14 July 2019 was one of the most magical days in the world of sport. Within 16 kilometres of one another, two iconic sporting venues in London were each witnessing a clash for the ages.
And the similarities didn’t end there. The regulation 100 overs between England and New Zealand ended in a tie, and the match had to go into a super over tiebreak, for the first time ever in the history of Cricket World Cup finals. And five gruelling sets into the match, there was nothing to separate Roger and Novak. At 12 games each in a never-ending fifth set, the Wimbledon men’s singles final went into a tiebreak for the first time ever.
At a friend’s place in New Delhi’s North Campus, we were watching sporting history unfold live on our screen. Rather, screens. As the television switched from one match to the other, our phones switched the other way.
We couldn’t miss a second of either match, because we knew a day like this might never come again. A day when we would get to witness Roger Federer battling it out in a Grand Slam final, and at Wimbledon at that.
That thought was etched in my mind, as the fifth set went back and forth, a game apiece, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7…
Little Did We Know…
As the match entered a nerve-wracking tiebreak, it felt so close. The thought of Roger winning his 21st Grand Slam title, which we knew could very well be his last.
It was as if we were living nostalgia in real-time.
As Roger and Djoker battled it out at Centre Court, my mind kept rushing back to all the times I’d sat at home in Kolkata as a kid and watched Roger lift the hallowed men’s singles title at Wimbledon. Would he turn back the clock and give us another such occasion to celebrate and imprint in our memories forever? I felt lucky enough to watch him play tennis as beautiful as he was, even at the age of 37. Yet, as all Federer fans would have on that day, I willed him on to go the distance.
At around 10:49 pm India time, as Ben Stokes was leading the chase against the Black Caps over at Lord’s, Federer broke Novak’s serve to go 8-7 up in the fifth set. He would now serve for the championship. For his ninth Wimbledon title.
And then, he went up 40-15. Two championship points in hand. And one hand almost on the trophy.
But it was not to be. Djoker did like Djoker does, and scraped out a comeback from the jaws of defeat. The set went on for eight more games after 8-8 to enter the fifth-set tiebreak. The tiebreak ended at 7-3.
Novak - 7, Roger - 3.
It was heartbreaking as a Federer fan. To be that close, two-championship-points close, and not see Roger lift another title at SW19.
I told myself that Roger would be back at Wimbledon in 2020, and go the distance then.
But a little something named COVID-19 would prevent that from happening. There would be no Wimbledon in 2020.
2021 then? Nope. Hubert Hurkacz from Poland would stop Federer in his tracks in the quarterfinals. There was something about that day, 7 July 2021. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that we might not see Federer play another Wimbledon. I sat up all night and looked for photos of Federer at each year of Wimbledon.
From 1999 to 2021, a trip down memory lane. A photograph or two to remember every year. I couldn’t find any for 1999 though. The breakout star hadn’t broken out yet.
Putting all of them together in an Instagram reel, I wrote, “They say this might have been his last time here, but as fans, we can only hope he's back at Wimbledon next year :')”
It was a hope put out into the world. May we be lucky enough to witness Roger at SW19 one more time.
It wasn’t to be. The match against Hubert Hurkacz would be Roger’s last match in a Grand Slam.
The end of an era, just that we didn’t know it then.
Fighting on Clay
I was a Federer fan before I turned a teenager. In 2003, when Federer won his first Grand slam, at Wimbledon, I was 10 years old.
I had been playing tennis since I was around four years old. Thrice a week, at Kolkata’s famed South Club. Located at Kolkata’s Wood Burn Park Road, it was the club that had shaped the early career of Leander Paes and had hosted international tennis legends ranging from Rene Lacoste to Roy Emerson.
In my initial years on the court, I would sometimes crib about how it would take time away from the amount of cricket I got to play. Don’t blame me - this was late 90s, early 2000s India, and we were as cricket-crazy as ever, what with the rise of one Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, and his exploits at Sharjah in 1998 and everything that followed.
By the mid-2000s though, as I stepped into my teens, my fondness for tennis grew significantly. And it was the boy from Basel who was making me fall in love with the sport.
Roger Federer was poetry in motion on the court. As an enthralled kid, I watched and cheered him on as he won one Grand Slam after another - three in 2004, two in 2005, and three each in ’06 and ’07.
At the time Federer won his first Grand Slam, Pete Sampras held the record for the most men’s singles Grand Slam titles in the open era. Sampras had 14.
By the summer of 2009, Federer had won 13 and was on the verge of joining Sampras as a contender for ‘greatest ever’. At the French Open that year, Federer would have a shot at equalling history, and creating his own.
Yet, Roland Garros was the one place where Roger had never won a Grand Slam. He’d won Wimbledon and the US Open five times each, and the Australian Open thrice, but never had he won the French Open.
It wasn’t as if Federer wasn’t good, or even great, on clay. It was just that he was up against the greatest clay court player of all time, a Spaniard who answered to cheers of ‘Vamos Rafa’.
