On the eve of US Open Tennis finals, a week ago, a schoolmate settled in USA asked in our WhatsApp group who all are going to watch the finals between Alcaraz and Rudd. Naga in his inimitable style replied immediately, “இந்திய நேரப்படி இரவு 1.30 மணிக்கு ஆரம்பித்தால் பார்ப்பதற்கு பெடெர்ரா ஆடுகிறான்” meaning “the match is starting at 1.30 AM Indian Standard Time. To be awake and watch the match, is Federer playing?” That, in essence, sums up the feeling of millions of fans of Federer. There are great players in Tennis and there is Federer.
Two of the greatest players to have played Tennis have retired in a span of two weeks. Serena Williams and Roger Federer. I dare say both Men and Women Tennis will never be same again.
For all the adulation we have showered on Federer, he has actually started on a wrong foot by beating our previous hero Pete Sampras in the 4th round of Wimbledon 2001. Since then, for over twenty odd years, he has entertained us like no has done before. But is he the GOAT?
2001 Round 4 Wimbledon. Passing on the baton if ever there was one.
The GOAT cannot be measured just by statistics nor by fans adulation alone. Even with the greatest batsman Cricket has seen, Sir Donald Bradman, we have comments and questions. A casual glance at his record would show that he was miles ahead of his contemporaries. But we say, he has played only against few opponents. He has not played across many formats. How would he have fared against a Shane Warne or Muthiah Muralitharan. So, picking Tendulkar over Lara becomes more difficult whose test records are closer. The same is the case with Muhammed Ali who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee who is one of the greatest champions to get into a ring.
I read an article in Indian Express today where the author says, people who have played Tennis consider Federer to be the greatest because only they understand how difficult it is to move across the court for long period of time and Federer did this at another level. You need not have played the game to understand that Federer played the game like no one did before. He ran, he moved he glided, and he skated across the court to get to the Tennis ball. Not just that, he then played an audacious shot which became a winner leaving not only the spectators but the opponent as well – spellbound. He was swift and he was full of grace. The dictionary says grace means smoothness and elegance of movement. I am not sure if the word defines Federer, or he defines the word.
Coming back to GOAT, my neighbour’s daughter all of seven years, told Rachna the other day that Messi is the GOAT in football. She was being brainwashed by her cousin just two months elder to her. She said Messi is a better player than Ronaldo (Cristiano). When Rachna questioned her how did she come to this conclusion, she asked Rachna to Google ‘who is the better player?’ I told her neither of them. Ronaldo (Nazário) of Brazil is head and shoulders above as he had won Two World Cups 1994 and 2002 and put Brazil in final 1998. She shot back saying Messi has won seven Ballon d’Or, more than anyone else. Ronaldo has two.
GOAT is debatable. But who has entertained us the longest period of time in Tennis with most astonishing skills? There is only one answer – Roger Federer.
If he started well, we would say he would win the match. If started poorly, we would say he is just warming up and he would win. If he lost the first two sets and down by two games to zero in the third set, we would still say he would come back to win. And mostly he did. He never doubted his ability to play his best in any match and we never doubted his ability to win a match from any situation.
My most favourite player in Tennis is Pete Sampras, a small fraction over Federer. It is not because he played better but he was a server and volleyer the most beautiful spectacle in Tennis. Roger played some serve and volley in his initial days in Wimbledon, but he never was a compulsive Serve and Volleyer like Stefan Edberg or Boris Becker or for that matter the GOAT Martina Navratilova. But even with Pete Sampras, there was this 1994 final in Wimbledon, when he played against Goran Ivanisevic, I rooted for Goran as I thought he is not going to get another chance to win Wimbledon. Not with Federer though, every game I watched him play, I wanted him to win and win big. And I prayed for his win with millions of others who were watching him play.
A Tennis GOAT should play single handed backhand just like McEnroe and Pete Sampras. In the last two decades amongst the top players, Roger did. So that settles the GOAT in Tennis for me.
We, in the family, always thought we would catch Federer in action (in person) somehow somewhere. But only Mohan, my brother and Rachna, my daughter did. After three unsuccessful attempts, Mohan got to see him in action in Round three or four in Wimbledon 2018. Rachna was luckier. She saw him on the first day in court in US Open 2019 playing against Sumit Nagal. Incidentally Nagal won the first set. Adarsh tried his best without luck. So, we all have to live with this ‘I have seen Federer play in a grand slam’ comment from Mohan and Rachna for the rest of our lives now.
Federer has visited India a few times first during the aftermath of 2004 Tsunami. As an ambassador of UNICEF, he visited some of the worst affected cities in Tamil Nadu and on other occasions to play some Tennis. I am sure there will be few thousands waiting in line to see him when he visits India next time.
To most of in India and for many across the world, Sachin Tendulkar personified the game of cricket. Yes, there were great players who played the game with him during the time. But he managed to stand alone in our minds. Not just his cricketing skills, his impeccable behaviour in the court and off it, made him the darling of people in India. Federer with his grace in court and through his smile and his conduct off the court made him the GOAT of Tennis to millions.
In August 2009 I was going through a ten-day Vipassana meditation course without access to Newspaper or smart phone. After 10 days of silence without access to any form of news from family and friends, the first thing I checked was how Federer was doing in the US open. He had lost in fourth round. That’s the way he has kept us spellbound all these years by his sheer magic.
As I said there are great Tennis players and there is Federer. There are no equals and there never will be.
Fairwell dear Federer.