The Last Stand of Fed

Roger Federer faces an opponent that usually wins: Time.

Getty Images

Late in the fourth set of Roger Federer’s epic Wimbledon match with Milos Raonic Friday– and in this case I mean “epic” not as a hipster synonym of awesome but literally as a lyric poem of a hero’s valor and eventual fall — he took a 40-love lead. A single point would force a tie breaker, Federer’s playground. No man has won more tie breakers than Fed. Then again, no man has won more anything than him.

“This is just what Roger Federer needs,” announcer and coach Darren Cahill suggested. “An easy game.”

Ah yes, an easy game. Roger Federer used to have those all the time. There was a time, in his youth, when it seemed almost unfair to play against Federer, when he toyed with the best players in the world. There were times even in this fourth set when he played like that — running forehands and glorious overheads and mind-boggling service returns where he flashed his racket like a switchblade and somehow parried back Raocnic’s 140-mph missile. This surge of energy tempted us romantics to believe that Federer was not 35 and beat up but was instead 25 again, floating a few inches off the grass, hitting shots at angles that would have baffled Euclid.

Raonic, as they say, didn’t buy it.

Raonic actually is 25, with all the energy and power that goes with the age. As we sportswriters like to tell it, the pressure was all on him. He has been tennis’ next big thing for years now — rocket serve, huge forehand, surprising quickness for a 6-foot-6 powerhouse– but he had never been past the semifinal of a grand slam tournament. And the clock ticks. The clock always ticks. New next big things come along all the time.

So, yes, we might have believed that the pressure was on Raonic — inexperienced, unproven, alone against the crowd and history and the greatest grass court tennis player in the history of the sport. Federer had been in 10 Wimbledon semifinals, and he had won all 10 of them. Get this — in those semifinals he had won 30 sets (obviously). He had lost ONE, just one, and that was to Novak Djokovic. Just two years earlier he had dismantled Raonic in the semis — a neatly symmetrical 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 termination. We might have believed that while the younger player’s insides were twisting and turning, that Federer was as calm as a magician escaping from the water torture chamber fore the 1,000th time.

But this misses a point that we so often miss: Age itself is pressure.

“An easy game,” Cahill had said.

Only then, Raonic — hitting out as players do when they’re down 40-love — cracked a forehand winner. OK, so 40-15. Still an easy game.

Then Federer double faulted.

And then, the veteran double faulted again.

Jack Nicklaus, when asked why older golfers so often struggle with their putting, talked about the conviction of youth. A younger golfer sees a three-foot putt, OK, right edge, boom, knock it in, it’s not that hard. But an older golfer has seen the ball lip out a lot. An older golfer has seen stray spike marks knock the ball off course. An older golfer has a lifetime of haunting images flickering and blinking in the mind, and they resist being shut out.

Federer, like everyone else, knew this was his last great chance. Novak Djokovic, far and away the best player in the world, had been dispatched. Fed himself had already escaped once when he used every physical, emotional and psychological bits of magic he had picked up through the years to make Marin Cilic beat himself. He had somehow put himself in position to win against a younger, stronger and deeply determined Milos Raonic. It will likely never be this good again.

And, he blinked. After the double faults, Raonic broke Federer to win the fourth set. And then, in the fifth, Federer was injured and exhausted and broken. Like Tom Watson after he bogeyed the 18th hole at Turnberry, like Jimmy Connors at the end of his extraordinary U.S. Open run in 1991, Federer had nothing left to give.

And now … it’s over. Oh, Federer undoubtedly still has some great tennis in him. Even now there are only a half dozen or so people in the world who can beat him even on their best day. But the body breaks down. The next wave of players come into their own. The dream of that 18th grand slam championship, the dream of him holding one more trophy to the sky, that fades away. And you get the feeling that he knows it.

***

There are things Federer has done that no one will ever do again. Djokovic stalks Fed’s record of 17 grand slam championships, but let’s not kid anybody: Djokovic still has 12. He has to win five more — the odds are against him. Even if Djokovic does get the record, there are other records, untouchable ones. Federer reaching 23 consecutive grand slam semifinals — nobody’s doing that again. Federer reached 10 consecutive grand slam finals — that will probably never be equaled (he reached the finals of all four grand slams in a year THREE TIMES). Federer’s 27 grand slam finals and his 36 of consecutive grand slam quarterfinals, these are all incredible, as in beyond belief.

And while it’s too soon to write the final chapter of Federer’s book, it is a good time to celebrate what makes him unique. Yes, he is the most graceful player in the game since John McEnroe or Björn Borg. Yes, his serve is a masterpiece, a work of art, never quite as powerful as the biggest hitters but utterly unreadable and as precise as an Olympic archer. Yes, his forehand ranks as one of the five greatest weapons in tennis history, and it was always when Federer seemed most vulnerable — off the court, off balance, seemingly out of things — that he would hit the miracle shot that David Foster Wallace so famously called a “Federer Moment.”

But there was something else. He was (and is) always present. There is something tennis players, even of meager talents, understand: Tennis is a sport of inconsistency. Some days the serve is there, some days it isn’t. Some days you feel like you can anticipate every shot and others you feel like you’re running in water. Even the greatest players feel it. Sometimes Pete Sampras loses to Jaime Yzaga or Gilbert Schaller. Sometimes Serena Williams falls to Virginie Razzano or Alize Cornet.

In this way, tennis players can better associate with the story of Nick Kyrgios or Gael Monfils or Svetlana Kuznetsova who, on the right day, can do miracles and on the wrong day can lose before the match ever begins.

Federer brought his tennis genius to the court every single time. Sure, he was upset now and again — Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon comes to mind — but that came later in his career. He was never upset in his prime. Only the greatest players playing their greatest tennis — clay-court genius Gustavo Kuerten, two-time grand slam champion Marat Safin, the wonderfully gifted Juan Martin del Potro and, of course, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic — could beat Federer. He defied the tennis tides.

He doesn’t need anything else; he already has the golden career. But we always thought he would get one more. He won his 17th four years ago, when he was not quite 31, and he kept on playing extraordinary tennis, better tennis than almost any one else is age. One more! But no. Djokovic beat him three times in grand slam finals. Andy Murray ended one tournament run, Stan Wawrinka another. Federer now deals with more severe injuries than he has in his career, and it’s probably not going to happen now. Age gets us all. After a while, even the great ones find that there are no easy games.