Federer ain't going nowhere; likewise Fed Heads

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Here's the story of a sports writer who has shifted employers, interests, and even careers, but retained the admiration for Roger Federer intact through it all.

Roger Federer paints with groundstrokes because he is an artist. Roger Federer floats and glides because he is divine. Roger Federer cries because he is human. | AFP

“Boys cry when no one can see them
When no one can see them cry
No one can see them cry.”

Eden Kane is both right and wrong.

*

 

The year was 2003. I was an impressionable teenager — sixteen going on 17, actually. It had been a year since I moved from Changanacherry, a cute little town in Kerala’s Kottayam district, to Thiruvananthapuram, the State’s capital, to pursue junior college. And I was loving every bit of it because of three reasons.

Firstly, I was finally living in a proper house — home, rather — with people I could call my own: aunt (dad’s sister), uncle, three sisters and a lovely daschund. The preceding five years were, no doubt, awesome but I was tired of living in a boarding house with 60 other boys.

Which brings me to the second reason: food! My aunt cooked all that I liked. And I ate to my heart’s content unlike in the hostel where we seldom got a second serving of fish, chicken or beef. Gravy, yes. Pieces, no. That, to me, was unacceptable.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I could watch TV for as long as I wanted to. Unlike most households, my aunt and uncle never pressured their kids into waking up, studying or going to bed at a certain time. There were no rules in the house — as in, nothing was imposed. We were considered grown-ups, and allowed to do what we wanted. My uncle had clearly told me that I was free to do what I liked provided I didn't fool around with my studies. I promised him I’d work hard at school. And I did. The result? Hours and hours of uninterrupted TV watching.

In the boarding school, we were allowed to watch TV only on Sundays. Usually, a Malayalam movie. Cricket was an addiction because I was born and raised in Mumbai till the age of nine. But my basketball coach in Changanacherry never let us play cricket because, according to him, bowling would adversely affect your shooting action. And the guys who were not on the basketball team were in no mood to allow us to only bat and field. Do all three, or do nothing at all. Fair enough, I guess.

Back then, Keralites were not very fond of cricket. Yes, it was the pre-Sreesanth era. My friends and I used to take turns to walk into the rector’s room to have our doubts cleared. Every time a chap went in, he was expected to watch at least an over, and then narrate whatever he saw. Some were so dumb they would forget the score by the time they stepped out. The following day’s newspaper was our only respite. In fact, I’d say that all that reading made me take up writing later in life. Had I watched all those games instead of reading so diligently about them, I may not have been inspired to do what I do today. Trust me when I say this: I didn't watch a single ball of the 2001 miracle at Eden. That’s boarding school for you. But I have read everything there is to read about that epic.

There was no such problem in Thiruvananthapuram, you see. My uncle was (and is) an avid sports nut. From regaling me with tales of yore — GRV’s 97 not out, SMG’s 96 (he watched both Tests live), Borg’s Wimbledon crowns and what not — he somehow found a way to tell me a new story every day. And I loved every bit of it. I turned my routine upside down when India toured Australia in 2003. That year, Andre Agassi won the Australian Open for the fourth time. Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero took home the French Open, which uncle said was the most boring of the majors. I agree with him even to this day.

And then came Wimbledon.

I fell in love with Mark Philippoussis the day fought back from two sets to one down to trump Agassi in a marathon fourth-round contest. I admired his power, his attitude and, most importantly, his serve. Forty-six aces! That, too, against the best returner of serve. It was some pounding.

And then came the second Sunday. It was Philippoussis, prim and proper but for a smattering of hair on his chin that could pass off as a goatie, versus a chap called Roger Federer, all shaggy and unkempt, and half as powerful, or intimidating, as ‘Scud’. Impressionable I sure was, but there was no way I would switch sides. Alas, I did. Not during the straight-set tennis lesson that lasted an hour and 56 minutes, but during the trophy presentation.

Here’s an excerpt from what the incomparable and peerless Christopher Clarey, who’s covered every Grand Slam from 1990 till date, wrote in The New York Times on that fateful day. “When Federer met with tennis triumph on the same famous stretch of lawn today by beating Mark Philippoussis, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3), in the final without allowing a break point, he dropped to his knees, thrust his arms in the air and was soon sobbing in his chair. There would be more tears when the fourth-seeded Federer spoke to the crowd, more tears when he held up the trophy that he had watched others hold up on television when he was a boy in the Swiss city of Basel.”

 

That evening, I cried too. And switched sides. The next three years turned out to be as frustrating as the ones in Changanacherry. Hello, Hall life (the word ‘hostel’ is banned in Madras Christian College; we have residential Halls). TV was a luxury at MCC, too. But, then, there was Nirmal Shekar and his poetry to look forward to. Mr. Shekar (may his soul rest in peace), also an MCCian and a resident of our beloved Selaiyur Hall where I lived for three years, took me and thousands others to the hallowed lawns of SW19 year after year. Thanks to The Hindu and Sportstar, I knew what Federer was up to.

And, then, I got a job. My first! And I was back in Mumbai, the city of my birth. The Times of India was the newspaper I grew up watching my parents read. I was too young, and the paper too big for me to even hold, let alone make sense of. But here I was — employed with the country’s largest-selling daily, as a trainee journalist.

