For nearly five years, Roger Federer was unbeatable. Ranked #1 237 consecutive weeks, and an additional 65 weeks besides, from 2004 to 2008, I never saw him lose.anywhere other than France. But then in 2008, in the Australian Open Finals against Nadal, in the second set, he missed a shot I thought of as automatic.,a mundane forehand down the line, and I was shocked into wakefulness. He wasn’t a legendary Swiss automaton after all. What made me think he was?
His infallability, mostly. That. and his reliable inventiveness, his ability to readjust on the micromoment, and compensate – do what needed to be done to prevail. Over the previous five years, he had routinely astounded me, digging returns out of abiding disaster, making points where there were no points to be had, mining gold out of murky asphalt and molding it, sculpting it, polshing it until a wistful rococco cherub sat coquettishly in his hand, with his opponent sweating and gasping on the other side of the net, open-mouthed. Or so I remember it.
I’d seen this sort of thing a thousand times or more on fields and gym floors televised and live. In 1976, I watched at the Spectrum as Julius Erving leapt into the air at the foul line and dunked the ball he held in one hand. I saw him drive the base line, cross under the basket, leap and dunk the ball behind him. I saw him inbound the ball, take a step forward, catch the ball and launch a three all in one movement. It was like watching Picasso be the painting. He did that off and on all season all his career, but he was a team player and occasionally (more than occasionally) his team lost a game. Roger Federer, alone on his court, did this continuously it seemed for three hundred weeks.
Last week, I was astonished to see that his run was over. I’d seen Steve Carlton lose the effectiveness of his slider. Not his slider itself, (though it had lost some speed and it didn’t break as sharply), but when he lost his other pitches, the slider then was ordinary in their company, He was thicker around the middle, and he sweated heavier. He bounced off half a dozen teams, which was always the most tragic thing to see, a former great, stubbing out his dignity in the samd urn by the door. I’d seen that. This wasn’t that, thank god. He can still compete. He’s still ranked #6, and it’s appropriate, and not demeaning. Just… he couldn’t beat the best of all possible Nadals.
The Nadal who lost the next day to Wawrinka, that’s another story. Frankly, I’m glad we didn’t have to watch that match, Federer vs that Nadal. It wouldn’t have solved anything. It would have stood in the road. Federer winning that match would have been almost piteous, I’m not proud to write that; it shows my meanness. I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be fat, either..All the attention would have been on Other Things – as if Nadal suddnly grew a hump, or something.
That, I could go for. If Nadal had a hump; if he was a hunchback. Franz Kafka presents…
One morning, Rafael Nadal awoke to find …
“Aa! Good morning, Rafa! Have a good night’s sleep?”
“What? Oh, yes, very refreshing.”
“I had a hunch you’d say that. When did you get back?”
“I say, when did you get in last night? I didn’t hear the door.”
“Well, I stopped at the pub for a few minutes.”
“A few what?”
“Minutes. You know, short increments of time. O, what is it, Tony?”
“Well, you see, there’s a bit of a hump on your back just now…”
“No there isn’t.”
“I’d say there is.”
“You’re such a pessimist, always seeing humps on people’s backs.”
“I have never seen a hump on anyone’s back until today. This morning, I see one alright.”
“Well, don’t let on.”
“How do you suggest I explain its rather pronouned presence?”
“Tell them it’s my rackets.”
“They’ve seen you with your rackets.”
“Tell them they’re my rackets and I’ve become very close to them. I’ve become One with my rackets.”
“You’re crazy, Rafa.”
“Yes. Tell them I’m crazy, and as a result, they’re seeing things.”
“And how does that work?”
“Tell them it’s a psychosis. There’s a name for it. Tell them to look it up.”
Actually, I’d rather expect hockey players to develop humps. Shows what I know.