The End of the Federer Era (Or: “Roger and Me”)

Well, it’s over. I knew it had to happen some day.

I always naively assumed it would end with an epic loss. Federer would crumble in some key match, and I would know that he no longer had what it took.

There was that loss to Karlovic in Cincinnati in 2008, after his flat performance at the French and that crushingly close loss to Rafa at Wimbledon. It was the first time I’d seen Federer go into deciding set tiebreak looking completely certain he was going to lose. I thought it meant the end of his career. Two weeks later, he won the US open.

There was that heartbreaking loss to Rafa in the 2009 Australian open, when Federer broke down on court after it was over, and I thought I was seeing him weep for the end of an era. Later that year he won his first French Open to complete a career Grand Slam, and then broke the all time Slam title record at Wimbledon.

No, there’ve been losses, but Federer has always managed to bounce back, and win some more. He may never be as perfect or as indomitable as he was in, say 2004 (has anyone ever had that good a year, at any sport?), but as long as he’s playing tennis, he’s going to be a threat to win any tournament he enters, even if he’s no longer automatically the favorite.

And so I discovered a few weeks ago that, if I was waiting for a spectacular loss to signal the end of the Federer era, I was never going to notice its arrival. Instead, the event that heralded the beginning of a post-Federer tennis world was a victory, in a match where the talented Swiss wasn’t even playing.

It was instead a match decided on a court in Madrid, a final showdown between Rafa and Novak Djokovic. Novak, who I certainly like, had started the year on a hot streak, winning the Australian open and a pair of smaller tournaments. But I was pretty sure his streak was going to come to an end when he met top-ranked Nadal on his favorite surface*. I didn’t watch the match, but made sure to check the score when I got home, to see if Nole had at least put up a good fight. He certainly had, winning in straight sets 7-5, 6-4.

Djokovic’s victory over Rafa on clay, emphasized a few weeks later by a second clay-court victory in Rome, coupled with his nearly record-breaking undefeated streak to start the year, suddenly made things really exciting. Not that Djokovic hadn’t had some victories over Federer and Nadal in the past, but on some level it was always clear they were the exception, not the rule, and that he still wasn’t quite of the same caliber. This changed things. I did a little research, and discovered something even better: If Novak kept his win streak up all the way through to capture the French open, he would  (1) break McEnroe’s record for most consecutive wins to start the season, and (2) become the first man not named “Federer” or “Nadal” to hold the top ranking in mens tennis since before Facebook was invented. I was thrilled– The story practically wrote itself: Novak, the young gun, on a hot streak and trying to break all kinds of records and show that he can win slams on surfaces besides the hard courts. Rafa, still in the prime of his life, humbled on his favorite surface, but given the chance at redemption at a tournament he has dominated more than any man in the open era**. A matchup that could only happen in the tournament final. I couldn’t wait.

And then it hit me: while I certainly wasn’t taking it for granted that Djokovic could get past Federer, who he was likely to meet in a semifinal, I was more interested in seeing Nadal play Djokovic than see Nadal face off against Federer. That’s right– I was willing to pass up on a chance to see another chapter in one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time, for a chance to see the new guy try to make history.

And that’s when I knew the “Federer Era” was over. The idea that anyone, fan of Federer or not, would ever cheer against a Federer-Nadal showdown, would have been sheer lunacy at any point in the last 7 years of the sport. That’s finally changed. The era of that– the Federer Era– is over.

I’m going to miss it. The Federer Era began, conveniently, when I entered 10th grade; the year I joined the high school tennis team and the year I first started to think of my self as something older than a “kid.” I had been following tennis for long enough that I knew something special was happening. The things the commentators were saying about him were different than the usual accolades they’d lay upon whomever was the current top player. They were talking about him like he was somehow abnormal even among the greats. Not simply the next in line, but the start of a whole new lineage.

It took me a while to warm up to him. In 2004, I remember sitting at home on my parents old New York couch (one that can’t even be found in the same room anymore) watching him squeak out a rain-assisted victory over Andy Roddick at Wimbledon. I thought maybe it was a lucky victory and I resented all the speculation that we might be watching someone who would completely reshape the game. By the time he faced Lleyton Hewett in the US open final, he had secured clear “top dog” status, and even though I’d never been a Hewitt fan, I found myself drawn to him because, as a rule, I’m an underdog kind of guy. Hewitt, who just months before had been world number one,  lost in straight sets, including two sets 0-6.

In 2005, he began to grow on me. I’d had to quit the tennis team, and my social life– like everyone’s, in high school, had become stressful and unpleasant. But I started to grab whatever opportunities I had to watch him play, to admire the unmistakably new level of skill he was showcasing, and to enjoy the burgeoning rivalry he was developing with an obscure Spanish lefty. He made a point of defeating Roddick soundly at Wimbledon, as if to tell me, personally, that it hadn’t at all been a fluke the year before.