They put me on the City desk first even though I asked to work in the Sports department. It didn't matter, though, because I was literally four steps away from the “dudes at sport”. That year, 2007, Federer won a record fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown. He cried again. So did Rafael Nadal, but in the locker room. And there was Borg, all suited up, in the Royal Box. Federer cried some more. So did I.

Eight months on, I was duly allowed to do what I liked. And, then, watching TV became a part of my job. I can say with authority that I have watched/followed/tracked every Federer match — day or night, this continent or that, ATP 250, ATP 500, ATP 1000, Grand Slams, Davis Cup and even exhibitions — ever since I became a full-time sports journalist in January 2008. During these years, I switched employers twice — DNA and The Hindu — and switched careers to become a full-time business consultant (and part-time writer), but the Federer fever has refused to subside.

 

Federer has now transcended even religion. Watching him play is a bigger high than opium can promise. He's spreading joy, glee and hope. He's touching hearts.

Since 2009, I have had the good fortune of talking Federer with a fellow devotee, Ranjona Banerji, a veteran journalist. Ranjona and I wish each other luck before every Federer match. It’s usually Ranjona who does the honours: “Besto!”, first on SMS, now on WhatsApp. I respond with an assortment of emoticons, sometimes champagne, but she is quick to put me in my place with a “no nuzzer, please”. Liberal but superstitious, you see. Over time, I have learnt to appreciate her rituals: no premature celebrations even if Federer is up 6-3, 6-3, 5-1, no discussion on the impending quarterfinal against Milos Raonic when Grigor Dimitrov awaits ‘us’ in Round 4, and certainly no calling each other when play is on. At the most, she’d text me an “I’m tired of this” or “I can’t take this anymore” or even “I think I am going to switch off the TV”. I’d respond with a sad face smiley without conveying how angry and frustrated I was, or how many cigarettes I may have already smoked. The most I smoked was 15 when Juan Martin del Potro beat us to win the 2009 US Open. That was unfathomable because we’d won the third set when DelPo double-faulted on set point. That's generally taken to be the sign of a defeated man, a broken man. But he had fought back like a warrior to deny Federer a sixth straight title at Flushing Meadows.

Ranjona and I have been through many such lows: 2010 French Open quarterfinal (lost to Robin Soderling in four sets; this after the DNA sports desk had returned to office from a friend’s wedding reception, and I simply refused to make the page), 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinal (lost to Tomas Berdych in four sets; I switched off the TV much to my colleagues’ disdain), 2010 US Open semifinal (two match points squandered in the fifth set, albeit on the Novak Djokovic serve), 2011 US Open semifinal (two match points wasted in the fifth set, this time on our serve) and 2013 Wimbledon second round (lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky of all people, in front of Ranjona of all people; yeah, she was there) to recall a few.

Over the years, especially after Djokovic found out he was sensitive to gluten and took body-worshipping to a different plane, Ranjona and I learnt to temper our expectations. “It’s ok, he’s still ahead of the others,” she’d say. “It’s about the joy, the quality of his tennis,” I’d respond. Somehow we’d find ways to console each other after (yet) another stupid, unbelievable loss replete with brain freezes, shanks and, sometimes, a hideous-looking racquet. But, then again, he gave us moments to remember: ending Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak in the 2011 French Open semifinal, winning the 2012 Wimbledon with wins over Djokovic and Andy Murray in the last two rounds, humbling Nadal during the indoor leg of the Tour, winning in Dubai, winning in Cincinnati, winning in Basel, winning the ATP World Tour Finals every now and then, and winning the Davis Cup for the first time.

At the beginning of the 2017 season, Ranjona and I had another chat, and both of us used words and phrases like ‘joy’, ‘final stretch’, ‘one last bow’, ‘one more Wimbledon’, ‘18’, ‘Nadal’, ‘GOAT’ and what not. And then came the Australian Open. And, with it, came a Federer vs Nadal final. A great rivalry with a lopsided head-to-head record. Down 1-3 in the fifth set, and hell-bent on extending our collective agony by another year (we had last beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam final in 2007, Wimbledon to be precise), Federer looked done and dusted. I barely sat down that afternoon, guzzling beer, smoking every now and then, and standing inches close to the TV screen (it was also my first Grand Slam final in high definition). Then, as I began to come up with excuses (what to write on Facebook, how to justify another loss to Nadal, how to maintain that Federer is still the GOAT), something clicked. “He’s winning this one. You just chill,” I wrote to Ranjona. This time, she didn't say “Ssshhh”. Instead, she said, “I’m counting on you.” Federer held for 2-3, then hit a crazy backhand, a sprightly one at that, to carve out yet another break point. He then made it 3-3. Then, he made it 4-3, 5-3, and 6-3. The ensuing phone call was more "yessss", "bloody hell" and "we've done it" more than anything else. That night, I popped open a bottle of champagne. And I cooked too.

 

Ranjona and I thought we were done with tennis. Because we thought Federer would soon call it a day. Six months on, we are going nowhere because Federer is going nowhere. It’s 19 already, and we can’t wait for the 20th. See you in New York City. No nuzzer!

 

The late David Foster Wallace’s ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ is arguably the finest piece of writing across sporting disciplines. The point is that Federer has now transcended even religion. Watching him play is a bigger high than opium can promise. He's spreading joy, glee and hope. He's touching hearts. And he's showing us he's as human as you and me. Maybe that's why he cries. And so I do.

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