I remember the day I became a fan of Roger Federer. It was the 3rd of July, 2005 and Federer was playing Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final. I did not follow tennis back then, and my knowledge of the game was limited to collecting and memorising random facts for quizzes. I was aware that Sampras and Agassi shared a great rivalry, and that Roddick was one of the fastest servers ever. As an amateur, unaware of the intricacies of the game, I felt Federer would be no match to Roddick’s thunderous serve on the grass court.
But what transpired in the game took me by complete surprise. Roddick was serving alright, often in upwards of 225 kmph, but Federer controlled them with effortless grace. While Roddick moved heavily, panting and grunting, Federer glided across the court, pulling off incredible winners from impossible angles. I was stunned not so much by Federer’s victory, but the manner in which he toyed with his opponent.
I started to follow tennis closely, and as the intricacies of the game became clearer, I could truly appreciate the supreme mastery of Federer’s craft. The more I watched him play, the more I was taken in by awe, wonder and sheer joy.
Thus, what began as an earnest admiration soon turned into an inexplicable obsession. His wallpapers started to adorn my computer; his posters were plastered all over my room. I invested endless hours watching his Rolex adverts, match highlights, obscure interviews and repeat telecasts. No matter how many times I watched them, not for one moment did I feel bored of them.
This strange obsession transcended the game and began to intrude into my personal life. His victories filled me with joy; his losses were personal tragedies. In conduct and demeanor, he became the man I aspired to be (though often failing miserably). And when I had to confront difficulties, he was my reference point in helping me hold my nerve, the way he does it during crunch moments.
Sometimes I used to ask myself: How did it come to be that I am so emotionally invested in one player’s success? I’ve never met this person and in all likelihood, nor will I ever. Why does this fealty seem so deep and personal? And it wasn’t just me. Observe the Centre Court crowd when Federer plays. Human psychology suggests that an impartial crowd usually tend to support the underdog. Not with Federer. They cheer him when he plays against an underdog; they cheer him when he is the underdog. It almost feels unfair to the other player that at a supposedly neutral venue, the support is so skewed towards this man. Opponents playing against Federer know that they have to overcome not just him, but the 15000 strong fans cheering him at the top of their voice. What explains this unbounded devotion?
Back in 2006, David Foster Wallace penned a remarkable essay in which he coined the phrase “Federer moments.”
“There are times,” wrote Wallace, “as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”
In the semifinal against Berdych, there was such moment of glory. In the second set, with scores levelled at 4-4 (30-15), Federer sent in a kick serve. Berdych picked it up well and hit an incredible return deep into Federer’s court. The ball landed awkwardly, so close to Federer’s body that he could only manage a weak forehand, while getting thrown out of position in the process. Pouncing on the opportunity, Berdych hit a thundering stroke far wide into Federer’s backhand, almost wrong-footing him. The shot was executed so well that even against the top players it would be a winner. But because this is Federer, he did something spectacular.
He quickly shifted his body-weight onto his left foot, extended his arm and with a mere flick of the wrist sent a passing shot down the line. The crowd gasped for a brief moment, to comprehend what had just happened, before erupting into a roaring applause. Berdych stared down helplessly, almost shaking in disbelief. The shot was both absurd and elegant, sublime and beautiful. “No. No. Please stop it”, remarked the commentator. “That’s one of those ones that really only Federer plays.”
This moment. This 7-second passage of play explains why the Federer phenomenon inspires so much devotion from millions of fans world over. Ask any Federer fan why they love him. The answer will not be about the number of grand slam titles he had won, or the number of weeks he had stayed at the top. It will always be about recounting such Federer moments and how he made them feel. Watching him provided an escape from the banal, tedious reality of life. Watching him made one appreciate what it is like to be touched by beauty and perfection.
But over the past few years, when Federer consistently came up short against the top players, failing to win a grand slam since 2012, that dream seemed to have been fading. In professional sport, champions come to terms with their decline long before their fans do. Somehow the mere thought that their idol is no more an invincible feels unbearable. So they live in self-denial. “He’s just having an off day,” you tell yourself, but deep down you know he’s not the same player anymore.
To me, ignorance was the most plausible form of denial. So I grew distant from his game, lest his frailties became too apparent. Truth be told, he still produced magic, he still competed at the highest level. But when you saw him constantly struggling, you watched his games not with delight, but with dread— the dread of feeling inadequate, the dread of another disappointing loss, and the dread of being reminded that he is not the Federer you grew up watching. Last year, when he snapped his season midway due to a knee injury, you knew that Federer’s best years were behind him. Or so everyone thought.
After being away from the game for six months, he stages a comeback and how. He is playing not as someone who is in the twilight of his career, but as a player in his pomp. The serves are precise, the liquid-whip backhand incredibly slick and the movement as balletic as ever. When other players are getting retired with injuries, this man, at 36, wins the Wimbledon without dropping a set. Right now, watching him evokes memories of the flawless Federer I first saw in 2005 and with that, reminds me of my own journey as his compulsive, obsessive fan.