Great champions are artists whose gifts, perversely but inevitably, wane as middle age appears on the horizon. Few have waged war with the inescapable reality of nature’s course and produced defining moments in the autumn of their careers when the spring and summer have been so glorious. Improbably, what we saw on Wimbledon’s Centre Court yesterday afternoon in the men’s singles final gave us just that. The most decorated tennis player of all time failed in his quest to become the open era’s oldest Wimbledon champion; but in doing so he produced a performance so stained with finesse and pugnacity, and so awe-inspiring in its refusal to accept the predetermined, that Roger Federer’s finest hour might just have come in defeat.
Defeat is an occurrence so antithetical to Federer’s record-breaking decade and a half in the relentless and at times lonely world of men’s professional tennis, that using it as the ultimate seal of his greatness might seem to be an unjust proposition. What of the unparalleled 17 Grand Slam singles titles and the countless epic victories along their way? The 79 career singles titles gained all across the world and almost six years spent as world number one? Or his role as the central figure in arguably the greatest era in men’s tennis, and his raising of the bar that has served as motivation for other men to rise to the challenge of scaling it alongside him?
Standing in Federer’s way yesterday were two different but imposing figures, and it is this more than anything else that transformed his performance into a running eulogy to the historic magnitude of the man. The younger, stronger Djokovic, well on the way himself to joining the pantheon of the game’s most celebrated figures, would have been a formidable enough foe on his own. The Serbian’s metronomically punishing groundstrokes, athleticism and lack of weakness in any aspect of his game, combined with an iron will and crystal clarity of mind when the chips are down – found only in the lockers of a select few – rendered the need for any form of assistance redundant.
But fighting in Djokovic’s corner on Centre Court yesterday was Father Time himself, an invisible but haunting presence stalking Federer throughout the majority of three hours and 56 minutes of some of the most fiercely contested tennis ever seen in the 92-year history of the sport’s most fabled arena. Eleven times the old man’s continuous whispers in Federer’s ear grew deafening, but were silenced in turn as he saved break or match points at various crucial junctures throughout the marathon contest. By the end he had given up his own ghost and retired to the shadows to watch in awe like the rest of us, as instead of merely turning back the clock Federer walloped it across the court repeatedly until it stopped working.
Federer had outflanked the Reaper, who had come to read his career at the highest level the last rites on the most public stage of all. Defeat had been expected, but not like this. His reaction to losing the match, in which throughout five sets he had pushed Djokovic to the absolute extremities of his physical and mental capabilities, was a telling one. There was no flood of tears, which we have seen from him before after leaving his body and soul on court and narrowly losing a Grand Slam title. There was only a solitary one, and, rather than weakness, there was an unmistakable look of steel and pride in his eyes.
Roger Federer will be almost 34 when next year’s Wimbledon comes around. Nature will have spent 12 more months diminishing his gifts and developing those of his rivals, particularly those of the younger generation of players who made such a mark in the earlier stages of this year’s tournament. Father Time cannot be eluded forever and the fear is that next year Federer won’t have the strength to send him packing again.
While his heroic performance yesterday suggested that he’s not finished yet, it is not difficult, somehow, to hope that he is. He has been king of the sport he has dominated and as such deserves to go out on a sedan chair, being cheered to the echo after a heroic defeat to a fellow legend-in-waiting, rather than on a dustcart after one match too many.
© Mark Robinson 2014