Alighting on Saturday morning at Richmond Station, a sneakered, sun-screened, back-packing army walks down Olympic Boulevard, pulled by the players at work at Melbourne Park. The Pied Piper has gone, but still they come. Sport, as Roger Federer knows, is no fairy tale.
Yet the measure of Federer lies in the understated mourning that follows his exit. Even Sweden's Mats Wilander, winner of three Australian Opens, three French Opens and one US Open, tells the Straits Times: "He's the one you miss the most."
No life has been lost here, but there is a sense of a tennis life being very gradually extinguished. How many times, people might ask, will we see him again here? Only the extraordinary can extract such emotion. Federer, 33, has four children, $80 million in prize money, 17 grand slam titles, 83 total titles, as many records as The Beatles, and yet people feel sympathy for him.
Perhaps, as we age, and athletically little things start to elude us, we identify with his tilting at windmills. For the man who made tennis look simple, now, some days, so little is and there is something almost painful in watching a composer misplace his sheet music. Getting used to a lesser Federer has been a harder process than imagined. Says Wilander: "He still loves winning, but he doesn't hate losing as much. And in a long career that's the worst thing."
Still, the reaction to his departure is fascinating. The upset surely is always worth celebrating. It opens the draw. It refreshes the senses. It promises new match-ups. Soon Andy Murray duels Grigor Dimitrov and Rafael Nadal battles Kevin Anderson. Yet, late in the evening yesterday, a colleague spotted a group of glum tournament officials in a cafe. There is, with Federer's exit, a sense that tennis, as pure unadulterated pleasure, has been lost and it is deflating.
In the next 50 years we will probably see a player greater than Federer. But we will never see a player quite like Federer, of such embroidery and idea and casual conceit and collected cool. In a heavy-hammering, muscle-flexing game of few dimensions, Federer allowed us to see another tennis. "He was old-fashioned even when he started", explains Wilander and it is a gift we will best appreciate when he is lost to the game.
There are many winners this week at the Open but few stylists. And as Wilander, continuing on that theme, says: "A 100 percent (we miss Federer) because of how he plays. The way he hits the ball. Everyone wants to play like Federer and walk in his shoes. Everyone wants to hit the ball like he can, so natural, so easy, so stylish."
Australian colleagues struggle to remember a visiting athlete, in any sport, as beloved as Federer in this land. He has played Australians here and been cheered. He has duelled with Murray in London and been hailed. He wears greatness with as much lightness as he moves. Even Wilander speaks of how he spins the ball to ballboys, or offers them catches, or uses the rim of his racket to bounce the ball sometimes before he serves. It is, in a hyper-competitive time, the most elegant of images: a player having fun.
No one asks Federer about retirement, or contemplates tennis epitaphs, for he is still in love with the game and much of the world is in love with his game. "Winning another slam, 18 instead of 17, is not going to change his life," says Wilander. "But I love the way he's still evolving. He volleys better, he's chipping away at second serves." The great Swede pauses. "With players it's always about the journey." And with the great Swiss the journey continues. Just in another land, in another month.