“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
-Robert Frost, 1923
At the outset of The Championships at Wimbledon, the draw was packed to the brim with 128 players, each one full of hope that he would lift the Cup at the end of the fortnight. Of course, not all hope is created equal; there were naturally favorites to win it all and even a hands-down favorite among the favorites. The fact that most had Novak Djokovic penned in to win his third Wimbledon and fifth Grand Slam in a row was hardly groundbreaking. His season had been nothing short of spectacular, and no one seemed capable of beating him. The usual suspects to take him out – Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Rafael Nadal – didn’t exactly inspire much confidence based on their early season play, and my own personal knight in all white, Roger Federer, was in the midst of his own lackluster season. But the brain is powerful thing, capable of turning the smallest nugget of hope into a large one. A favorable draw or a few early matches played at very high quality could do it. Heck, even an upset was in theory possible, right? To paraphrase Robert Frost, Wimbledon’s first green is gold, and thus, I had the belief that Fed could somehow find a way to win it all. This hope could be fleeting, gone in an instant, but he’s the King of Grass after all. He just needed a little bit of help.
Enter Sam Querrey. When the draw came out, I had him pegged to play Djokovic in the third round, but I certainly did not have him going any further than that. Their match was supposed to be yet another stepping stone for Djokovic – firmly planted and devoid of any slippery moss – toward another semifinal (hopefully against Federer), another final, another championship. Surely, the fourth-best American with only eight titles to his name wouldn’t find a way. But then he won the first two sets, convincingly. It was shocking, unbelievable, and not over. Last year at Wimbledon, Djokovic lost the first two sets in breakers to Kevin Anderson and managed to find a way back and win, and even if he looked out of sorts in losing those two sets to Querrey, a comeback was more than possible. Heck, all he had to do was win three sets in a row, a feat he normally accomplishes with ease at Grand Slams. When the London rains came splashing down at the end of the second, suspending play for the evening, it was hard not to think that the moment had passed for Querrey. Surely, Djokovic would come out the following day a new gentleman and breeze through the final three sets.
Sure enough, he blitzed through the third, and my first thought was that the fourth had just become a must-win for the American. If the Serb won it, there wasn’t a chance he would succumb in the deciding set. Throughout the fourth, Querrey dug in, going toe-to-toe with Djokovic through eight games; the set seemed destined for a tiebreak. And then Djokovic broke Querrey in the ninth game, and with the American’s broken serve so went my hopes of an upset. Just one measly hold for a player who had served out countless sets and matches in his career. This was mere child’s play. Until it wasn’t. With the fifth set looming, Querrey somehow broke back and then held the following game to put Novak on the brink. Although Djokovic held to force a breaker, it was clear at this juncture he was fighting against his own nerves. Twelve points later, with a Djokovic forehand pushed out wide, Querrey raised his hands in victory. The upset was complete. Djokovic was out of the draw, and Federer’s way through was clear. There was still much tennis left to be played, but Djokovic’s loss was significant, and with it, each player’s hopes went through the closed Centre Court roof.
With Djokovic out of the draw, not only would he be unable to gain ground on Fed’s Grand Slam total, but Fed had an even better chance to pad his lead further. In his career, the Swiss Maestro has won 17 Grand Slam tournaments, the most in history, surpassing the likes of Björn Borg, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Pete Sampras en route to that current tally. Among active players, however, there are a few challengers, and naturally, it’s the two that have challenged Federer the most during his career and stand as the biggest threats to taking his crown as the GOAT: Nadal (14) and Djokovic (12).
Two years ago, it seemed likely that the King of Clay would catch Roger, needing only three more French Opens to do it, but injuries precipitated Nadal’s decline far faster than any predicted, and he now seems stuck at 14. Djokovic’s star, on the other hand, still seems to be rising. He is far and away the greatest threat to Roger’s record, as no other active player has more than three (Murray). Given Djokovic’s recent dominance over the rest of the field (He’s won six of the last nine majors.), five more seems doable.
With that said, he has his work cut out for him. Next May, Djokovic will turn 30, and even if that number seems arbitrary, only 20 times has a man won a major after his 30th birthday since the start of the Open era in 1968. Federer did it once (2012 Wimbledon) shortly before his 31st birthday, and while he has played and lost to Djokovic in three other finals since, he has not been able to replicate the feat. It is hard for me to imagine Djokovic’s level of play falling that significantly over the next year or even next couple of years, but history, as stubborn as it is, suggests time is not on his side. Even if he wins the US Open this year and Australian Open next January, he would still need to win three majors after turning 30, an accomplishment achieved only by the legends Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. Admittedly, they did it during a different era of tennis when the depth of the field was not as it is today. Nonetheless, six clear of Djokovic would be far better than five, for when it comes to legacy, I don’t want to mess around.
Now it was all up to Roger. Three more wins, and he’d be through to the final; four more, and he’d have eight Wimbledon titles and 18 Slams overall. The first of those four went much like his wins in the first three rounds: straight sets with little stress. Even though these matches were not against highly-ranked players, Fed played very well and seemed to have no ill-effects from the knee or back injuries suffered earlier in the year. If anything, the lack of stress on those older joints would only be a boon for the later rounds when he surely would face stiffer competition.
