After ten hours of storms that predictably inconvenience the mid-Atlantic every August and September, I was finally able to get into my Labor Day routine. There was neither a barbeque nor pool party, no discussions of how great the summer had been nor a radio blasting the local AOR station counting down classic rock’s top 500.
The festivities were simple. A couch and a TV. The couch was symbolic, a reminder that there was a comfortable place to sit down after odd numbers as my legs carried me closer and closer to the screen, either to the edge of the coffee table or knelt on the carpet, looking up at the screen as though it were some holy relic.
Wimbledon 2001’s classic fourth round match was the first sporting event whose significance I appreciated. Perhaps it was the first event of any kind I could grasp. I was thirteen years old. All I did was go to school, play tennis, try to force my silly little hands to learn guitar, and practice the horribly tedious Bar Mitzvah reading. There wasn’t much to my life and the end of innocence Fall 2001 would bring was inconceivable at the time.
On one side was Sampras. He had been my idol in the 1990s. I appreciated his controlled demeanor, which his great rival Andre Agassi didn’t obtain until much later in his career. I adored and imitated his one-handed backhand and yearned for the confidence to relentlessly attack the net like him. I watched him dominate in that second golden era of American tennis and enjoyed every win. He was, at the time, widely considered the greatest of all time.
Sampras’ opponent was 19 years old and new to the top 20. I didn’t know anything about him. A headband in Wimbledon’s customary white held back his locks and spotty facial hair both hid and accentuated his youth. The two players went through the warmup, from the baseline, to the net, to overheads, and finally to serves. Then the match started.
I was captivated. The newcomer could handle Sampras’ legendary serve. His backhand, lithe and one-handed seemed as though it could hit any angle imaginable. He came to net behind either deviously sliced backhands or topspin forehand approach shots, hit with an impeccable modern technique. He was the player I wanted to be, an immaculate amalgam of old and new. He beat Sampras in five sets. The 19 year old, ranked 15th in the world, took the first steps towards becoming the man we know as Roger Federer. I had a new idol.
Late on Labor Day, Federer got ready to play Tommy Robredo, a competent but unspectacular pro; the type of player that Roger has feasted on for a decade. Weather had relegated the match to Louis Armstrong Stadium, the US Open’s second show court. Roger hadn’t played anywhere but the USTA’s behemoth Arthur Ashe Stadium since 2006, when Andre Agassi’s farewell tour took precedent. He came out flat, getting broken on his first service game.
There is little more to say about Mr. Federer. David Foster Wallace pretty much summed it up (9 Grand Slam victories ago) in his great 2006 piece in the New York Times. He is probably the most decorated athlete in history, ostensibly a gracious competitor, loving family man (I say ostensibly as who knows what’s in his head), and generous philanthropist. He recently made the news for spending an entire day with a Make-A-Wish foundation participant, and is universally seen as a positive influence.
Federer, however, is the context and not the subject of what I am hoping to convey.
Roger managed to break Robredo back in the first set and it was back on serve. He then lost the tiebreaker at 3.
Young people look for idols. I looked for people who were legendary at the things I wanted to be merely good at. I admired mainly musicians and athletes, as I wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time to appreciate writers, scientists, and the myriad others worthy of adoration. My musical idols were generally either dead or such outrageous individuals that there was little beyond their creative abilities to appreciate. I didn’t get to see them rise and fall. Even Sampras, my 90s idol, was too far from my age to get too attached to.
With Roger, the timing was perfect. He took over my favorite sport when I was at my most impressionable and I watched him rise to unprecedented heights in both pure skill and complete dominance. His three slam seasons are (in my opinion) the best tennis that anyone has ever played.
Federer gets broken in the second set and loses it 6-3. He fails to convert several break points. I still think he’ll win. So does John McEnroe.
If there’s any negative to being amongst the best to ever do something, it’s that people overstate the rate of decline from the peak. In 1980, John Lennon hadn’t released an new album of original material in six years and there was doubt he ever would again. November 1980’s “Double Fantasy” was panned at release, likely because of a combination of general disdain for Yoko Ono and a perverse desire in the music criticism scene for schadenfreude – to see the larger-than-life John Lennon reduced to self-recorded vanity albums. John Lennon was shot dead a few weeks after the album’s release, and critics, faced with the reality of a world without John, reevaluated Double Fantasy. They described it as what it was – a solid collection of songs from one of pop music’s brightest talents.
The same thing is happening to Roger. In this stage of a career including 17 slam titles, 24 slam finals, over 300 weeks at number one (as recently as a year ago!), anything less than the sublime artistry of his younger days is seen as an utter failure and harbinger of his demise. People are saying he can’t play anymore, though he will stand at No. 6 in the world at the U.S. Open’s conclusion. Just because something isn’t what it once was doesn’t mean that it isn’t presently great.
Again, Federer is broken. Again, he fails to convert several break points. He finishes the night at 2-16 on break chances, including a handful of 0-40 return games. He loses the set, and the match. In the press conference, he says that he “kind of self-destructed”.
I don’t think Roger is done. He’ll get back in the top 4. I think he’s got a few more solid years and will make runs at major titles. He won’t get close to Graf’s 22, but I see him matching Navratilova’s 18.
Growing up is an infinite process and continues until we die. Things of ultimately trivial significance can influence us depending on the importance we attach to them. For me, it was watching a dispirited Roger Federer lose to a relative journeyman without a fight. I didn’t feel this way after the 2013 Wimbledon loss, as his opponent played a brilliant match. On Labor Day, Roger let himself lose and that’s what I found most dispiriting. It was a reminder that I’m not a kid anymore, a reminder that I’m not satisfied with just idolizing greatness. Now I want to become great at something myself, whatever it is. I want to inspire myself (I won’t presume that I can or will inspire others) the way that the great ones, in whatever field, have inspired me.
Although I’m past the idolization of my younger days, there’s still inspiration to be drawn. Federer last night said that he would put the loss out of his mind and get back to playing the way he knows he can. Forward, always forward. Everything that happens is an opportunity to get better.