The story of Roger Federer is, on many levels, a linear and uncomplicated one. From a more distant or detached perspective, it certainly offers the surface appearance of a relatively simple career trajectory.
Federer struggled in his youth, found a taste of his talent against Pete Sampras in 2001, and needed more time to build his game into something which would be there every day. Then — after breaking through at Wimbledon in 2003 — he fully discovered a winning formula, never to lose it for anything beyond a month unless injuries were involved.
Federer needed time to grow up. Once the pieces began to fall into place, they remained in place for 14 years. Federer has remained a fundamentally steady and reliable championship player for a long time. When he lost, it was because Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic became better and evolved, not because he regressed or watched his skills erode.
It all sounds so simple, and to a certain extent, it is. However, to get a fuller appreciation for Federer or any great athlete, the larger and broader themes cannot be allowed to harden into the easy or reflexive knee-jerk generalizations which fail to allow for the presence of nuance, an appreciation of players such as Juan Martin del Potro, or an understanding of the occasions when Federer surprisingly loses, as was the case in Sunday’s Indian Wells final.
The surprise, to be specific, was not the fact that Federer lost — del Potro had a very good chance to win going into this contest. What was surprising to at least some degree is the fact that Federer lost the match after having three match points on his serve.
No, the moment was not entirely new. Federer has lost matches, even a championship match, after having had match points before. Yet, Federer’s 17-0 record in 2018 (now 17-1) and five match losses since the start of 2017 (now six), occurring against the backdrop of a depleted ATP field without his foremost adversaries, created the powerfully familiar feeling that Federer was going to serve out that match at 5-4, 40-15. One could have remained open to the possibility that Delpo would fight back, but that is not the same thing as distrusting Federer’s ability to close out the match. If there is one thing Federer has done since the start of 2017, it is that he has re-earned the trust of others to win a match of significance (on a non-clay surface) in a tight situation. Sunday, it simply didn’t happen.
Federer couldn’t hit well-placed first serve on any of his three match points. Del Potro played bravely to apply pressure on his opponent. Federer wasn’t able to hit a good shot. Federer didn’t miss an easy winner; he did get a little tight, and Delpo, to his great credit, pounced. It is like a champion golfer missing a 15-foot putt to win a tournament by one stroke on the final hole. The putt might not have been a gimmie, but it is a putt that player has made so many times before. When that heralded player fails to do something he has done hundreds of times in the past, it’s not a choke or even a flinch (not unless the specific details are more damning). It is merely a case of human imperfection and limitation. If hitting a first serve on match point or making a 15-footer to win The Masters on the 18th hole were automatic realities, players would never miss and great sports achievements would not own either drama or heft.
This is why Federer’s loss — and many others like it — is, in a sense, comforting.
No, it’s not comforting to his fans, but it is comforting in the sense that Federer is not an automatic winner, someone who has always finished tournaments in which he was the favorite and/or held the upper hand in a match.
For all the times non-Federer-loving tennis fans have groaned in a spirit of resignation when Roger was just about to win a tournament, there have been times when that seemingly preordained ending never quite occurred. Federer winning is one of the most familiar ATP moments the viewing public has seen over the past 15 years. For his fans, that familiar moment never gets old. For his detractors, those moments were occasions for groaning and lamentation. The point of the familiarity, though, is to underscore the point that Federer is almost always there in the final of an important tournament.
He did not win title No. 98 on Sunday, but he did reach final No. 147, which moved him past Ivan Lendl (146) for second place on the all-time list behind Jimmy Connors (164). Federer might have 97 titles, but he has lost 50 other finals. Federer has reached 195 semifinals, with Nadal at 146. Federer has lost in 48 semifinal matches. A lot of these numbers are a product of longevity, to be sure. Yet, when one recalls Pete Sampras’s career and remembers how poorly he did at the French Open or how up-and-down he was in the latter years of his career, it is not surprising to realize that Sampras’s name doesn’t appear on the top-10 lists of runner-up or semifinal finishes. Federer — and to a lesser degree, Nadal and Djokovic — planted a stake in the ground by establishing relentless week-to-week consistency. Nadal and Djokovic have many years left to enhance their places in the history books. Federer, though, is the current flagbearer not just for winning, but for finishing second or in the top four (semifinals) when he does lose. He is not completely immune to the early-round loss, and obviously, he picked up a ton of those early losses in the first several years of his career. Yet, since the start of 2004, how many times has Federer failed to make the final four of a tournament? All in all, not that many relative to the number of matches he has played.
This is part of the larger Federer experience — namely, that he reaches high and achieves even when he loses.
Jack Nicklaus won 18 golf majors, but what has to be mentioned alongside that record-setting number of wins are the surrounding statistics: 19 runner-up finishes, 46 top threes, 56 top fives, 73 top 10s. Nicklaus finished in the top five in seven straight golf majors. The track record does point to remarkably enduring consistency, but within that consistency lies the fact that Nicklaus more often finished second (19) than he finished first (18). If he finished in the top three, the times when he didn’t lift a trophy (28) dwarfed the times when he made a victory speech (18).
Nicklaus had more championship moments than any of his peers, predecessors, or successors… but the fairy-tale ending often eluded him, as shown in the “Duel In The Sun” with Tom Watson in Turnberry at the 1977 British Open.
It is so much the same with Federer, especially after what we saw on Sunday. Federer wins in these situations more than anyone else, and yet, he has lost in these situations more than a few times. More than a dozen times, Federer has lost a match after having match point. He has lost seven tournament-deciding tiebreakers, i.e., final-set tiebreakers in championship matches of tournaments.
No, Federer didn’t deserve to win any of the matches he lost. Tennis players have to win the last point, and Federer has not won the last point on several occasions — to that extent, coming close doesn’t matter at all. Yet, viewed through a different lens, coming close certainly does matter. It means that Federer is almost always in a very familiar place on a Friday (major tournament), Saturday (Masters/500) or Sunday (both) with a chance to lift a trophy.
“If I can keep giving myself chances” is the Federer anthem. Sometimes it means winning Wimbledon or the Australian Open against a depleted field and taking full advantage of the opportunity. Other times it doesn’t lead to glory… but it leads to a tournament final and reinforces the reality that Federer’s reliability, five months short of his 37th birthday, is still as much of an everyday part of tennis as it has been since 2004.
The winning, then, while very familiar, isn’t as familiar as something else: Federer’s presence late in a tournament. That translates to trophies, but it will also translate into the kind of scene witnessed on Sunday against a fully deserving Delpo. Appreciating these almost moments is as essential to understanding Federer as admiring the championships.
Almost is a regret-soaked word for so many athletes and sports teams. For Roger Federer — especially after the 2018 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells — that word doesn’t carry the sting it normally possesses.