Retire, don’t retire, retire, don’t retire…sit down with a flower and pluck at its petals and if your name isn’t Roger Federer, you’re almost sure to end at ‘retire’, but it’s Federer who will decide whether he is to retire or not and his petals all appear to be saying the same thing, ‘don’t retire’. Why? With so much else in this world, there are only theories here.
Let’s start with the Swiss himself. He has a hunch that his gotcha moment lies within grasp. Sensing the deadline is near, he is pushing hard to prevent the case of his 18th grand slam from being chucked into oblivion. Federer retires or not, why bother? It’d not be like waking up from a nightmare and discovering you’re in a lunatic asylum where even shrinks are crazy. Would it be a temporary convulsion, a harbinger or the end itself? Maybe. Maybe not, maybe all three. There’s only one way of knowing…But in these complex times, there’s at least one simplicity; yet another legend will bow out on a low. See no age, hear no age, speak no age-three-monkeys-like; Ferderer seems to think that if he doesn’t react, nothing will happen. But stuff is already happening, some can explain the how, but folk are already sure about the why and the what.
Have a look over at the Wimbledon final this month. It was supposed to be a blockbuster. The fate of the Federer’s elusive 18th slam hung in balance. Fireworks were expected. And then-nothing happened. Exactly as expected. We’ve been here so many times that, even before it’s over, you know already there will be a next time. Helpless? Sure. Emphatic? Yeah. Recurring? Definitely. Anything to say? Few.
Whatever happened comes down to the action of two men: Federer and Djokovic. Why did Federer lose this time? Part of the answer is Federer himself, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Let’s start with Djokovic.
The best thing about Novak Djokovic was, you could count on him to do something stupid. That was a decade ago. Now, you keep waiting and waiting and waiting for the critical misstep, the mistake too far, but it never seems to come. Welcome to NOLEv 2.0. With his super human, stretch Armstrong-like feats, supreme fitness and iron will, he’s got inside the head of Roger Federer. And that makes him more dangerous than a thousand suicide bombers or ten thousand fighters. Because in messing with Federer’s head, he has learned possibly the only thing Federer couldn’t have afforded him to learn-that where he can’t match in grace, he can get through manipulation- pushing the game to its length, long rallies, five setters. In their last eight encounters, Djokovic leads 6-2. What gives? Federer’s both wins came in three setters. So, in a tale of many, many twists, Federer’s options were limited by his attempt to steer clear of the mud pits of long rallies and a five setter for Federer has never won a five setter from Djokovic in three attempts (Grand slams). In fact, with that steely resolve of his, Djokovic wins 7 times out of 10 five setters while Federer a mere five times. Which meant Federer had to come all guns blazing leading to double the unforced errors of Djokovic(35-16) which is a staggering figure given Djokovic got the better of Federer by mere 10 points (148-138).
Perhaps through the nuanced and glib variations, we have a common answer: Nole is about the politics of fear. A double layered fear of Djokovic and five setters within Federer. Fear- and you look away now if you’re his fan-is perhaps the essence of Djokovic’s game. For the next half decade, players will be told that Djokovic is the Big Bad Wolf who smashes records, eats grass and steals babies. This isn’t paranoia (emphasis added).
Back to toggling the final. After Murray’s mutilation, Djokovic’s perspective was to drive a wedge between Federer’s intentions and his 18th Slam. So, Federer gets hit, again and again. Forehand, backhand, anything and everything. With scoreboard reading 1-0, Federer blanches. He doesn’t want that fifth set. So, he takes on the attack. Wedge driven. Advantage for Federer after a classy Wimbledon act lost. The cool cat flustered. A grimace replaces the perma ease. Trouble is a comin’. But the ubur survivor fights back and wins the second set in one of the most frantic tie breakers. Combined, Break in the first set and the Second set tie-breaker, made for some fireworks and a great deal of noise. But it did little to change the contradiction at the heart of the contest. An intolerable threat of a fifth set and an unsustainable proposition of fitness was a riddle Federer did not have an answer to. More telling though was that he let slip that he was panicking-and was far from at the top of his game. A sharper, younger Federer would have done it differently. Rather than tamping down Djokovic, he would have dared him to take him on. Had Federer done it that way, it’s not like he would have been saved or that the narrative would have immediately turned. But it would have helped him clamber back in the third set. And that would have been an infinitely better place to mount an attack from.
