Sporting Life

Fed wins affection, Djokovic earns admiration

Roger Federer, that former monarch of the courts, once needed no help, no prayer said for him, no superstitious gesture made for him. Yet on Centre Court on Sunday, a middle-aged man crosses his fingers. He hopes for Federer, he wishes luck for Federer. As if he knows that Federer, three weeks from 34, is some distance from his tennis youth and Novak Djokovic, just 28, is now some distance in talent from everyone else.

Tennis is a lonely sport but Federer, all tournament, had serious help. From my mother who doesn't pray or watch sport but prayed and watched. From Serena Williams who said: "How can you root against Roger?" From actor Bradley Cooper, who sat in his box.

It's strange and yet enchanting: A public might be tired of a star with 17 slams and yet he is cheered like he has never won one. In a time when an athlete's popularity is often a product of a slick PR machine, here is still found an old-fashioned, true and sweet affection.

Maybe because Federer is normal, a regular guy who, before the final, made conversation with the ball boys who carry the finalists' bags onto court. Maybe because he's also abnormal, like that running, cross-court backhand slap against Andy Murray, a shot that remained as perfectly preposterous even after repeated replays. Maybe in a prosaic game of power, fitness, speed, he reminds us of the sophisticated, tasteful, refined. When he leaves, an entire genre of tennis will slip into extinction.

Federer lets us believe what we need to believe, which is the possibility of magic and of time rewound. People who suggest he should retire miss the very point of him: How can you draw a line for a man whose appeal lies in refusing to see any limits? The performance he designed against Murray we did not even dare to imagine.

Some, of course, will watch Federer forever, like a one-eyed friend who WhatsApped me early on in the final: "Fed's game is just so good looking that it's like watching Fed playing 'someone'... I don't even notice what Djo is doing." But Djokovic, through his eventual humbling of Federer, demanded to be noticed and this was the second truth of Sunday: If affection was reserved for one man then the other left with unreserved admiration.

Federer lets us believe what we need to believe, which is the possibility of magic and of time rewound. People who suggest he should retire miss the very point of him: How can you draw a line for a man whose appeal lies in refusing to see any limits?

Djokovic knows that Swiss elegance is easier to love than Serbian efficiency and he said generously of the crowd's partiality: "More or less anywhere I play against Roger it's the same. I have to accept it and I have to work to earn that support one day."

But on this day Djokovic reminded us there is something sublime to his solidity. He makes defence attractive, he returns like a man with a radar and his rallies are like superbly constructed and unrefutable arguments. He is the sum of many precise shots and if the Swiss is famous for brushwork then the Serb simply paints lines.

Federer did not offer up his best game partly because Djokovic refused to allow its expression. If the Swiss' genius starts with an explosive serve, then the Serb's lies in defusing it. Two days earlier, asked the greatest difficulty in playing Djokovic, Richard Gasquet repeated himself: "His return, his return." The Frenchman said of Djokovic, "he never miss", and it creates a pressure that makes others miss.

Federer won an average of 85 per cent of first-serve points in six matches but only 74 on Sunday; he won an average of 65 per cent of second-serve points all fortnight yet only 49 per cent on Sunday; he had five double faults totally in six previous matches and then three on Sunday. He was not so much defeated by Djokovic as slowly dismantled and deflated.

If Federer's skill is immediately apparent - in his serenity of strokeplay and dancer's lightness - then Djokovic's strength is less conspicuous. Resolve always is.

He had choked a little in the French Open final and wept, he had lost six of his last nine slam finals, and then he was a break down to Federer in this final. But this player who meditates in Wimbledon at a Buddhist temple, whose eyes tend to open wide as if suddenly he has seen the light, has a spine and a spirit. And suddenly the story is not Nadal on 14 slams hunting Federer, but Djokovic (nine) chasing Nadal.

Federer may never move past 17 slams but it is the chase which has become profound. He plays to win but he plays because he can, because he loves it, because courts fill for him and men still bend to him.

He craves this title but trophies, of all shapes, he will always have at home. It is to be on that court, to feel the cascade of those cheers, to have this sense of being alive that will die when he retires. "I must tell you," he said, "it (the support) almost means as much to me as winning." And so, of course, he will be back at Wimbledon. But, just in case, a middle-aged man might want to keep his fingers crossed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Fed wins affection, Djokovic earns admiration'. Print Edition | Subscribe