Sunday, June 4, 2017

Roger's 18th

The first time I really started to think Roger Federer might be done winning majors was way back at the 2011 U.S. Open, when for the second year in a row Federer lost in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic after being on the brink of victory.

Of course, the very next summer Federer roared back to the pinnacle of the sport, winning Wimbledon for the seventh time, his 17th Grand Slam title.

But time doesn’t stop, and four and a half years after that Wimbledon triumph, I wondered if it was time to stop calling it Roger’s “most recent” major title and instead start calling it his last.

There was the challenging 2013 season when Federer started to seem old. But then came his switch to a larger racquet head and a resurgence in 2014. 
There were agonizing near misses; a gutting five-set loss to Djokovic in the 2014 Wimbledon final, a semifinal loss at the 2014 U.S. Open when the path seemed clear, four-set losses to Djokovic in the 2015 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

I was thrilled to see my favorite athlete playing so well so late into his career, but it felt like the last sands were slipping through the hourglass. After a knee injury, Federer had a gasp-worthy fall to the Centre Court grass in the fifth set of the 2016 Wimbledon semifinal. It was a shocking fall for an athlete known for his graceful, gliding style, especially on grass. It felt like too perfect of a metaphor. The chorus of voices saying they didn’t think Roger would win an 18th major grew louder, understandably so.

He missed the rest of the 2016 season to rest the knee and rehab. I saw his notice announcing the time off while riding in a car near Yosemite National Park, in the Stanislas National Forest, and I was just glad it wasn’t a retirement notice.

Roger Federer is my favorite athlete of all time, and I don’t know that that will ever change.
Like so many fans, I’ve enjoyed the graceful, artistic, brilliant way Federer plays tennis, at his best seeming to float above the surface, hammering forehands and those work-of-art one-handed backhands. He was great, of course, ridiculously so, at one point making the final in 18 of 19 Grand Slams. But adding to that, he was a nice guy, a fierce competitor but a sportsman and an extremely decent human being, a family man who constantly offered to mentor and help younger players. He loves tennis, loves being Roger Federer, loves his hordes of fans. He was GQ’s 2016 most stylish man, but there’s always been an endearing goofiness about Roger, cracking up filming promos with Rafa Nadal, taking stabs at humor in post-match interviews, his obsession with emojis on social media.

Ah, social media. On New Year’s, Federer posted a tweet, saying goodbye to ’16, welcoming ’17, and saying he was hoping for 18. Accompanied, of course, by an upside down smiley face emoji.
For four and a half years, I’d been rooting desperately for Federer to win his 18th Grand Slam title, and I’m a little embarrassed to say the idea of it crossed my mind, however briefly, pretty much every single day during that stretch. When I run, I use mental tricks to keep going, and they are often tied to step counts and Federer’s major total, including imagined future triumphs, and the Grand Slam calendar. I also listen to music. In one song on my starred playlist, Bruce Springsteen sings, “So you’re scared and you’re thinking we aren’t that maybe we ain’t that young anymore; show a little faith there’s magic in the night…”

* * *

There would be magic at the 2017 Australian Open, the first major of the year.

Federer came in ranked 17th and hadn’t played since Wimbledon six months earlier. He later said just being there felt great, and a run to the quarterfinals would be a fantastic result.

He won in the first two rounds but didn’t look particularly great. But he was out there, playing and getting cheered.

Federer faced Tomas Berdych in the third round, a top-10 player and a real test. I was visiting a friend in Arizona, and I got up to check on the match only to see it was already over. Federer had destroyed Berdych in a rapid hour and a half. People raved that it was a vintage performance from Federer. So whatever happened, he’d had a good match Down Under.

In the fourth round, Fed faced another top-10 opponent, Kei Nishikori. Federer prevailed in five grinding sets, finding a way in the deciding fifth set as Nishikori faded.

Federer won in straight sets over Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals, a welcome respite, and then survived another five-set classic in the semifinals against fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka, his third win over a top-10 player in the tournament.

But there would be one more top-10 player to face in the final.

Rafael Nadal.

Roger and Rafa have engaged in a storied rivalry for over a decade now. Nadal has so often had the upper hand, a lefty hitting high topspin bouncing up high to Federer’s backhand, and playing with an unnerving tenacity. Of course, off of clay, Nadal’s best service, their rivalry was pretty even, but some of Federer’s biggest defeats had come against Nadal. In short, I’d rather Roger had faced about anyone else in the final. But it was Roger vs. Rafa Round 35, with enormous stakes. Both players were seeking to end long major title droughts, and the match would have a big impact for the endless Greatest Of All Time debate.

