A July without Roger Federer
How a Wimbledon-less year affects the 38-year-old champ and his legion of fans
Over the last fortnight, have you found yourself feeling deeply apologetic about missing live sports?
Watching millionaires smack a ball with their foot, racquet or bat has always been a great way to rise above the drudgery of everyday life; but where we are now, is very far from ordinary.
That perspective made it easy to dismiss the personal anguish of fellow sports fans. The suspension of Liverpool’s title-run in the English Premier League? Get a grip. The postponement of the European Championship and Tokyo Olympics? Forget about it. The cancellation of the Indian Premier League? About time already.
That resolve remained firm until the most highbrowed sports event of them all got called off for the year, and all perspective and apologies streamed out of sanitised windows. For the first time in 75 years, since the end of World War II, Wimbledon has been cancelled. More poignantly for those who have witnessed the ongoing era in the sport, this will be the first June/July in 23 years without Roger Federer featuring on his beloved bed of grass.
In the bygone decade, Federer didn’t win a single US Open, started ignoring the French Open and required great miracles to survive at the Australian Open. It was only at Wimbledon that he remained omnipresent—like his court coverage—and a constant in the far reaches of the second week of the tournament. Those reasons alone are enough to make the third Grand Slam of the year the one that matters the most to tennis fans; tradition and strawberries can take a walk.
Surprisingly enough, the greatest Wimbledon career on the men’s side of the draw, which saw eight titles, is enclosed within two five-set losses to different Novaks—Jiri in first round of 1998 and Djokovic in the final of 2019. I cannot remember the former and do not want to remember the latter. For Roger fans (and doesn’t that include everyone who watches tennis?), the life and times of Federer at SW19 is bracketed within two monumental victories: the first against Pete Sampras, in the fourth round of 2001; and the last against Rafa Nadal, in the semi-final of 2019, which set the record straight against the Spaniard.
I can only illustrate the interval between those two moments, and hence Federer’s longevity, using personal milestones.
When Federer snatched the baton from the seven-time Wimbledon winner in Sampras, I had just completed my 10th standard board exams. More than half a lifetime (or 18 years) later, I was fortunate enough to be on Centre Court for the father of all rematches—Federer v Nadal at Wimbledon for the first time since their epic, era-defining final in 2008. Apart from a period of play in the fourth set, the quality of that semi-final didn’t quite live up to the hype. But Centre Court’s immaculate love for Federer did.
Federer is revered everywhere he plays around the globe—his groundstrokes can lift every spectator in the largest tennis arena in the world, the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. But even that pales when compared to Wimbledon’s passion for anything Federer. For one, that romance has little to do with his shot-making abilities.
2019: sometime in the second set, Nadal ran along the length of his baseline and curled in a magnificent forehand down-the-line winner. Urged by a sprinkle of loud Rafa supporters, Centre Court followed with a belated and sympathetic ripple of applause. Next point, Nadal crashed his backhand into the net and Centre Court exploded—men in crocodile-leather shoes and tweed jackets forgot time and again that they weren’t at a football match.
That Friday may mark the last time Federer won a match at Wimbledon. It is still hard to fully comprehend how he managed to lose two days later on Sunday. At 8-7 and 40-15 in the fifth set, Federer had two match points on his serve to win his ninth trophy at Wimbledon and tie Martina Navratilova for the record. On the second match point at 40-30, he even set up the point just as he had set up the match point against Andy Murray in 2012. Seven years apart, Federer served down the T and Murray and Djokovic blocked it back. Federer then whipped his forehand down-the-line and charged towards the net to stifle the angle of the return. In 2012, Murray’s crosscourt passing shot sailed wide and Federer slipped to his knees and cried. In 2019, Djokovic’s crosscourt passing shot landed on the edge of the service box. Everything after that remains a blur. It is hard to focus when you’re blinking back tears.
Djokovic has now beaten Federer in three Wimbledon finals (three!) to take his SW19 count to five and over all Slam tally to 17—three Big Ws and three majors away from tying both of Federer’s all-time records. Even the most rabid Federer fans have probably accepted that Djokovic is going to reel Federer’s numbers in, what with the Serb having won five out of the last seven Slams (including the only one played this year) in what is already a full-fledged hot streak, the third such streak of his career.
A cancelled Wimbledon is bound to hurt Djokovic’s rhythm but not as much as it is bound to impact Federer’s ticking career-clock. If and when Wimbledon is held next year and if—and that’s the big if—Federer returns to play it, he will be almost 40, and playing for both lost and leftover time. But because it’s Federer at Wimbledon and that occurrence has often defied logic, his fans will still expect him to win it.