He took on Andre Agassi in the 2005 US open final, and it marked the last time I ever cheered against Federer in a match. Agassi had been my tennis idol for many, many years before, and, as a sucker for an underdog and for a comeback story, I wanted the now-35 year-old Agassi to pull one last victory out so he could retire “on top.”

For some reason (I can’t remember quite what), I had to leave the house the afternoon when the match was on. But I can remember quite vividly running back home along the sidewalk past our mailbox to ask my mom what the score was. It was the second set, and Agassi had broken Federer twice to take things to one set all. I watched most of the third set, which was hard fought and back and forth, before I had to leave again. Federer, ever the gentlemen, waited until I had left to show the old man who the new king was to be. When I took off the score was 6-3, 2-6, 6-6, entering a tie-break. While I was gone, Federer won the tie break 7-1 and the fourth set 6-1. When I returned I was very sad for Agassi, but secretly excited to discover that I would get to grow up watching someone who I was suddenly sure had the potential to be the greatest of all time.

In 2006, Federer regained most of the dominance he’d shown in 2004, winning at almost every turn and carrying the pressure with class and style. I’d begun competing extensively in my local speech and debate circuit, and was enjoying a lot of my own success, of course on a much, much much much smaller stage. Still, big-headed teenager that I was, I dared to take some cues from Roger on how to retain your competitive spirit when it was hard to find a challenger, and how to handle both winning and losing when you’re the one with all the expectations on your back. I really do think he helped me develop a more genuine sense of modesty and of competitive character.

In July of that year I sent an excited email about Federer’s 2006 Wimbledon final to a girl I’d been developing a friendship with. She didn’t know the sport, but got a kick out of my enthusiasm. She became my first serious girlfriend.

In August, I moved away from home to go to college. Being somewhat of an introvert, I was terrified of having to live in close quarters with a roommate I’d never met. He turned out to be a tennis player and a Federer fan, one of the first things we bonded over. I eventually became friends with all my neighbors, many of whom liked tennis themselves. We all watched the US open final together, and a kid named Matt, who always liked to be the rabble rouser, confidently predicted that Andy Roddick would finally exact some revenge on the Fed Express. Matt was wrong.

In 2007 I remember staying up late with the same roommate to watch Federer play Andy Roddick at the Australian open. It remains perhaps the best tennis I’ve ever seen Federer play, and the final score, lopsided though it was at 6-4, 6-0, 6-2, did not fully reflect how convincingly Federer had won. Watching his level of superiority from the seventh game onward, we all would have believed he hadn’t lost a point in the final two sets. Roddick felt the same way.

That summer, I woke up at 6 in the morning and snuck into a different dorm so I could watch the French Open final (the importance of which to Federer’s resume had suddenly become clear) on the big screen TV in their lounge. Coincidentally, though Federer didn’t win the match, it was while I was watching that I constructed my first crossword puzzle. Sometimes I wonder if maybe, had I given it my full attention, he could have kept up the energy level that let him win the second set. I was still a firm believer in sports superstitions then.

2008 was a bit of a more difficult year for Federer, and it was for me too. I was living alone, struggling with some girl problems, and debating what field of study I wanted to pursue. I was always sad seeing Federer falter in some of the early tournaments, but I appreciated the reminder that no one was perfect.

That summer I tried to stay up all night to watch the French Open final which began at 5 AM. I fell asleep on the couch next to my girlfriend at the time, another Federer fan, and we woke up to the sad news that he’d been denied yet again. For breakfast we ate the vanilla ice cream we’d been planning to eat in the middle of the night for dessert, to cheer ourselves up.

That girlfriend and I split up for a time during early July. I watched the Wimbledon final at home, with my mom and brother. By then, many of my friends knew how much I liked Federer and had taken up cheering for Rafa as a way to tease me. By the end of the third set, when it looked like Federer was going to lose 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 , text messages were pouring into my newly-purchased iphone teasing me about his lack of mental toughness. Federer dug in, broke twice, and won the tie break. That scenario repeated itself a set later.

The match lasted so long that I had to leave to have coffee with an old friend who was going off to college and wanted some advice. I almost blew her off just to keep watching. Eventually I decided to go, but raced home to discover they were still on serve, and the light was fading.

Of course, the final outcome wasn’t what I wanted it to be. On the up side, commiserating over Federer’s gut-wrenching loss in the greatest tennis match ever played got me talking to my tennis-playing ex again. We dated for several more months after that.

As I said at the beginning of the post, after the Wimbledon match I thought Federer was done for. He won the 2008 US open, a match I was almost afraid to watch. He faltered again in the 2009 Australian, but I made friends with my new housemates by convincing them to stay up late and watch it with me. As I recall, I also had to buy them pizza but it was worth it.

