In sport, the dismantling of legends is a macabre process, writes Nirmal Shekar

AS Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, took his own sweet time to pack his bags on the centre court, his great opponent stood alone. His face a black mask, fidgeting nervously with the straps of his kit bag, looking over his shoulder anxiously a few times to see if his conqueror was ready to join him, Roger Federer sent out a clear signal to everyone watching — he wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

In the last 10 years — most of which he spent much like Shelley's skylark, soaring ever higher “like a cloud of fire” — Federer may have never experienced the kind of emotions that he did at that moment. A cherished home had suddenly turned into a haunted house. Obviously, it took enormous willpower, on top of his innate sportsmanship, to wait for Tsonga to join him. Courtesy and gentlemanly behaviour are the toughest traits to summon up at such moments. But Federer made sure that his exit was graceful.

First-time experience

It was not a scene that is played out too often at Wimbledon. And, for a man with many “firsts” in a remarkable career, this was a first-time experience too. In 178 Grand Slam matches, Federer had never lost after winning the first two sets.

As the Swiss maestro left the brilliant sunshine of the centre court to make his way through the relative darkness of the tunnel on the way to the dressing room, this columnist's mind travelled back in time to June 2002.

Despatched to the old No.2 court by men with scant respect for greatness, the greatest Wimbledon champion in history sat on his chair during a change-over, reading from a piece of paper that looked more like a laundry list.

It was, in fact, a note lovingly written by his wife Bridgette to boost Pete Sampras's confidence in times of adversity. But on this day, not even the best self-help guidebook was going to make a difference. A pathetic parody of the player who won seven of eight championships between 1993 and 2000, Pete Sampras went down in five sets to George Bastl of Switzerland, a man with a world ranking of 145.

After Bastl waved to the crowd and walked out of the court, the great man sat slumped in his chair, staring vacantly at the turf for long minutes as dozens of photographers and TV cameras feasted on the poignancy of the moment and the tragic gloom on Sampras's sweat-stained face.

In sport, the dismantling of legends is a macabre process. It happens in front of millions of people watching it on television. Often, the victim, stripped of his armour of invincibility in public, would never be the same again.

On that day, suddenly Sampras looked a lot older than his age, as indeed did Federer on Wednesday afternoon.

Sport does that to you. It compresses time. Lifetimes are measured in career years. We find sport attractive partly because of this. Life and death can not only be experienced in the span of a decade or less but also life's triumphs and disasters can be lived through at someone else's expense. The emotional investment might be ours, but the pain or gain is somebody else's.

Invincibility

But when that someone else is a genius such as Sampras or Federer, the moment of a rare defeat has a powerful emotional resonance. We begin to question the very idea of invincibility. We begin to realise how short the shelf life of sporting greatness can be and how cruel the scenes can appear to be when the owner of seemingly magical powers is stripped of them in a matter of hours.

On that June afternoon in 2002, as this writer trudged back to the press room, the thought uppermost on his mind was this: Will Sampras ever again appear to be a serious contender in a major championship?

With a daily report to write on deadline, that thought was quickly forgotten. But a similar question emerged when Tsonga — a Muhammad Ali lookalike — floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee to show Federer the door.

Will the man who in his peak often lifted us from the mundane to the exalted with the poetic lyricism of his all-court game, recover from this stunning loss to add another Slam or two to his record collection (16) of major titles?

This much is sure: Federer played much better against Tsonga than did Sampras nine years ago against Bastl. Yet, Sampras rebounded as only the greatest of champions can to beat his archrival Andre Agassi in four sets to win the U.S. Open just eight weeks after looking all washed up at Wimbledon.

That was the last competitive match Sampras played. A year on, in a special ceremony at the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York, he announced his retirement.

Extraordinary

Few champions have been lucky enough to have bid farewell on such a high. But if anyone deserves such a fairytale finish, it is Federer. He is a tiny fraction of a second slower on court and seems to have lost that extra gear which he reached out to whenever he was looking down the barrel. Still he is an extraordinary champion whose game, at its best, was a combination of Nijinsky and Nureyev on the court — sublimely beautiful and beguiling to the senses.

Keywords: Wimbledon 2011