Gasquet was easy to beat up on. No one liked him anyway. Federer, perhaps fairly, possibly unfairly was supposed to be a different bag. Even if you don’t like him, he seemed like a guy who understood the job-finally-and was willing to do something about it. Now, in the 3rd and 4th sets, he was just ambling around, not even making a pretence of making a pretence. Even if it was too late to line up a big announcement, why not at least try and steal some of Djokovic’s thunder. Sell it, dammit. If you don’t have something substantial, take the gimmicky route. A shot between the legs, something like that. Is there even a photo of Federer that anyone can remember from the final all of a fortnight ago? A memorable shot? Any shot? A smile. Audience gets it too. Acoording to BBC-1 statistics, Men’s Singles drew in a peak audience of 9.2m viewers, down on both 2014(10.0m) and 2013(17.7m). Most would have watched the chaos for a bit and then switched off TV and gone to bed. Deep down, they weren’t and aren’t really convinced of Federer’s ability to win finals. He is definitely winning matches, reaching finals so he never goes all Greek on his economy but it’s been three years since the last slam and he is stuck in Horace’s version of carpe diem: his hopes are few and he is content to drink the wine.
Hey, I have nothing against the Swiss or for that matter Switzerland. In fact, I am a card carrying member of ‘Wanting-to-open-a-bank-account-in-Switzerland’ but in every realistic scenario, Federer no more has the resources to compete conventionally against Djokovic-if Djokovic decides to hit the accelerator. Either it would bankrupt him a la the Soviets or it would drive him to do something desperate before the point of no return is reached. The very same myth unraveled in the Wimbledon final.
To put it in the words of the Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Maybe someone should hand Federer a new set of petals.
But never mind-you’re bored already. Which is exactly the point. Reforms are unsexy and details wearisome-but they are also what build champions.
It was good theatre. On to next month’s US Open.
New month predictions usually aren’t worth the paper they are written on but because it’s that time of the month and silly optimism or dark pessimism are around in spades so let’s gaze into the crystal ball. This year, since little is happening (other than Djokovic) and even less expected, it is relatively easier. There are just two options of the obvious variety anyway, 2015’s US Open could be the slam of Federer or it could be the slam of the ‘Terrorist’(Djokovic).
Federer is the one with all the options. It’s all lined up for him-has been lined for years now-and there for the taking. All he has to do is to reach out and grab.
Back niggles. What’s the big deal? More medicines. Open package, follow instructions and there you go?
Djokovic. Pfft. Just kill all men named Djokovic, birthed from Serbia, shaped by Jelena, inspired by dreams, made by determination and Voila! US Open. Except, not really.
How to beat Nole? Sample answer: Make the local priest say that if whoever eats grass, his engagement would break. Or: Make him claim that it would desecrate the memory of the dead.
Or the real kicker: it would be an insult to Christianity. Because the temporal is a distant second to the spiritual. Always has been, increasingly is so.
Ok, maybe not as simple as that for the opportunity is still lined with the explosive downside of meeting Djokovic in the final but still, it’s worth a shot. Then there’s option two: the ‘Terrorist’. Strategies here, strategies next door, strategies everywhere-it’s good for business. Real good, for down the Federer’s narrative stands Djokovic and up the capability and planning continuum he’s dragging himself.
That sets up a potentially great slam for Djokovic and with Nadal’s Garros boat on the shores long ago, the stars couldn’t have been more aligned. So looking good for the ‘Terrorist’ all round. But let’s rewind a year. The same was true for both of them a year ago: it could have been the slam of Djokovic or the slam of Federer. But both lost gifting the honors to Croat Cilic. So both are here again, at the last slam of the year, raring to go. It’s become Tennis’s solution to Tennis’s problem: no one really wins, no one really loses, and nothing really gets figured out. Federer’s 18th title is kicked down the road-for resolution later or maybe just never. Federer and Djokovic ceded the honors last year to a young prodigy. So why not this year? Next year too? And the year after? Everyone wins; Federer loses. See you next time.