It was a little after 2:30 a.m. when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began playing in the 2017 Australian Open men’s final, possibly the most anticipated tennis match of all time. It was the middle of the night, but I was too nervous to be sleepy.

Roger took the first set and we Federer fans around the world were fired up. Nadal roared back to win the second set and I started stress-eating Golden Oreos. Federer was brilliant in the third set, winning it 6-1, to take a two sets to one lead. But Nadal, ever competing, won the fourth set.

A fifth set to decide the title, to add to and alter legacies. The tension was crushing, almost paralyzing.

That fateful fifth set began like so many Federer-Nadal matches, with Rafa going into wall mode, just grinding and grinding and covering the entire court until his opponent has to crack. Nadal broke Federer’s serve to start the set. Federer put enormous pressure on Nadal’s first two service games, but the Spaniard was unyielding, stretching his lead to 3-1.

I was fairly distraught at the thought of having to stomach another stinging loss to Nadal.

Uh oh, here we go again…

But Federer went to work, holding serve to get to close within 3-2 and keep the scoreboard pressure on Nadal.

The first point of Nadal’s next service game was a long, bruising rally, the type Nadal so often has won to demoralize his opponent. Federer dug in. This time he wouldn’t yield, and finally won the point with a crushing cross-court backhand.

Roger had been playing aggressive tennis all tournament, stepping in closer to rob his opponent of split seconds. It was especially helpful against Nadal, as he was stepping in and smashing backhands before Nadal’s vaunted topspin rise could take as much effect. His biggest weakness against his biggest rival had become a devastating weapon.

Federe won the next point for a 0-30 lead as a Nadal forehand went into the net.

“Chum jetze!” Federer shouted, Swiss German for “Come on!”

Nadal saved a break point and even regained the lead in the service game, but Federer kept attacking fearlessly. Another smashing backhand to earn another break point. The crowd, lively all night, was getting louder and louder.

After failing to convert his first five break points of the set, Federer got the break on his sixth, and the match was back on serve, 3-3 in the fifth.

Federer held serve at love, with the crowd at Rod Laver Arena growing louder with each point: ace, winner at the net, serve winner, second serve ace. 4-3 Federer. Standing ovation at Rod Laver Arena, including Rod Laver himself.

Then came the game of the match, two legends on serve deep in the fifth set of a major final. Federer jumped to 0-30 lead with a brilliant point.

“Federer is flying around the court now!” ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said.

A double fault gave Federer a 0-40 lead, but Nadal showed his legendary competitiveness to get the game back to deuce.

Then came an interminable rally, Federer and Nadal racing around the court, Nadal’s shrieks reverberating, both players hitting remarkable shots. For 26-shots they battled before Federer reached out and flicked a forehand winner.

“You gotta love this!” Fowler shouted.

Nadal fought off a break point, but Federer forced another, and converted this one, digging deep. I leapt off the couch and shouted. 5-3.

After four and a half years, Roger Federer was serving for his 18th major.

It wouldn’t be easy. Not against a champion and a battler like Nadal.

Nadal took a 0-30 lead. Federer calmly boomed an ace up the middle to get it to 15-30. But then Nadal won the next point to set up two break points. Oh boy.

Roger drove another ace up the middle to save the first break point. Then he won a five-shot rally on a powerful forehand to save the other and get the match back to deuce.

“We are all really fortunate to be seeing this right now,” Fowler said.

Nadal saved one championship point, but on the second one Federer hit a great serve, raced toward the net, and then popped a forehand on the line for the championship. Nadal challenged but the replay showed it was on the line, and upon that ruling Federer jumped and shouted in pure joy, along with millions of his fans around the world, defying time zones to watch an enduring memory unfold. The crowd thundered and fists raised in triumph across the arena and around the world. At last!

“The remarkable Roger Federer!” Fowler said, nailing the call. "A victory has never been sweeter."

Roger had his 18th, in a match for the ages against his biggest rival, no less.

It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a sports fan, and a reminder to keep dreaming, to keep trying.

Roger was gracious after the match, saying he would’ve been happy to share the title with Nadal if such a thing were possible. You could sense the genuine admiration between the two old rivals. Months earlier they’d been hanging out at Nadal’s tennis academy, lamenting that they were too injured to even have a charity match. Now they had played an epic match in a Grand Slam final. Now the middle-aged father of four had turned back the clock, had become the oldest man in over 40 years to win a major, had found a little magic in that Australian night.

One last line from Federer after the match summed it up so well, a good reminder for the things we all want and chase.

“The moment when you wait for something for a long time, it feels that much better, doesn’t it?”

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