Sporting Life

Never doubt the Swiss master, even if his mission seems impossible

My cousin sends me a photograph of my mother taken on her 84th birthday. Roger Federer is playing Stan Wawrinka and she must watch. Federer is losing the third set and she cannot sit and the picture is of her standing in front of her TV, a great-grandmother, silver hair tied, hand cupping her anxious face.

She knows no sport, only Federer, and this is a portrait in devotion. And so after the final on Sunday, at 3am Melbourne time, 9.30pm India time, I call her to check if her heart is fine. Barely.

Now it's the morning after the unforgettable night and I have coffee with an Irish aunt, Jean, who is 75, and she talks Federer and Nadal. So does everyone else, reflecting and reliving and revelling. I wonder, is it corny to say we are blessed to have them? At their worst they mostly find their best as men and athletes.

I remember Sunday was a perfect day. The sky painted the colour you might find in an old light-blue ink bottle. A zephyr of wind. Even God is paying attention. The last seat in my media row is for a paying spectator. It is a Filipina from Manila who has never been to the tennis before. "I don't care who wins. I want a good match," she says. By the end, she will care. With these men, you cannot not care.

You can be a Federer admirer but you can't wipe away the image of Nadal's face later. Taut. Haunted. Drawn. A painting of pain. It is only sport, yet sport is their life. It is only a match, but for this time of their lives it defines them. He does not look at Federer. On this day he has seen enough of him.


A full house watching Roger Federer overcome Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Together these men are 65 years old and they are nervous. Trembling gods. This is the final's appeal, the errors, the anxiety, the pressure, the searching for shots that once came easily, the desperation to remember how they once won Slams. They dance between brilliance and vulnerability and one thing strikes me: in front of Nadal, Federer never looks regal.

Federer was generous later in his speech, but I'm glad - even if Nadal had won - there isn't a "draw" in tennis. One man wins but he is only better for that day and then they move to the next town and try again. The emotion they feel in victory and defeat brings meaning to sport. A draw would never force them to scrape their insides for energy, guts, tactics. Why go that far? Why dig? Why design the divine shot? To win. But still, it's sweet what he says.

Stray thoughts slip through my head as they play. The different strumming sounds that emerge when they hit the ball. Nadal and his two towels. Federer bouncing the ball with the rim of his racket before serving. The falling of darkness and the rise of tension. Federer's flat backhand returns. Nadal demanding that Federer hit one more ball. The agony in the players' boxes. And retirement.

Together these men are 65 years old and they are nervous. Trembling gods. This is the final's appeal, the errors, the anxiety, the pressure, the searching for shots that once came easily, the desperation to remember how they once won Slams. They dance between brilliance and vulnerability and one thing strikes me: in front of Nadal, Federer never looks regal.

When favourite athletes start to slump, as Federer did for periods in the past, and then Nadal, admirers cannot bear it. They only wish to see their athlete at his best and so they say, please, retire. As if by playing on, and accumulating losses, the athlete is undermining his greatness.

But losses don't bruise legacies and champions caught in devoted struggle is a beautiful picture. Isn't wanting to find your best self again part of a love of the game? Loving it so much you can't leave. Answering to a pride that refuses to accept mortality and the rule of younger men. Patience and stubbornness rolled into one powerful virtue.

It's like the great novelist whose sentences don't arrive as smoothly any more. But he persists, he trusts in his labour. This is what these men do and see where it got them. Pete Sampras was finished, wasn't he, and then he won the 2002 US Open when he was world No. 17, which in an elegant coincidence was Federer's ranking on Sunday.

The last reserves of talent of such men are greater than the entire stocks of others. We should know that by now. We should consider that if Federer can win, so might Nadal soon enough. We should tell them, play, forever.

Federer had to win on Sunday for even his own tribe had begun to shift uncomfortably: How many losses to Nadal could be explained? But we must also consider that The Greatest can't be judged on a single number (Major titles) or even on many numbers (multiple wins, weeks ranked No. 1, head-to-heads).

The Greatest goes beyond numerals, it stretches to the honesty with which you play, offering every point your best effort. It extends to the shots you can hit, when you hit them, the effect you have, the excellence you chase, the men you are.

It is Nadal, shattered physically on the Dimitrov night, still coming to the press room, always the professional. It is Federer, taking time to chat to the juniors he hits with in practice and happily posing for pictures. Always, both of them, playing the game as well as spreading it.

Early on Monday morning Federer arrives for his press conference. By the time I enter there is no space. I peek from behind a wall of bodies and see only a sliver of him. It's my last look of him in Melbourne and I wonder if it's a final one here. Of him trying to explain how he won. Flirting as usual with the impossible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Never doubt the Swiss, even if his mission seems impossible'. Print Edition | Subscribe