Liam Day explores how the art of sport is represented through some of the greatest athletes alive, most prominently in Wimbledon champion Roger Federer.
I think we seek meaning in athletic competition because it justifies our continued interest in sport past the age of 25. If we can use sport as a metaphor for something else, we don’t have to be embarrassed that we haven’t left behind the immature pursuits of youth, which is precisely why we continue to pursue them, to hold on for as long as we can to our youth. When you get down to it, isn’t there something sad and unseemly about a middle-aged man who, every Sunday, paints his face and puts on the game jersey of a man half his age just to watch a football game?
Yes, there is, and so we tell ourselves stories about tradition and fathers and sons, and make heroes of men for purely physical reasons, and mistake the physical courage they display for its moral equivalent, which is far more rare and valuable.
A lifelong Red Sox fan and one-time season ticket holder, I stopped rooting for the team not long after they won the long-sought World Series championship in 2004. It was as if all the psychic energy and emotion I had for so long invested in the Sox were free to be invested elsewhere now they had finally won the World Series. I still remembered ‘78 and ‘86 and ‘88, ‘90, ‘95, and ‘99. I still wanted to throttle Grady Little for leaving Pedro Martinez in to pitch in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.
Still, somehow, I was free to move on. The same friends with whom I shared the season tickets were the same friends with whom I used to rent a house on Cape Cod for a week during the summer to, well, drink and try to have sex with women we picked up at a bar, but I grew up, as did my friends, and I don’t think any of us would now relish the idea of sharing a cramped, dirty cottage that reeked of stale beer with 10 or 12 other guys. Everything in its season.
I admire players now more than teams. For years it was Greg Maddux. Today it’s quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who see a football field the same way a master sees a chessboard. Kevin Garnett’s ability to impress his personality and will on his teammates got me watching the Celtics again, a team I had long ago abandoned. Zinedine Zidane, at the tender age of 34, dragging France to the World Cup finals in 2006 before being ejected for headbutting Marco Materazzi of Italy, to whom France lost, likely because Zidane was ejected, was a genuinely enthralling athletic feat.
But there is no single athlete who has enthralled me more over the years, with a consistency that defies normal human endeavor, than Roger Federer. Tennis fans are familiar with the litany of stats—the number of consecutive appearances in the semifinals of the four major tournaments, the number of consecutive quarterfinal appearances, the number of major tournament victories, the number of weeks as the world’s top-ranked player, to which he will add now that he has won his seventh Wimbledon championship.
But winning Wimbledon wasn’t something that was supposed to happen. Despite all his success and extraordinary consistency, Federer hadn’t won a major championship in more than two years. Yes, he was still good enough to get to the quarterfinals in tournament after tournament, the third ranked player on the tour, but his career was clearly descending the far side of the mountain. He was about to turn 31 and no longer able to keep up with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, young turks who have risen to dominate the sport as Federer declined. Djokovic is wiry and relentless. Nadal is muscular and fearless. Across the net from them, Federer’s game had started to seem fragile, too precious by half, the perfectly placed passing shots and winners overpowered by Nadal and disrupted by Djokovic, whose quickness allowed him to get to and return absolutely anything Federer threw at him, art eclipsed by strength and athleticism.
Of course, there was always something slightly disingenuous about this narrative of decline. Though Federer attacks the net more than his main rivals, he is hardly a strict serve and volleyer. He plays the same brand of power baseline tennis as the men who had supposedly supplanted him. He just played it with a degree of panache the younger men lacked. In the end, when their careers are over, we may look back and know that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were better tennis players than Roger Federer, though I doubt it, but what we will be certain of is that neither man was ever as beautiful a tennis player.
David Foster Wallace, a writer whose non-fiction I try, but could never hope to emulate, wrote a famous piece for the New York Times Magazine describing the transcendence, the quasi-religious experience, that is watching Roger Federer play tennis. There’s a whole You Tube sub-genre devoted to clips of his best shots ever. I won’t pile on here.
What I will say is that I set my computer at work to track his matches at Wimbledon and the French Open, most of which are played during American business hours. I am genuinely disappointed when he loses.
I care not a whit who else wins. Though I recognize that Federer is only one leg of the three-legged stool that dominates the sport, if Wimbledon’s final pits the other two legs against each other, I don’t care. I am not by nature a tennis fan. I am a Roger Federer fan.
But even that is not strictly true. I don’t root for Roger Federer to win because I want him to win. I root for Roger Federer because I know that every win provides a new opportunity for me to watch him play and every loss deprives me of it. If, in the twilight of his career, he were to adjust his game and begin to grind wins out playing purely defensive baseline tennis, I would lose interest and stop rooting for him. Fortunately, as these two shots from last week’s Wimbledon final attest, he hasn’t.
So, here I go, about to use sport as a metaphor to justify my adolescent crush on a professional athlete ten years my junior. Sport as art.
Walter Pater wrote of a certain school of French Renaissance poetry that its “charm is that of a thing not vigorous or original, but full of the grace that comes of long study and reiterated refinements.” Roger Federer might not be as vigorous as Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, and the power baseline game he plays he inherited from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and, before them, Ivan Lendl, but he is full of the grace that comes of long study and reiterated refinements. And it is for that reason I hope his win at Wimbledon belies any reports of premature decline. I want to savor every last chance to experience watching artist and art, subject and object together: the truly magnificent Roger Federer.