Predominantly white clothing. Beautifully manicured and occasionally quirky grass. Sabbath Middle Sunday. Rain. Strawberry and cream. Oh, and for the last two decades, Roger Federer.
Wimbledon is nothing if not steeped in tradition. The oldest tennis tournament in the world, dating back to 1877, is the most prestigious of the four Grand Slams and the only one to retain its original playing surface, which poses myriad challenges and demands.
Such legends as Ivan Lendl unsuccessfully tried to woo the most hallowed patch of green in the sporting world for years on end. The Czech star’s career ended with a gaping hole in his CV. Wimbledon has made heroes, it has also reduced some of the most accomplished performers to blubbering wrecks.
Over time, organically and because of the need to keep up with the changing times, Wimbledon has had to veer away from tradition, however reluctantly. In deference to the omnipresent threat of rain, retractable roofs were constructed over Centre Court (2009) and Court No. 1 (2019). From next year, Sabbath Sunday will disappear and The Championships, as the British love to remind the world, will run its course uninterrupted. And, most likely, Roger Federer is unlikely to grace the lawns he has lorded since his stunning conquest of his childhood hero, Pete Sampras, in 2001.
It’s more than possible that memories of that contest, 20 years back, must have come flooding back on Wednesday when history repeated itself. Hubert Hurkacz, the 24-year-old from Hungary, produced a performance for the ages at Federer’s ‘home’ to consign the eight-time champion to one of his worst defeats. For only the third time, and the first in 19 years, the great Swiss had been vanquished in straight sets at SW 19; more damningly, being at the receiving end of a 6-0 score-line in the third set was a first for Federer at Wimbledon.
Hurkacz is a versatile sportsperson who could have pursued a professional career in basketball or motor sport. That he veered towards tennis was only because of Federer, whose game captivated the teenager so much that he pushed everything else away from his mind-space. Federer was to Hurkacz what Sampras had been to Federer. Oh, how the circle of life plays itself out…
A near-capacity Centre Court crowd watched in disbelief as the man they have loved to love for so long was systematically dismantled by a likeable young fella whose tempered celebrations after his greatest victory spoke volumes of his respect for the ageing maestro. Federer looked his age – he will turn 40 in five weeks’ time – as he moved ponderously, reacted a fraction late, and found that what came easily to him even a couple of years back now called for more rigorous effort.
“Clearly there’s still a lot of things missing in my game that maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago were very simple and very normal for me to do,” conceded Federer after the humbling quarterfinal exit, which has extended his barren run in Grand Slams to three and a half years.
Federer is arguably the greatest player of his generation, if not of all time. Truth to tell, tennis fans haven’t had it better. Federer is the bulwark of the golden generation of men’s tennis, forming a subliminal troika with great mate and rival Rafael Nadal, and Serb Novak Djokovic. Between them, they wear a stunning 59 Grand Slam crowns.
Djokovic could draw abreast of Federer and Nadal on 20 titles apiece on Sunday as he extends his quest to become the first man since 1969 to complete a calendar slam.
Federer’s virtuosity has touched the artificial turfs at the Australian and US Opens in Melbourne and New York, respectively, though he has found the red clay of Roland Garros a more complex jigsaw. His lone French Open success came in 2009, a testament to his burning desire at a time when Nadal was practically unstoppable on that surface.
It is on the grass of Wimbledon, though, that Federer has been luminescent. His serving and volleying is tailor-made for the surface, he moves with balletic elegance, and his one-handed backhand, a growing rarity in the modern game, is poetry in motion. He hasn’t quite owned the tournament like Nadal does Roland Garros, but Federer’s eight crowns are unmatched in the men’s game. Wednesday ended his bid to equal Martina Navratilova’s record of nine titles.
As the sands of time run out, tough decisions lie in store. Federer must figure out if, at 40, he has the motivation to continue to single-mindedly pursue excellence like he has for so long now. He must assess realistically if he can go toe-to-toe over five sets and seven rounds against younger, fitter, stronger opponents who continue to worship him, but who are no longer entranced by the aura of invincibility that once surrounded him.
At the risk of offending Federer’s vast legion of fans, perhaps his quarterfinal defeat was comeuppance for his decision to pull out of the French Open midway through the tournament last month so he could preserve his energies for another assault on Mt Wimbledon. Federer had battled his way to the fourth round in Paris when he withdrew. A less revered athlete might have been castigated for having the temerity to treat a Grand Slam as an extended practice session, critics might have hauled him up for disrespecting the tournament, if not the sport itself. Pundits and laypersons alike hold Federer in justifiably high esteem as much for his remarkable skills and longevity as his conduct, sportsmanship and the dignity and sense of fair play that has been his calling card. Maybe, the tennis Gods were not on the same page.
If this is the end of the road for Federer, you can’t help but feel for him. To go out 0-6 in the final set of a tournament he elevated to another level is the cruellest, unkindest cut. But that doesn’t detract from what Roger Federer is – a champion without parallel, the darling of the masses, the first among equals, a wizard of the sport of kings.