One thousand four hundred matches were not enough to explore a complex and tangled universe. He is human and he is fallacious, despite all his achievements that would want him to be ethereal and divine. One thousand four hundred times facing the world looking at him, most of which had the moral obligation to be the impassive champion to support, the role model, and the robot that handles both victory and loss with the same, annoying class.
Well, enough of that. One thousand four hundred times Federer came before Roger, never the opposite. Just as if a shield were protecting a character that – they swear – had been buried when he was a still a boy and that was not an easy task.
Nevertheless, now and then, the essence of the man prevails the legend, rises up to the surface and comes out like an exposed nerve: it is then beautiful to look at him dealing with human affairs, bad days and opponents whose heads he would gladly rip off, if only he could.
He is finally true, real, tangible. The last two Indian Wells matches handed over to the audience a new, unknown Federer. If it is true that times of crisis reveal one’s true colours, the matches against Coric and Del Potro shed a light on one of Federer’s characteristics, one that is often overlooked because of all the clichés surrounding him: Roger does not know how to lose.
Not knowing how to lose can mean two things: there is the negative meaning that you do not accept defeat, and then there is the positive one, that you rise up to the defeat. Roger does not know how to lose in both senses. If it is true that the boundary between loser and winner is the moment one refuses defeat – for the vanquished it happens after, when he is under the shower; whereas the latter does it in media stress – well, Federer belongs tritely to the category of the vanquishers.
However, during some bad days, the repugnance he feels for defeat is so evident that he almost looks childish. This is when the Basel alien takes the gentleman’s mask off and becomes a fury, a savage. During these scant and yet marvellous moments, the form does not matter anymore, the appearance is finally dethroned to leave the place to the matter, to the essence: in these moments even a “fuck off!” to the umpire makes sense, it is a part of the process, a necessary support to hold on to in order to chase the victory.
The necessary evil. Nike’s marketing masterminds have created a completely new type of buyer: the hooligan who does not pick sides. This “bipartisan hooligan” supports both Federer, an elegant, noble man of gentle feelings, and Nadal, man of the people, wearing almost out-of-fashion neon clothes, armed with claws and spirit of competition.
The collective imagination has held on to this narrative: a story that is so well designed to almost sound real. A story that has created the legend the Swiss is the untarnished hero who never breaks a sweat and wins because of his unlimited talent: graceful in victory and elegant in defeat.
He is unreachable both for his technique (true) and for his spirit (less true). If this fairy-tale were true, Federer would not have reclaimed the No. 1 ATP Ranking at 36 years old. And counting. The reality here is different and this story is not as popular: competitively speaking, Roger is a hungry and voracious beast.
Amazing. So amazing that even Federer himself appreciated how his fighting spirit had been noticed after defeating Coric. And this is exactly why: there is more to see beyond the collection of perfect shots. If you look closely, an inner violence drives the legend, the same inner violence that made him shout a “Come on!” at his “peach-fuzz” twenty-year-old opponent (who had just made an unforced error, by the way) in order to get back in control of the game and reach the only thing he truly craves: victory.
Some people are just blessed with a type of talent that other humans just do not have. However, when this talent does not work or it is just not enough, he still manages to take control of all the nuances of the match, just like an octopus he stretches to take what he can and use it in his favour.
This is how he manages to turn the tables and bend the reality to his will. Federer managed to do this during the semi-final against Coric and he had almost made it during the final against his friend Del Potro, when he was stopped just before the finish line.
Well, it’s too bad but that is not even the point. If someone had just returned to planet Earth just yesterday night after a trip to space, he would have accused of rudeness this unshaven all grown up boy with his tamed lion’s mane.
Legend has it (over and over again) that he was a troubled spirit when he was young, smashing rackets and dyeing his hair. That troubled spirit is still in him, when he yells to express disgust and self-pity after a weak forehand or a backhand that landed short.
The numerous “too bad” we have heard and the various swearwords that were muttered towards his bewildered box escalated into the furious rants that were directed towards Fergus Murphy who, certainly, was not up to the standards required by such a final.
All this rage was almost sublimated by the “fuck off ref!” that ended the second set, after Del Potro had officially won it with a clumsy volley. It is not a bad thing, not at all. Federer is the one known by the community of fans, made up of average supporters who are usually quite informed (well, actually, not really), but he also is the one we have seen last night: an animal addicted to victory, affected by an obsessive-compulsive disorder, just like the greatest sportsmen of all times are.
There is nothing more genuine than to watch the greatest of all finally naked without his armour. To really see him. To have better look at him. Even with his wall full of medals and trophies, even with his sporting immortality in his pocket, to him winning is still as important as ever.
This moment he is living in now will only be understood by those just like him, those that, in the history of sport, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Original article by Federico Mariani and published on TennisWorldItalia, translation by Francesca Proietti.