Roger Federer fell short in his attempt at an 8th Wimbledon championship Sunday, losing to Novak Djokovic in five sets, 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4. For Federer, it was another disappointing defeat in a stellar career that at one time was on pace to be the best ever and is now probably something less than that. Federer shed a tear following Sunday’s loss, and given that the 32-year-old will never be as good as he once was, that’s enough to break your heart.
I’m a big fan of Djokovic, of both his relentless game and boisterous personality, but for a long time Federer was the player this tennis fan attached the majority of his attention to. It wasn’t just Federer’s 17 grand slam titles—the most by any man—but the seemingly flawless way he went about his craft. Rafael Nadal now regularly gets the better of Federer, but for a while he provided the perfect foil, the Andre Agassi to the mechanical Pete Sampras. I loved the way Federer would eventually wear down Nadal with technique, despite the Spaniard’s edge in strength and speed.
I’ll stop writing about tennis now, because it would be impossible to do justice to the sport in the same way as the late author David Foster Wallace. No one has written more beautifully about the sport, both in this 2006 New York Times Magazine profile of Federer and in Wallace’s 1,104 page masterpiece, “Infinite Jest.”
Wallace writes on tennis more beautifully than he does on just about any other subject, excluding, of course, the way in which he gets inside the heads of addicts and cruise-ship passengers and fair-goers and voices their thoughts more cogently than even they could do themselves. He comes at Federer’s game not as a traditional journalist but as an awed fan, appreciative of Federer’s art without gushing in a way that’s a turnoff. One passage:
Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
Sunday’s Wimbledon Final brough back some of those old Federer memories, of an aggressive Federer playing a serve-and-volley style that helped him win his first Wimbledon title 11 years earlier. The match was so epic that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, otherwise known as William and Kate, stayed until the end.
The New York Times Magazine Federer story is from 2006, but the entire thing is still worth a read if you’re a Federer fan or a tennis fan or interested in different ways to cover an athlete other than traditional sports journalism.