The aura that jades but never fades

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Rekindling, rejuvenating, reinventing, some sportsmen have a je ne sais quoi even when they’re but a shade of what they were in their prime. What makes the unjaded veteran that is Roger Federer so thrilling to watch?

Watching Rahul Dravid bat against the English seamers in 2011 was a wonderful experience for any fan. The backlift was curtailed, the stance adjusted, and, as experts pointed out, the Wall tried to stay inside the line of the ball (cutting down the chance of an LBW). It wasn’t always pretty, but it was the determination and adaptation that we admired in the 38-year old Test-match veteran. Zaheer Khan, when he had cut down his speed and was struggling with fitness, demonstrated a splendid command of the art of swing and reverse swing, even adding an innovative ‘knuckle ball’ to his repertoire. Think, similarly, of the thrill of watching Boris Becker win at the Australian Open in 1996 after years in the wilderness, or of Goran Ivanisevic, well past his prime, winning his coveted Wimbledon trophy. What is it that compels us to watch these veterans battling it out?

The concept of ‘late style’, referring to an artist’s technique and performance in the twilight of his/her career, is relevant here. The critic Edward Said wrote a book on the subject, but his reviewer in the New York Times, Edward Rothstein, had a somewhat different vision of ‘late style’, and it is worth quoting: “A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery of craft that has nothing left to prove. It might recapitulate a life’s themes, reflect on questions answered and allude to others beyond understanding.”

That wonderful passage could apply to what we feel about our favourite sportspersons as their careers draw to a close. It also enables me to make sense of my continuing support for Roger Federer, well past his prime.

I became a Federer fan at a time when he lost about a match a year — and when he did, it made headlines. My admiration for him stemmed not from his dominance (a reigning Pete Sampras, for instance, had never held the same fascination for me), but from the artistry and finesse with which he achieved his successes. And yet, oddly, I don’t recall very clearly any of his matches from those years. I suppose I watched the highlights most of the time, in the smug knowledge that our man could not be challenged.

Thus passed perhaps the most glorious part of Federer’s career. But the thrill of watching — and supporting — Federer only emerged fully when it became clear that he was always going to be the underdog in one contest at least: playing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Every hero needs his nemesis — Superman his Lex Luthor, Holmes his Moriarty, Feluda his Maganlal Meghraj. Roger Federer had found his. Nadal is rightly credited with making Federer take his own game up a notch or two, something we could scarcely have believed possible. But what he did especially was to highlight the human side of Federer.

We saw him as a vulnerable mortal like any of us, except that he could produce sublime beauty on the tennis court. My own status as a Federer fan truly began to crystallise only with the 2007 Wimbledon finals, when he nearly panicked, yelling in frustration about the then-new HawkEye, but ultimately made it to the finish line. It was confirmed the following year when Nadal bearded the lion in his own den in that nerve-wracking five-setter that few who watched it will ever forget. Federer was on the verge of tears; half a year later, after the finals of the Australian Open, the tears flowed freely.

No longer could Federer’s dominance be taken for granted at the Grand Slam tournaments. But for a Federer fan, there were new phases to come. Poetic justice came in 2009 when the French Open crown finally sat on a Swiss head, although it was a touch anticlimactic because someone else (Robin Soderling) had knocked Nadal out earlier. Still, that year, with a tenacious Wimbledon win, and with stability on the personal front for Federer, gave us a glimpse of a more stoic and accepting Roger.

After his win at the Australian in 2010, he endured a barren period in Grand Slams, but he had acquired an aura of contentment, as distinct from complacency. Where he was once criticised as immodest and arrogant, he was now unquestionably gracious, grateful for whatever successes he continued to have, and seemingly at peace with himself. His resurgence in the 2011-12 hard court season raised talk about the possibility of further Grand Slam titles. That possibility was fulfilled under the roof of Wimbledon in 2012.

What had changed in his game over all these years? I don’t have the reams of footage one would need to answer this definitively, but here are some impressions. Federer started off going to the net often, then became a classic baseliner, and finally, under the tutelage of Paul Annacone and Stefan Edberg, began to use the serve-and-volley at frequent intervals. His serve grew more and more precise, but his forehand began to fail him, and his flowing single-handed backhand was his most aesthetic weapon but also his Achilles heel, as opponents’ groundstrokes increasingly caught the frame of his racquet.

His every stroke seems to ‘recapitulate a life’s themes’, and there is a certain ‘sadness that comes from wisdom’ — that awareness of one’s fallibility

Watching Federer win Wimbledon in 2012, and nearly do so in 2014 and ’15, was a treat. His run to the semi-finals this year gave nearly as much joy; and the fact that he is going to miss the US Open will add poignancy to his next major appearance. His best years are behind him, and yet he continues to tweak his strategy in subtle ways, change his racquet to a larger frame, come to the net more often, all the while striving to spare his ageing back from undue stress. What’s more, it’s the fact that he’s now the underdog in big matches that makes it interesting for his supporters.

That’s why I think Rothstein’s words capture beautifully what I feel these days about Federer. His every stroke seems to ‘recapitulate a life’s themes’, and there is a certain ‘sadness that comes from wisdom’ — that awareness of one’s fallibility — not only for Federer himself, but for his supporters who are enthralled by his late style and still drawn to watching him play, all the while thinking wistfully of the days when he routinely won Grand Slam tournaments.

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