Time and Federer

There is a strange contradiction that fans feel when our sports heroes grow old. There is denial, and there is acceptance. Denial insists that the clock can go in both directions; denial holds out hope for one more perfect day, for Nicklaus at the ‘86 Masters or Connors at the ‘91 U.S. Open or Nolan Ryan throwing just one more no-hitter. These things do happen, not often, but often enough to spark hope.

Acceptance, meanwhile, pushes us to turn away. Once we have accepted that an athlete can never be the same, well, who among us wants to see Willie Mays fall down in the outfield, Michael Jordan miss fadeaway jumpers in meaningless games, Serena Williams crumple on Centre Court at Wimbledon? These moments, far more common than the miracles, remind us of all that human stuff that sport is supposed to shield us from — the passage of time, the impermanence of everything, our own mortality. Yuck. We’re just trying to watch a game here.

Wednesday afternoon, Roger Federer stepped on Centre Court to play his 119th Wimbledon match. He had won 89% of those matches — 92% of them if you don’t count his early development years. He is a great hard-court player and underappreciated on clay because Rafael Nadal overshadowed all, but it is the Wimbledon grass that has always brought out Fed’s truest genius.

Grass court tennis is, by its very nature, unpredictable and erratic. Sometimes the ball bounces up, sometimes it doesn’t. Serves will skip like flat stones skimming over a lake. Stopping and starting can be treacherous. It is always a shock the first time a tennis fan actually sees the courts at Wimbledon and realizes — “Wow, that’s really just GRASS they’re playing on.” It looks so much more romantic (and sensible) on television; it’s hard to quite grasp that there are no special tricks here, they are really playing tennis on a beautifully manicured front yard.

And by the end of Wimbledon, even that illusion is gone and much of the baseline is dirt.

Federer, though, seemed above all of the limitations of grass and dirt. He overcame the unreliable footing by seemingly floating a few inches above the court. He adjusted so quickly to the volatile dance of tennis balls on grass, he seemed immune to gravity; it always seemed like only his opponent had to deal with bad bounces. His serve answered his every request; others served harder but no one could so regularly summon a service winner when it was most desperately needed. Federer won Wimbledon eight times, and he lost the final in five grueling sets three other times, and as he took the court in Wednesday’s quarterfinal barely a month shy of his 40th birthday — and after dealing with two knee operations — denial was rampant among tennis fans. This was Roger on Centre Court! Stop all the clocks! The oddsmakers made him a solid favorite.

His opponent was a 24-year-old Polish player named Herbert Hurkacz, who has been a bit of a favorite of mine the last two or three years. He began playing tennis, naturally, after seeing Roger Federer at Wimbledon. He’s 6-foot-5 with a big serve, a consistent ground game and a variety of trick shots — I believe my first brush with Hurkacz was seeing him make a perfect tweener passing shot between his legs. But the thing that made me start following him a bit more closely is that he apparently closes his eyes when he hits the ball … or anyway, that’s what he told one interviewer. There is something about a player who closes his eyes that — as a tennis hacker — I find utterly irresistible.

Federer may have been favored, but looking back this was denial talking. He’d looked shaky and vulnerable at various times in these championships and in the tournaments leading up. He might have been knocked out in the first round by Adrian Mannarino had the Frenchman not slipped and fallen and been forced to retire. He played better after that, but he never seemed commanding even as he played players he had always dominating.

And then Wednesday, it was clear pretty much from the opening serve that Hurkacz was the better player. It was jarring; Hurkacz was playing his hero, his idol, on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. You might have expected for Hurkacz to begin the match nervously, apprehensively, and for Federer to do what he always has done against nervous, apprehensive opponents — running away to an early, insurmountable lead.

Instead, it was Federer who played tight. He seemed to have trouble gaining his footing on the grass, which felt a little like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov fall down when walking down stairs. He missed easy shots. In his first second game, he fell behind 0-40, and even though he managed to claw back and win the game, he already looked uncertain. He couldn’t catch up with Hurkacz’s serve. He clanked a couple of shots of the frame. Federer was broken in the sixth game, and he lost the first set convincingly, 6-3. He was thoroughly outplayed.

At this point, it was hard to watch, hard to push away acceptance — Federer, as mentioned, is almost 40 and he’s coming off significant injuries and history tells us that there’s no coming back. Tennis has long been a young man’s game. Pete Sampras retired a few days after he turned 31. Steffi Graf had just turned 30. John McEnroe won his last grand slam title at 25. Bjorn Borg walked away at 25. Federer is actually a year older than Andy Roddick, who retired nine years ago.

Seeing Federer get blown off Centre Court by a strong, young and yet unproven Herbert Hurkacz was a bit too much like looking directly into the sun.

But, that see tended, and we do have a powerful ability to deny reality when it comes to our sports heroes. Federer broke Hurkacz’s serve as the second set started — on a double fault, no less. The kid was spooked. Maybe Federer still had it! The broadcasters reminded us of Hurkacz’s inexperience, his brittle nerves, his history of inconsistency and, most of all, the countless thoughts that must have been exploding in his head as he stood a set up on his hero. Maybe he would melt down. No, DEFINITELY he would melt down. Hurkacz had a chance to break back, but Federer held him off by drawing on the endless array of tricks and sleights that he has picked up over the years. He rolled in a super-slow first serve. He attacked the net. He uncorked a sweet drop shot.

Maybe. One more time for Federer. Maybe.

No. For Fed, this time, it was all smoke, mirrors, trapdoors and thin strings of thread … no real magic. Hurkacz inevitably did break Federer’s serve and then Federer looked helpless in the second set tiebreak, slipping at the net, missing an easy putaway forehand, finding himself still way behind Hurkacz’s big serve.

Even with Federer two sets down, the announcers gamely brought up that no one has come back from two sets down more often than Federer, who has done it 10 times in his glorious career. But these were just words. He’s no longer that Federer. There was no denial left. Federer was beat. You could see it all over his face.

The last set was 6-0 Hurkacz. Federer had never lost a set at Wimbledon 6-0. He had not lost in straight sets at Wimbledon since he a young man still figuring out what Wimbledon was all about. And, honestly, the final set was more agonizing than the score indicates. Roger Federer was spent. This, alas, seemed to be the end of the story.

Let’s say it this way: The highest level of sport is unforgiving; Roger Federer is still one of the very best tennis players on earth, better than 99.9999997% of humanity. But what of it? He’s no longer the best. What does it mean to Roger Federer, winner of 20 grand slam titles, king of all grass court players, symbol of Rolex, to get to the quarterfinal of Wimbledon and lose? Does he want this? He says he’s going to think about it. But it sure doesn’t seem like he wants this.

And it sure looks like this is all that’s left. Time remains undefeated.

Federer smiled just a little as his final forehand sailed wide, a gesture of kindness toward the kid across the net who grew up wanting only to be like Fed. He left Centre Court quickly to the bittersweet chorus of a crowd that was not roaring approval but instead simply saying, “If this is where it ends, we just want to say: ‘Thank you.’” These are the most heartbreaking cheers in sports.