By Rekha Raghunathan
For the first time since 2012, my fingernails were intact post a Roger Federer match. I also didn’t think twice about moving around, changing posture, or getting something to eat in between points. And most importantly, I didn’t gush immediately on Facebook. Instead, I posted a rather dull status update the day after and used a neon blue background to draw attention to it — ‘a boring final, an incredible record, and a mature fan. life has changed ☺.’
To explain this, I must elaborate a bit on my past as a national tennis player. Most of my contemporaries — girls, especially — played double-handed backhand, which made my single-handed stroke stand out. I also loved to play at the net, something that was again fairly uncommon then. I explained to myself (without any scientific research to back it up) that I could do both of these with ease because I was a ‘tad heavier’ than most others, and hence had stronger wrists. Whatever the reason, I became a fan of anyone who played in a similar manner.
Remember Pete Sampras? Yes, the same one who looked a little unkempt at times, stuck his tongue out while playing, and wore knee-long ‘shorts’. I loved him! I defended him vehemently when anyone I knew made fun of him, his clothes or his emotional nature, but I wasn’t superstitious when he played. And I don’t recall crying when he lost, which when I think back now might seem weird, but I’ve finally understood why after so many years. The LA Lakers. That NBA team dominated my mind for almost the entire time that I lived in America, and my superstitions and emotions were reserved solely for them. I sat in the same spot, wore the same jersey, cried and gloated alternatively, and trash talked incessantly. I became a different person, one who was maybe not as appealing to her friends who were on the receiving end, but I couldn’t care less. They were my team, and I was their biggest fan.
But back to Federer, whom this story is on.
I had watched him at the US Open in 2002, and at the time, Federer’s only claim to fame — other than his beautiful poetic style of play — was his victory over Sampras at Wimbledon the previous year. He eventually won his first title in 2003 and began rewriting history books then on. It was around this time that I moved back to India where the NBA hadn’t made such an impact yet. So out went the Lakers from my head and in came Federer. (It also helped that the Lakers stank for a good five or six years before they went back to winning a title).
There was no need for any nail biting in the early part of Fed’s career. He blew everyone away, except for Nadal on clay. 2009 was an epic year when he won his only French Open title, which I was sure was only because I wore the same clothes and sat in the same spot suffering with pins and needles and not because Nadal wasn’t on the other side of the net. He also broke Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon. I paid no heed to time difference and never missed a match no matter where he played. I blogged about his victories, discussed his genius shot-making with whoever cared to talk to me, and sulked at his defeats, replaying crucial points in my head. ‘What if, why didn’t he, how could he,’ and other thoughts plagued me when he lost even though it wasn’t often. Every time he was to play in a final, I would have sleepless nights. I cried even more than him when he lost the 2009 Australian Open final to Nadal.
Then came 2013, and with it his Grand Slam drought. So many almost-wins but no Grand Slam titles. Nothing worked — for him or for me. He always looked a step too slow, and it always felt like he had played one shot too many. I always followed the same pre-match and during-match routine, including not jinxing it by talking ahead with anyone, but it felt like I was one routine short. My blogs were melancholic, focusing on a time gone by. My conversations were mournful, but I began to accept that his end was nearing and that I should just stop, for my own sanity.
So I began to watch his matches with zero expectations, but it wasn’t easy. Every final or semi-final he lost, I would tell myself that it was OK, but I was worried for his Grand Slam title record. Seventeen was good, but with Nadal and Djokovic snapping at his heels, especially with the latter playing more and more machine-like, I was afraid that he would be overtaken. I was afraid that every match lost was a missed opportunity to widen the gap. But all I wanted to see was that brilliance, even if it were only in flashes. And he shone!
Somehow, I made it through four years and then came the 2017 Australian Open. Before every match, I told myself that he wasn’t going to win and was later pleasantly surprised when he won. When I realised that he was playing Nadal in the final, I wasn’t sure how to react. Was I going to be the nail-biting wreck or the laid-back mature fan who didn’t care about the outcome? Although I didn’t do any of the pre-match superstitious prep, I was a bit nervous. I knew how much it meant to him, and to me, but I decided not to go psycho.
I sat back and enjoyed the high-level tennis that was being played, and applauded both players equally. I didn’t curse Nadal for taking too much time in between points. And I didn’t yell at Federer for hitting the occasional backhand at the bottom of the net. As the fifth set began, I prepared for a loss. I don’t know if it was my bad vibes, but when Federer went down a break, I was tempted to shut off the TV and walk away. But I didn’t. Instead, I marvelled at the composure Federer displayed, the sensible shot selection, and the determination with which he pounced on open opportunities — something that is rare when playing with Nadal. When Federer broke back to even the score, I knew he was going to win. Something told me that he had broken through that barrier. And so he had.
I kept my cool through Wimbledon last week and so did he. Using his skill, smarts and sensibilities, he took apart his much younger opponents one by one. I wasn’t jittery even once, not even in the final despite knowing what was at stake in the context of records. I was happy that he won, but gone was the floaty feeling, gone was the gloating, and gone was the Facebook update — for good. Maybe I’ve broken through the barrier as well. I can’t imagine feeling this way about anyone else ever again, but…
While I watched the Wimbledon final on Sunday, feeling cool as a cucumber, my daughter walked up to the TV and looked at the score. Although Federer was leading, he lost two points back to back just then. She immediately said, “I think I’ll go back to what I was doing, ma. I’m bringing him bad luck.”
What’s that saying? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? Or is it the tennis ball doesn’t bounce too far from the player?
Rekha Raghunathan played tennis more than she did anything else in her life until she was 20. She then worked in finance and management, until she rediscovered an interest in writing and editing. Mum, editor, and blogger are her three current life roles.