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Roger Federer eats another serving of “seconds” — how it tastes is up to you

Matt Zemek

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Indian Wells men’s singles final ended much the same way as the 2018 Indian Wells men’s singles final: with Roger Federer coming very close to winning, but falling just short in a long third set.

The more things change, the more they stay the same with Federer.

Does this frustrate you or give you reassurance? Does this make his fans happy or sad? Does this make his detractors happy or sad?

It is all in the eye — and mind — of the beholder.

Federer is this malleable lump of clay — anyone can mold his achievements and his tennis existence into whatever they want it to be. It has been the case for a long time.

The kind of taste Federer leaves in the mouth of a tennis observer is not Federer’s fault or responsibility. That taste is created by the people who watch him, whether as admirers or as critics. Another close loss in the Indian Wells final reinforces everyone’s prior attitudes. What you think of Federer now — today, March 20, 2019 — almost certainly did not change relative to your pre-tournament attitude toward the Swiss two weeks ago.

Some will look at that statement and find something either boring or inaccurate about it. Some will look at that statement and marvel at the consistency of Federer.

He is whatever you want him to be. He is whatever you think he represents. He is the avatar for tennis’s glories and successes if you admire him; he is an embodiment of acute problems if you dislike him.

What kind of taste does he leave in your mouth? It is up to you, not him, to make and shape that determination.

Here is the enduring difficulty involved in assessing Roger Federer, in this advanced stage of his shimmering career: Do you, as an observer, feel Federer should have won Sunday’s Indian Wells final against Dominic Thiem — and that accordingly, this loss should be viewed or felt as a disappointment for him?

OR… do you feel that Thiem simply stepped up in the second and third sets and took the match away from Federer, and that the Swiss — despite being favored by most in the final — had a very good tournament and should feel good about where he stands?

I won’t answer that question directly. (Side note: If you are familiar with my work, you already know which answer I would give, anyway.) I will, however, offer this question as an indirect commentary:

If you ARE a person who thinks this loss and this tournament rate as disappointments for Federer, what does that say about the level of expectations you place on him?

The taste of yet another serving of “seconds” — after losses in finals to Borna Coric, Novak Djokovic, and Juan Martin del Potro last year — is both a continuation of Federer’s quality longevity on tour, going the distance in yet another tournament (his 153rd final on tour), and the reason Federer has not passed Jimmy Connors (109) on the all-time ATP Open Era titles list.

Do you choose to be inspired by this or disappointed by this?

The taste of these “seconds” is up to you, not Fed.

I have said this before and will continue to say it as long as events warrant such a line of analysis: Federer’s older age means more inconsistent tennis. Federer is at a point in his career where he is still very capable of brilliance, but not to the extent that he is likely to sustain that brilliance for longer periods of time. Federer has to survive the matches in which he rides the roller-coaster if he is to win titles. The roller-coaster emerged against Thiem, and Federer — though coming close to escaping — got caught at the very end.

It is amazing Federer remains this central to the story of men’s tennis and its biggest competitions at age 37, but the inconsistency which is a fact of life in his game these days is, in its own odd way, a sign of reassurance: Even Roger Federer has limitations.

Do you accept them or refuse to acknowledge them? How this latest serving of “seconds” tastes is up to you, not him.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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