That summer, my family and I went on the best trip of my life to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. I was almost relieved I wouldn’t have to watch Federer lose another French Open final to Rafa Nadal. But one day, in a quaint little hotel in Cuenca, I picked up a copy of a newspaper and, although I couldn’t read the Spanish, saw that Rafa had lost in the quarterfinals to a Swede named Robin Soderling. I actually remembered Soderling from the previous year’s Wimbledon, where he’d drawn criticism from some (and praise from me) for making fun of Rafa’s tendency to bend the rules about the time allowed between points. I was thrilled, until I discovered that our trip itinerary would put me miles and miles off the coast of South America the day of the final. After three years of waking up early to cheer Federer on towards completing a career grand slam, I had to hear that he finally pulled it off from a middle aged british man who called it a “career grand prix.”

I was lucky I was in the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, or I would have been upset.

the 2009 Wimbledon was obviously a big deal as well, a tremendous rematch between a resurgent Andy Roddick and a rejuvenated Roger. This time, I got to watch the whole thing, and this time it ended just the way I wanted it to. I have a friend who has only seen two tennis matches in his life, the 2008 and 2009 Wimbledon finals. I told him he should never watch another one again, to preserve the perfection. I’m not sure he has.

And then there was 2010, just last year. Undoubtedly Federer’s least successful since his rise to prominence, and yet one that still saw him win a grand slam and smash a number of records. When he was winning, it was good to see that the old guy could still do it. Crazy though it sounds, watching a sport where 30 means “old” made me feel more sane for suddenly feeling my own elderly status at the ripe old age of 21. And when Federer was struggling, it made me feel better watching how I, too, faced more and more difficulties to overcome the older I became. But I like to think that both of us still did respectably.

I do remember one particularly sad day that summer, with the French Open in full swing and myself desperately packing for a trip I was taking to Germany with my best friend of many many years. We’d been planning this trip since high school, almost since before Federer started winning grand slams, and we couldn’t have been more excited. I awoke one morning to discover that my friend’s passport had expired without his realizing it, and that he probably couldn’t go.

We met at a local sports bar called “Jim’s Wings” to discuss the situation and see if we could come up with a way to make the trip still happen. After several hours of making frantic phone calls, we resigned ourselves to our fate. I sighed deeply into a plate of nachos, and looked up to see that Federer had lost in the quarterfinals, the first time in 23 straight grand slams that he hadn’t made it to the semis. One of the greatest streaks in all of sports had been broken. My friend did not seem to appreciate that this made me just as sad as the demise of our fantasy trip together.

It really has been quite a ride, and for me, the milestones of Federer’s career have been as important to me as benchmarks in my own life as the elections, the superbowls, and any of my own personal accomplishments, so I don’t know what I will turn to to mark time now that it appears other players are finally in ascendency.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Federer will be a threat to win tournaments, especially the slams. I’ll gladly take the money of anyone willing to bet me he won’t win another grand slam tournament, and I’d probably even give you odds on the possibility of him winning another two. I’m not even sure I think he can’t win on Friday, when he tries to stop Djokovic from setting up a dream final against the clay-court master Nadal.

But I know that, although I will still be cheering for Federer, in the back of my head will be an awareness that I’m no longer cheering for him in the interest of tennis. No, the best case scenario for the sport as a whole is that he falters after an epic contest with Novak, in which he takes at least a set to show he can still hang with the best, and maybe forces a deciding set to go into a tie-break.

Things worked out well the last time this happened to me, cheering on my sentimental favorite Andre Agassi as he faced down a young gun on an incredible winning streak. Maybe, with a little luck, things can end just as artfully this time.

Whatever the outcome, I’ll be in Manhattan that day for the World Science Festival and will have to watch it in a New York sports bar. It will also be the first time I’ve watched him play in my new home on the East Coast, and the first time I’ve been able to blog about it before and after. With a little luck, it will be the making of another Federer memory.

And even though the era might be over, with a little more luck it may not be the last.

__

*To the ones who know what they’re talking about: It’s true that Madrid’s clay, like the Hamburg clay, is notoriously faster and more like a hard court than the type Nadal likes best. But the Rome clay is slower even than the clay in Paris, so that  sealed the deal. Also, if you knew about the differences in the clay, you certainly knew that Novak won the next tournament as well, so why are you even reading this? You must be a sucker for footnotes. Cool, I am too! We should be friends.

**Welcome back, my new friend who likes footnotes and is a tennis stickler. I’ll grant you that this is a controversial claim; after all, Federer had clear ownership over wimbledon for a number of years, and before him Sampras had an even more impressive vice grip on it. Borg certainly had his own share of dominance in SW19, and at Roland Garros, too. But if you look at the caliber of their opponents and the relative ease (or lack thereof) with which they won some of those titles, I think you’ll find Rafa took the concept of “owning” a tournament to a whole new level.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to The End of the Federer Era (Or: “Roger and Me”)

  1. Francois says:

    Well, well – the era is not over yet – several years after you wrote this.

    2015 Roger Federer.

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