In the summer of 2006, Rafael Nadal had beaten Roger Federer in the final at Roland Garros.
In the summer of 2007, Rafael Nadal had beaten Roger Federer in the final at Roland Garros.
In the summer of 2008, Rafael Nadal had beaten Roger Federer in the final at Roland Garros.
I remember those three evenings. As a fan so used to seeing Roger dominate everywhere else, it was weird to watch one tournament, and one individual in particular, get the better of him year after year.
At every other Grand Slam final where Roger would be playing, and he’d play most of them, it felt different. He would seem in complete control, and more often than not, end up with the trophy.
After his first Grand Slam win at Wimbledon in 2003, Roger played 17 of the next 22 Grand Slam finals! And he won 12 of them.
But the five out of 17 times that he lost, were all to Rafael Nadal, thrice on clay at Roland Garros and once each at Wimbledon (that epic final of 2008) and the Australian Open. It had triggered talk of whether the greatest of all time had someone who would get the better of him in his own era.
And what was discussed and debated just as much was whether Roger would ever be able to win on clay at the French Open, or whether completing the Grand Slam (winning all four major titles) would elude him just like it had eluded the world-record holder of men’s singles titles at the time, Pete Sampras.
Sampras too had never won the French Open. In 13 attempts, the farthest he’d gone was the semifinals in 1996. World champion everywhere else, but not on clay.
Would Federer’s legacy be similar? As a fan, I sincerely hoped not. I had watched Federer give it everything in the final at Roland Garros so many times before. Thrice to be specific, but it felt like more due to the heartbreak of defeat. He clearly preferred grass and turf to clay. But the way he fought on clay, and for the French Open, was a trait to admire.
In his eleventh time at Roland Garros and in his fifth time in the final four there, Federer beat Robin Söderling in the title clash and finally managed to win the trophy, completing the elusive Grand Slam, and equalling Sampras’ record for the most number of men’s singles major titles too.
It was a wonderful moment - and it almost felt like Roger would have heaved a sigh of relief. To a 16-year-old me, it was a lesson in perseverance.
Yes, Nadal wasn’t around in the final of 2009, but it was Roger’s sheer persistence and doggedness to keep giving it his best on clay that had paid off at Roland Garros that year.
Hoping the Day Would Never Come
Over the next decade, Roger’s march on his Grand Slam tally reduced, by his standards. He still won six more titles, taking his total to 20, a world record in men’s singles at the time and six more than Sampras, who had held the record when Roger had won his first.
As both his age and injury concerns grew, every time Roger went on a break or had to pull out of the tour due to an injury, there was always speculation on whether Roger would be back, and whether he could be back to his best ever again.
I would try and avoid all such conversations, and with the firmest, most assured tone, tell my friends, “No, he’ll be back. And he’ll win more Grand Slams. And he’ll definitely win another Wimbledon.” Because I couldn’t think of it any other way. We were #FedererForever for a reason.
And the optimism was well worth it too. His renaissance in 2017 and early 2018 was indeed remarkable, and he won three Grand Slams in the space of twelve months. Unbeknownst to my optimism though, the third of those Grand Slam wins, the Australian Open in January 2018, would prove to be his last.
Earlier this year, in July 2022, I met a group of Swiss journalists during a visit to New York. And you cannot not discuss Federer when you’re with five people from his home country. My Swiss friends were convinced that Federer would draw the curtains on his competitive tennis career soon, and the fan in me wouldn’t hear any of it.
“No, he’s got to play another Wimbledon at least!”
When he turned up this year at SW19 to celebrate the centenary of the Centre Court, wearing a black suit, I wished to see him in the Wimbledon whites again. He did too, as he remarked, “I hope I can come back here one more time.”
But then, all of a sudden, the dreaded day did arrive. And it came without warning. I opened our office WhatsApp group to see that a colleague had shared a link to a tweet by Federer, and written “Federer fanssss!”
There was a sinking feeling as I opened the tweet. I could guess what it would be about. It was a video of Roger speaking. And with it came a confirmation that I had hoped I wouldn’t hear, and had willed myself to not think about over the past few years.
In the hours that followed, I felt that longing to see Roger playing at SW19’s Centre Court one last time.
A friend messaged on Instagram, “One more Grand Slam. Just one more.” And I replied, “Just time enough for a proper farewell. For us to hang on to every shot, every rally, every point. One last time.”
The Laver Cup will be that one last time, I guess.
And maybe as the days pass, like we have for legends past, we will turn to old YouTube videos of Slam wins, and tweeners, and rallies extraordinaire, and pictures of trophies held aloft, interviews and articles. To everything that helps us remember the man whose stroke play and movement on the tennis court was, there’s just no other way to describe it, poetry in motion.
Thank you for the memories, Roger. We’ll always be #FedererForever.