that time had come to collect on his career. Instead of ruing the opportunities the world assumed he was to have but never materialised, the winner of 103 titles made time bend for him for one last outing in his career – by choosing his venue of retirement, the manner of his farewell, and most importantly, by being at peace with his decision.
This time around, there wasn’t much that time could do, except bow down to Roger Federer.