Five years ago I published my very first blog post on WordPress. The post featuring Roger Federer – arguably the greatest legend in the game of tennis during my lifetime and perhaps of all time. In 2003, Federer secured his first win in a major tournament. He went on to dominate the game for the next decade. Fed holds the record for most consecutive weeks at no. 1 in the rankings and many other ATP Tour records besides. I do not really care about the record books. For me, it was all in the way Fed moved.
Despite my long-time interest in Raonic, watching Fed lose to him this past Friday was excruciating. It felt more like a tragedy than a lost tennis match, and it marked the end of something truly special. In recent years, Fed’s fans have grown accustomed to seeing him lose matches. Since 2008, illness, back issues, etc. have plagued Federer. It was his love for the game kept him going through those difficult times. But what kept him in the top four was the way he moves. Friday I saw something I had not seen in all of the lean years: Fed’s legs could no longer keep up with his heart.
Ask anyone and they will agree: no one has ever moved around a tennis court like Roger Federer. I heard commentators say over and over that Fed “floated” over the court. There has never been a doubt that Federer worked utter magic with his shots (the word ‘ridiculous’ comes to mind), but, hey, anyone at the top of the game could have made those shots had they been able to get to the ball. There was just something in the way Fed moved.
The first time I saw Milos Raonic on a tennis court he was little more than a serve and a forehand. I knew he had a special spark that put him in league with the greats – if he could find a backhand and a volley. Friday he had those and more. His movement was amazing, his shots, incredible. Kudos to him for applying hard work to in-born talent, a feat that carried him into the Wimbledon final on Sunday. Can he hang with the big boys long-term? Jury’s still out on that one but I hope so. I enjoy watching Raonic play especially now that he’s enjoying playing the game more, too.
But this post is not about rising stars, it’s about a falling one. On Friday Federer showed the world what few tennis players ever do – the power of age over the body. The greats often choose to bow out of the game long before their bodies betray them. Even Andre Agassi, who played his final match at age 35, had taken several years off before blasting back onto the scene. Roger Federer, on the other hand, stayed the course his entire career. His fans have grown to love the way he moves – on the tennis court and through his life.
I once heard a club player say she ‘hated’ Federer. I looked at her, aghast, and asked, “How can anyone ‘hate’ Roger Federer?” Her excuse was the NetJets commercial in which he wheeled fourteen trophies across a tarmac. She thought it was arrogant to show off his wins that way. I think he was making a commercial that someone else designed and that he was making fun of his success, a little tongue in cheek about it all.
You learn a lot about a person by how they act and react on a tennis court – or any other game venue, for that matter. In all the years I watched Fed play, I saw him lose his temper and break a racket one time. One. That is a monumental stat considering how many points the man played (not-to-mention his well-known temper in his younger days).
Roger Federer exemplifies things in life that cannot be taught. One being how to break lots of records in tennis history and still remain humble. Sure, people can learn to be gracious and accept compliments gratefully. Humility walks a line between knowing you are great at what you do and understanding that your talent is a precious gift not a cause for arrogance.
Another is how to move on a tennis court. Having watched, taught, and played the game over the course of several decades, I have seen oodles of people retrieve tennis balls. From experience, I know that while a person can learn to anticipate the ball better and train themselves to move faster, how a person moves cannot be taught (trust me, I tried – it cannot be done). If it could, lots more players would have learned how to do it by now.
How you move is inborn. Fed had a ‘way’ about him. He seemed to float across the tennis court. Unlike Nadal who pounds back and forth, punishing every joint, Fed makes getting to a tennis ball look effortless. Until very recently, I cannot remember a time when I heard Federer’s feet on any surface. Nor can I remember him sweating from exertion. Fed raised a herculean bar in tennis while making it all look ‘too easy’.
Just because Fed’s special way of moving cannot be taught, it can be lost. Friday I saw that painful truth in action, and never more clearly than when Roger Federer stumbled and fell on a grass tennis court.
His tumble was heartbreaking and would have been unheard of, unthinkable, inconceivable just a few short years ago. Watching Federer lose to Raonic marked the close of a magical time for the game of tennis – because at long last, Fed moved just like the rest of us. Friday I watched the fall of a legend and the end of an era. A new day in tennis has begun.