In the quarters, Fed met Marin Cilic, an inferior but dangerous player for the aging Swiss. Over time, it has become increasingly more apparent that overpowering Federer is often the key to success. Cilic put his power on display back at the 2014 US Open when he blasted Federer off the court in a straight-sets win in the semis en route to his only Grand Slam title. With that being Cilic’s only win ever against Federer, there could be no doubt as to how he would play this encounter. For two-and-a-half troubling sets, I watched Federer get pushed back beyond the baseline, his counterstrikes unable to cease Cilic’s onslaught of forehands, backhands, and booming serves. In the middle of the third set, Federer dropped the first three points of one of his service games, giving the Croat three break chances that felt like match points. I seized up, resigned to what surely was to come: a break and then a couple of Cilic service games to close out the straight-sets win. And yet that didn’t happen. Federer snapped out of his malaise and saved each break chance, holding his serve to stay in the match. At the time, it wasn’t immediately clear that this would ultimately be the turning point; he still had a set to win and Cilic’s serve had not yet been challenged. But at least Federer was still in the set. There was still a faint hope, and when Federer somehow broke Cilic and served out the set, that hope grew. There was some life in those old legs yet! Confidence. Belief. Hope. Am I talking about myself here or Roger? Who’s to say?
The fourth set was a back-and-forth affair with each player holding his serve. During each Cilic service game, I lunged left and right, begging Federer’s shots to go in and trying to push Cilic’s out. Each time Cilic held, putting the onus on Federer to hold serve and extend the match, I seized up, forgot to breathe, and pleaded at the Swiss to win each point easily. On some occasions, he held serve effortlessly; some were a bit shakier. Federer faced match points serving at 4-5 and 5-6, and somehow, some way he placed perfect serves to stave off elimination. In the breaker, Cilic got the early mini-break, but the determined Fed got two right back and fought to a 6-5 lead, needing only to win his own service point to force a fifth set. He botched it. I couldn’t believe it. How could this happen? He was so close! Wait, focus. He hadn’t lost yet. He still needed you! Another match point for Cilic saved. Breath. Another set point for Federer lost. Sigh. And another, this time again on his serve. Arrggghh. And another. Wait, that went into the net! Fed won 11-9! It was going the distance!
At this point, Federer looked locked in, and while Cilic held his first three service games, I could sense him losing it. Federer threatened to break in each and finally did in the eighth game. He quickly closed out Cilic with three huge serves to put his exclamation point on the comeback. It was a thrilling match, and I immediately thought back to the 2009 French Open. The day after Nadal crashed out in the fourth round against Robin Söderling, Federer lost the first two sets to Tommy Haas. Clearly sensing that this was his moment to finally seize La Coupe des Mousquetaires, he battled through those nerves to a gutsy five-set win and later won that elusive title. This would be the win that pushed him through to number 18. Two more wins.
In the grand scheme of things, what difference does 18 make over 17? It’s merely one more Grand Slam trophy to an already pristine resume. Twenty years from now, when I talk to my kids about how great it was to watch tennis during this era and how great it was to watch Roger Federer, it won’t mean anything to them if it’s 18 or 17. It’s just a number. Though as any diehard sports fan can attest, I’m always looking on to the next championship. I still savor Roger’s past titles and watch highlights of those matches, recalling my feelings as he won the match or even a big point that changed the complexion of said match. It seems silly that I live my life vicariously through sports stars like Roger Federer or my other obsessions of the team variety, but for me, it’s the closest I can ever get to winning the big one, to realizing that classic childhood dream. So when there’s a chance, it can’t be squandered, particularly in individual sports. Unlike team sports where each year brings a new version of that same franchise, in tennis, each year brings just an older version of that same player. At some point, the championships will stop coming, and just as if it were a chapter of my own life, I will have to find a way to move on to some other tennis player. I am not ready for the end of Roger Federer’s career, and with every fiber of my being, I do not want Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon title to be his last. I want to share (at least) one more with him, even if only through a TV screen.
Roger’s semifinal match against Milos Raonic did not strike me initially as one about which I needed to be greatly concerned. Perhaps it was a dip in focus on my part after Fed’s Houdini act against Cilic, but he was a man on a mission, and although the young Canadian would hammer serves, Federer’s varied game and determination would ultimately win the day. What I definitely did was underestimate Raonic’s own determination and improved play. Under his new coach, former great John McEnroe, Raonic has incorporated more net play into his game, a rather good strategy for a player that is 6’5’’ and possesses a lethal serve that most players can only hope to punch back. Indeed, Raonic was on fire to start the match and capitalized on Federer’s miscues, earning him an early break, and given that 140-mph+ serve, that was basically it. First set to Raonic.
