The Slow Goodbye

Roger Federer at the US Open

I follow Federer. I’ve been following Roger Federer since he began, tracking the glorious career that seems to never end. He’s the author of many surprises—a game that is like no other, the way he has made losing look more like winning than actually winning because the shots we’ll remember are his, not his opponent’s, a career that went into a tailspin only to resurrect itself, and finally to play at a level only dreamed of into his late thirties, a time when most tennis players have become spectators of the sport.

But after his loss that should have been a win at Wimbledon to Novak Djokovic this summer, I haven’t looked forward to his matches. I didn’t even turn in to register the sad outcome of his losing early (6-3, 6-4) to Rublev, a player I never even heard of, in Cincinnati, a tournament he’d won many times. Later, when I saw the result, I wasn’t surprised. Others were shocked, expecting him to go further.

Despite Federer’s protests to the contrary, I didn’t believe he put his loss at Wimbledon in the rear view mirror. I noticed that I had begun to check out on Federer’s career, no longer believing there would be more thrills and chills and extraordinary pleasures. I’d have to say I was expecting losses, hard-to absorb losses. Oh, there would still be moments of spectacular play, spells and runs of wonder, but they would no longer be sustained all the way up to the end. I’d have to say we’re probably witnessing the beginning of the end.

And so when the US Open began with its predictable hyping of the top three players, Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, I didn’t believe Federer would come through. Perhaps for the first time in my long career of following Federer, I didn’t think he’d manage to come back this time. It wouldn’t be a matter of an injury—he’s said he’s healthy and playing injury-free. No, it wouldn’t exactly be a body thing—it would be a mind thing, a heart thing. The loss at Wimbledon had dimmed his optimism.

Of course, Federer always appears optimistic, hopeful about another day, another opportunity. That is what he’s learned to say, and perhaps he believes it. Many marvel at his ability to move on after a tough loss, almost as notable as his ability to play at such a high level all these years. Still there are some losses, some disappointments that sink deep into the psyche, and no matter how much we say we’ve absorbed them and moved on, we haven’t. Some losses make us doubt.  He may doubt whether he can win. Can he make the right decisions at the right times, can he pull off the shots when he needs them, does he have the mental and physical stamina to prevail against players whose intensity is electric, whose will is fortified with iron, who are younger? These doubts worm their way in quietly and then take up residence.

When I began writing this, he’d lost the first sets of his first two matches, first to Sumit Nagal and then Damir Dzumbar, both outside the top 100. Unheard of.  He righted the ship and went on to win the matches, but he was not the Federer who blows away opponents this low on the tennis ladder and this early in a tournament.

The pundits wondered what it meant and worried that such a beginning did not bode well for his winning the slam. No one with such a statistical beginning has gone on to win. Sure enough, he beat Dan Evans in his third match quickly and decisively, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. Then he beat David Goffin in the Round of 16,  raced through that one, another straight-set victory in little over an hour, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0.

Relief was in the air: the Federer of old had returned. The rust had worn off. He had awoken from his slumber. The ease with which Federer polished off Dan Evans and David Goffin lulled commentators into thinking he was back and fighting ready. They were already skipping over his next opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, and salivating at the match-up with Nadal since Djokovic had withdrawn and cleared the path forward.

As we now know, on September 3 he lost to Grigor Dimitrov in the quarter final and he’s out. He reached the last eight for the thirteenth time at the US Open. He didn’t play well. He didn’t serve well, he didn’t move well, his forehands were ill-timed and erratic. He wasn’t able to switch gears and move to another level and stay there.

By the fourth set,  you could see things were not right and at the end of the set, which he lost, he took a medical time out. A back injury. And while he came back to see the match through to its conclusion, the fifth set was not competitive. Several commentators have spoken of problems beyond his back—problems with movement, with playing at night, with timing his forehands, with age.

More than the physical impairments though, I noticed how the light has gone out of his eyes. That’s a cliché, a euphemism, an inadequate way to mark the emotional change I detect in Federer. It’s as if he knew he wasn’t going to win this from the start and was just going through the steps because that’s what he signed on to do. Once again, this tournament offered him a great shot at winning because the best player in the game had withdrawn. It’s as if he sees the chances but doesn’t believe he can capitalize on them.

I’ve listened to the talk about Federer. I don’t deny age is catching up with him and causing physical problems. However, I hasten to remember that a few short months ago, despite his advanced age, he played well at Wimbledon, extraordinarily well, near perfection really, until he lost in the final tie-breaker in the fifth set.  Djokovic didn’t so much beat Federer, as Federer lost. And it’s a loss like some other frustrating losses—the 2010 US Open semifinal, when he wasted match points against Djokovic, or in 2011 at Wimbledon when he lost to Tsonga after being up two sets to love—but worse. He hasn’t gotten over it, and who knows if he ever will.

No one says this. Federer is quoted as saying the loss at Wimbledon played no role in his loss last night, that he was ready to play to win. I feel sure he believes this. I just don’t.