Last year, Roger Federer stood in the spotlight on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open, following his one-sided loss (again) to Novak Djokovic — currently a more consistent, younger, two-handed-er backhand type of player — and, as only the GOAT of the sport can do, he gave the crowd a final message:
“Oh yeah,” Federer said with a wry smile and hint of optimism, “one more thing: see you guys next year.”
The crowd went nuts, standing in a collective cheer, a “Hell Yeah!” moment that rattled around the largest tennis stadium in the land like it was NFL Sunday in November and the Giants just went up a touchdown over the Cowboys.
It was a special moment — one that gave a subtle good luck following that love, Champ from Mr. Federer to his now Grand Slam nemesis Djokovic.
The crowd took it in; more importantly, they believed it. They believed in their guy…the seemingly ageless wonder who continues to stay relevant while many of his contemporaries have fallen to the hells of injury and, of course, the aging process.
It’s that type of assumed guarantee that makes Federer so special. And, for the most part — for most of the tennis fans out there — the warranty is expected to never expire.
For me, though…I didn’t buy the year-in-year-out optimism that Federer was selling. No one is above reality — though Fed’ comes about as close as you can to that assessment.
But still, close doesn’t equal a sure thing.
The game of tennis takes a toll on the body, and it does it in a way that is arguably more career-detrimental than the expected breakdown associated with football or other contact sports: Tennis takes its pain and hides it with artistry.
It’s a free-flowing movement, side-to-side, front to back, and doesn’t, at any point, involve Ronnie Lott taking off your head when you cross over the middle. There’s no “stunt” used by the server’s opponent to rush the middle while the ball is tossed in the air. There aren’t any concussions — head cases, sure. But what sport doesn’t have those?
But don’t let that sort of comparison — mixed in with the highbrow crowd and their hats and country clubs and the strawberries and cream — fool you into thinking tennis is a fountain of youth, and that’s that.
It’s not. Trust me.
I’ve been playing tennis for close to nine years now — coming from decades of baseball that took me from childhood hobby to college education — and I can certainty attest to the appreciation you gain after playing a few hours on the hard-court (or clay, or whatever).
Tennis is a physical game, a tactful game that works everything from your ankles…and up…and then down. It’s exhausting. And I’m talking about the club level, mind you, where changeovers aren’t timed, there’s no umpire playing clock-keeper in between serves, and there’s usually a beer or two (or six) cracked after the match. (Honestly, some are cracked during the match.)
In those two-plus hours of play, though, your body is put through the rigors of physicality…ones that you definitely feel two hours later when you go to grab a brownie from the kitchen. Your idea of being a physically fit dude (or dude-ette) is lost in the weird creaking of your knees and logjam of discomfort in your lower back.
Yeah, but you’re old, man…like in your mid-30s, you say? Well, yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Like most sports, the younger tennis players are at an obvious advantage — recovering-wise. Their bodies have not been put through the consistent wear and tear like the older folk in the game. In tennis, you see this often. From Agassi to Roddick to Marat Safin, James Blake and beyond, you notice the pinnacle of struggle quite easily. Some of that has to do with being put on center stage by yourself, with no one else to blame, and left to “perform” to the best of your current ability. But, mostly, it’s the reality of tennis, the reality of sports.
And it’s that reality that led me to not believe Federer’s speech last year at the US Open. It’s why I wasn’t shocked to see his Facebook announcement, either, informing the tennis world he’s out for the rest of 2016 — Olympics included.
It had noting to do with fan ship or loyalties toward other players, while rooting against the greats; Federer’s not the Yankees, here.
No. It had everything to do with reading that Facebook posting, understanding what an incredible athletic gift Federer is — maintaining his body through such painful artistry, and how his career is almost magical — and then struggling to go get a brownie from the kitchen.
Get well, Roger.
We’ll see you when we see you…
That’s good enough.