Among everything that the human species has learnt of the universe, time is perhaps the most unflappable thing. And it is an excruciating experience to see Roger Federer live the consequences of trying to conquer its pervasive influence. It is an intriguing battle between a man in love with his sport and an unforgiving judge that does not distinguish the great from grime.
On Friday, time picked a fine English summer day to taunt the greatest man to ever play tennis, teasing him into a painful 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6 defeat at the hands of Milos Raonic.
Federer is only a month shy of his 35th birthday. He has not just scaled the highest mountains in tennis; the Swiss has crafted new peaks for others to gape in awe and disbelief. Federer is a genius who could imagine and create an alternative universe, far better than the original.
Time though has begun to chip away at his great edifice. There were two visceral moments in that match against Raonic that underlined Federer’s existential challenges.
At 5-6, serving to force the fourth set into a tiebreaker, Federer raced to three game points at 40-0. It was the Federer we knew, a man in command of the court and everything inside it.
Thousands of devoted Federer fans on centre court were plunged into a collective sense of disbelief, when the great maestro from Basel, still in command at 40-15, gifted Raonic a pair of double faults. It was a strange lapse of concentration that will nibble at Federer’s well-architected brain for the rest of his life.
“Something went wrong, I don’t know what, can’t believe it,” said Federer. “Unexplainable for me. I’m very sad about that, and angry.”
The sudden lapse demolished Federer, ravaging a psyche that was trained to master the craft and create magic. The moorings had given away, ravaged by the steady pounding of time.
“Opportunities were all around in the fourth set,” added a rueful Federer. “I think I pushed him on his service games to get the break, but I couldn’t get the job done.”
Federer found himself serving from behind again in the final set. And watching him wilt in the fourth game was as painful an experience as you could imagine for his myriad fans, just as it would have been for Federer.
The man used to dancing around the tennis court like a ballerino, missed a step and fell over into a belly flop that was as unlike Federer as one might imagine. Those double faults had ravaged the mind and the body was just following the trail of destruction in the maze of his mind.
It was a transformation that was as painful to watch as it may have been for Federer to endure. One could imagine the Swiss feeling like an empty shell, his soul snatched from him in the moments he needed it the most. The fifth set just turned out to be a procession for Raonic to complete the conquest.
The press conference that followed wasn’t an easy one for Federer. “Just don't remind me of everything,” begged the Swiss at the very start. As usual now, he also had to deal with the R question. “And, yes, I hope to be back on Centre Court, to be very clear for you,” assured Federer with a wry smile.
So what do we expect of Federer as he marches forward resolutely into the twilight of an historic tennis career. An 8th Wimbledon title and an 18th major title seemed within grasp after that epic victory over Marin Cilic. But then a remorseless Raonic snatched Federer’s fond hope from right under the maestro’s feet.
It is interesting to hear Federer express himself in these moments of anguish, caused by bitter defeat. The Swiss has to often labour harder than on the court to explain his lingering love for the sport. It must indeed be a colossal effort to just stay in shape and put in the hard miles into recovery and rejuvenation. It is no mean feat to still remain in the top echelons of tennis deep into his 30s.
"It's a dream to win my eighth title here but it's not the only reason why I play tennis," explained Federer. "I know Wimbledon is important, but it's not everything. I have played 10 sets [against Cilic and Raonic]. It's very encouraging for the season. I was insecure coming into Wimbledon."
Federer fans were a spoilt generation, drunk and high on the intoxicating beauty of his game. He conquered the world and collected bagfuls of titles, with a disarming smile and a game that felt more artsy than the many works inside the Louvre.
Over the past few years though, ageing has made the Swiss far more vulnerable. Federer seems to have adjusted far better to his new normal, than have his legions of fans. It is time they did too - just relish the aesthetic moments, of which there are still many, instead of seeking the pleasure of a perfectly orchestrated composition.
Mind you, Federer is no stranger to stinging, painful defeat. The epic loss to Nadal in that immortal final of the 2008 Wimbledon will linger forever. The loss against Juan Martin Del Potro in the 2009 US Open also came after the Swiss legend was just two points from another grand slam title.
Those mind numbing losses to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open in 2010 and 2011 bore uncanny resemblance, with the Serbian turning the tables with the scent of defeat right under his nostrils.
Another loss that stung Federer rather badly was the quarterfinal loss to Jo Wilfried Tsonga in the 2011 Wimbledon. Each of those matches were high stakes encounters that rudely interrupted Federer’s relentless collection of grand slam titles.
Federer recovered psychologically from those devastating defeats. He proved that to us by winning a seventh Wimbledon in 2012. But even though he has played a consistently high level of tennis since then, he has struggled to get over the line on many occasions.
The dominance of Djokovic and the emergence of a new generation are forcing Federer and his fans to adjust to the specter of constant defeat. The silver lining though is Federer’s eagerness to experiment (as with SABR) and an undiminished desire to put his body through the intense rigour demanded of every professional athlete.
Clearly Federer is still deeply enamoured by tennis and passionate about his work. We need to celebrate that heavenly connection without burdening our hearts with the weight of expectation. Federer has earned the luxury of expression without having to labour too much about the result.