The second set brought much of the same from Raonic. Blistering serves, huge forehands, skillful volleys. The second set also marked the return of the Swiss. His play was sublime, and he didn’t miss. If it hadn’t been for Raonic’s serving, Roger may have won that set 6-0. Going into the breaker, Federer had only committed one unforced error. Just one, and I forget when it occurred because focusing on steady breathing seemed more important at the time. Federer committed one more unforced error in the tiebreak, but it did not matter. After a double fault from Raonic, Federer cruised to a 7-3 win and evened up the match at a set apiece. A sense of calm overtook me. Federer had found his sea legs, and he had this. He truly did. Sure enough, in the seventh game of the third set, Roger finally got a break. He coolly served it out, and just like that, a two-sets-to-one lead. He had this in the bag. Bring on the fourth.
I remember watching Raonic’s body language at the start of the fourth. In spite of the events of the previous set, he was bouncing up and down and calmly mumbling words of encouragement to himself. It was commendable no doubt, but try as he might, he wasn’t getting this one back. Not against Roger.
Throughout the fourth set, I was really pretty calm. Federer was serving bullets and holding with ease, and although Raonic did as well (ASIDE FROM SAVING FOUR BREAK POINTS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SET! ROGER, HOW COULD YOU?!?!), it seemed to be only a matter of time. Serving at 5-6 and up 40-0, Federer was poised to force a fourth-set tiebreak. He dropped a point to make it 40-15. No matter, he only needed one point. Double fault. OK, not cool, but still, just needed a big serve and all would be well. Another double fault. Seriously? I hate deuce. Why would you do this to me? I have no clue how many deuces were played. Fed saved a few break points; he even lost another game point. But in the end, with a wide open court made possible by a blistering serve out wide, Roger inexplicably hit his forehand right back at Raonic, who calmly guided a passing shot up the line, past the stunned Swiss. With a primal yell, the Canadian snatched the fourth set and the momentum along with it.
My hopes of Roger winning the fifth were not high. I had seen this match before back in 2009 during the men’s final. Roger was coming off winning the rare French-Wimbledon double and was looking to win his sixth straight US Open. In the championship, he faced newcomer Juan Martin del Potro, a lanky Argentine with immense power and surprise finalist. In fact, I was overjoyed when del Potro defeated Federer’s nemesis Nadal in the semis; I thought it would be a straight-forward match, and my suspicions were confirmed with Roger up two-sets-to-one heading into the fourth-set tiebreak and dictating the match. Tiebreaks, however, are fickle things. One dropped point on serve, and it can be all over. Del Potro won the breaker in eleven points, and you could see the life sucked out of the five-time champion. The life was sucked out of me as well, and I watched, unable to affect the events that followed. Federer didn’t recover, as del Potro broke Federer’s serve early in the fifth set and cruised the rest of the way.
The same occurred against Raonic. On serve at 1-2, Federer had another shaky service game. After losing a game point with an unforced error, the two played a long deuce point, back and forth with both near the net. Toward the end of the point, Roger lunged to his right to pick up a ball and guide it back over the net in the hopes of passing Raonic, but his long reach was up to the task, flicking a forehand back across the net. As Federer pivoted to go after Raonic’s shot, his left foot didn’t quite clear the turf. He tripped and fell face first into the grass. The ball whisked by him untouched. For a few moments he lay there motionless, and I worried that he was seriously hurt. He rose gingerly and walked to his chair to compose himself. With every step, my heart sank. He looked defeated. I was defeated. He still had a break point to save (which he did), but I knew the end was coming.
The point and Roger’s fall encapsulated the match itself. A struggle between two combatants, fighting and grimacing to get to each shot, and then a sudden and cruel collapse from a position of strength. Sure enough, after three deuces, Raonic had the break, and the end was near. Point subsided to point, and that was it. Federer’s golden opportunity to win another Slam in the twilight of his career was gone.
In another bastardization of Frost’s genius:
(Bra)Eden sank to grief;
Roger no longer will play.
Nothing gold can stay.
With the Federer loss, the Raonic-Murray Wimbledon final marked the first time since Lleyton Hewitt beat David Nalbandian in the 2002 Wimbledon final that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic weren’t a part of a Grand Slam championship match. This is not to say that the Golden Era of tennis is done, full stop; rather, it’s yet another sign that their time of domination is moving toward its nadir and not its zenith.
For Nadal, although he is likely finished winning Slams due to the injuries brought on by his physical and imposing style of play, he still remains a top player in the game when healthy. For Djokovic, it’s not a matter of if he will win another; it’s a matter of how many he has yet to win. And for Federer, I am still unwilling to admit he is finished being a force at the end of major tournaments. His ability to close might not be what it once was, but any ATP player will tell you that he is still capable of playing unbeatable tennis on any given day. The challenge for him is sustaining that level for the duration of an entire tournament. His career is on the decline, no doubt, but I have to believe he has a little magic left. To believe otherwise is just about unbearable.
Ultimately, this Wimbledon gave fans like me so much. It offered up hope and the promise of what could be. It provided drama and the thrill of the unexpected result. And it struck hard and fast with defeat and the disappointment and grief that accompany it. My feelings went on that proverbial roller coaster ride, up and down and every which way, and once again, at the end, I am now forced to to turn my attention to the Olympics where I will probably do it all over again. (Surely, Roger has a chance at the gold medal in singles.) Am I crazy? Most definitely, but in my defense, hope – however big or small – is a pretty powerful motivator.
Cover photo by Robbie Dale via Flickr