Savouring the moments

2012-07-07 00:00

THERE is something now of a glorious autumn day about the tennis of Roger Federer. We know the perfection of its beauty cannot last and that lesser days lie ahead for the great man, so we luxuriate in the pleasures of the moment while we mourn too the slow accumulating evidence of the fading of his brilliant light. He has given us the time to appreciate him in his decline and to give thanks that he did not allow himself a narcissistic moment by retiring at the peak of his powers.

Bjorn Borg gave it all away too soon at the age of 26 and then found it too difficult to reconcile the struggles of a comeback with his former glory. Pete Sampras pocketed his 14th and final slam at the U.S. Open and then quit before the umpire had finished declaring his victory. Of the truly great tennis players, Jimmy Connors went on and on until dragged unwillingly from the courts, and André Agassi found a love for the game so late in his career that he was able to win slams at the age of 35 before Federer finally put him to bed.

The wonderful thing about Federer is that he loves the whole tennis business. The travelling does not seem to bother him, although the logistics of his work are poised for an imminent clash with the interests of his young family. He has remained astonishingly fit with only an occasionally creaking back to show for all those years of gliding around a range of surfaces, some yielding, like grass, but most of them hard and harsh.

Federer has never regarded his fellow players with the suspicion that they were out to steal his crust. Maybe he always knew that the bulk of the harvest would long be his, but he loves the challenges of finding ways past the different games of his opponents. Federer admires the successes of Rafael Nadal and, to a lesser extent, those of Novak Djokovic, the only players to have moved past him in his long decade at the front of the game, even as their successes have come at his expense.

No player has enjoyed being number one more than Federer, whose reign lasted for 237 weeks. As I write before the semi-final against Djokovic, he has a chance to be number one again, so well has he played since losing last year to him in the U.S. Open. We know, however, or think we do, that the Sampras record of seven Wimbledon titles is beyond his grasp.

The younger players are faster than Federer. They hit the ball harder with their double-handed backhands than he ever has done with his single hander that remains a thing of beauty, but has been exposed as the frailty that unlocked the way past him for first Nadal and then Djokovic. Soon enough there will be others, but Federer will keep playing for as long as the game brings him the satisfaction of challenges met and solved.

For the moment, he finds pleasure in being one of life’s semi-finalists. He no longer has to win tournaments in an odyssey to be the best of all time. He reached that summit years ago. His view from there is unclouded even as Nadal and Djokovic close in on the footsteps to his peak.

That Federer still loves playing tennis, still enjoys the problems posed by his opponents and still enjoys the logic of a beautifully crafted point is what we must now enjoy about his game and why we ought to give joyous thanks for his longevity. Federer seems to have a wisdom that few before him have accomplished. He knows that he will be a long time retired from the game that has given him so much pleasure.

Whatever else he achieves in life will be overshadowed by his glorious days within the narrow confines of a tennis court. So he keeps on playing for his own satisfaction. There is not from us the imploring cry for him to cease his work before he experiences the kind of humiliation that Connors once dealt to Ken Rosewall. We want more, not less, of him in our knowledge that that all too soon he will be done.

We mind not that Julien Benneteau took him to the very brink of defeat at the end of last week. We cannot say that we knew Federer would prevail, for the margin in the end was too close. When defeat is two points away, anything can happen and sheer blind luck can be decisive, but deep down we felt Federer would find a way, and so he did.

Against Malisse a few days later, he appeared stricken, unable to move with comfort. A withdrawal seemed imminent, but again he found a way, a different one to be sure, but all that mattered to him and to us was that he found it. That has been his genius — to plot a way past his opponents that has not been obvious either to them or to us; to produce the masterpieces that leave us all wondering how the heck he did it.

Many modern sportsmen are peerless at what they play. Others are brats on the field and kittens off it. Federer has been constant at whatever he does — graceful, unhurried, charming and generous. If one wants to be picky, he sometimes gives the impression of being too pleased with himself, but, hey, what is there not to be pleased about!

He may be back next year, but one of these days his career will be over. Until then let us savour the moments that are left of a truly great sportsman. Whether he wins or loses, let us take pleasure in watching Roger Federer play the game that he loves and let us give thanks for the pleasure he has given to so many.

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