For the last 10 years or more, my sister Cindy and I, who live in Hillsborough, have been obsessed with the sport of tennis. Not that we get out there on an actual court and hit actual balls. Rather, she and I have been playing the game vicariously through our favorite player on the professional tour, Roger Federer.
The tour has given Federer the nickname, TMF (The Mighty Fed), and Cindy and I call him Roger Rex (Roger the king!). And while I do play the actual game on occasion, and though Cindy gave it up prior to American Tennis’s salad days – the 1980s, when Connors and McEnroe were entertaining us or embarrassing us, depending if you loved or hated them; and the ’90s, when Agassi, Courier and Sampras ruled the tour – what she and I have been enjoying together, bonding this brother and sister about a decade different in age and foot and a half in height with little else in common, is what you might call armchair tennis.
In armchair tennis, you obsess over things like what tournament is going on this week: is it one of the four “majors” (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open); one of the Masters Series (e.g., Montreal, Rome); or a measly 250-level tournament (e.g., Atlanta). You obsess over what Roger Rex needs to do to improve his game: he needs to hire Stefan Edberg as his coach, he needs to change to a new racket with a larger head, he needs to keep his kids at home so he won’t have any distractions and can get all the sleep he needs to win!
I remember my summers as a kid in Connecticut in the early ’70s, when I was first learning the game, and sliding on the dull-green tennis court clay, and marveling at the yellow ball against the blue sky – the beauty of that yellow ball arcing in the blue air.
I also remember those same years playing in the dead of winter under a “bubble,” an indoor inflatable heated dome. And in Cindy and my armchair years, a few times in winter I’ve driven the two miles to her house, at 3 in the morning, to catch the late-January live broadcast of the Australian Open men’s final.
Beautiful to watch
But back to the object of our passion, Roger Rex. Perhaps the definitive profile of Federer was written by the late great David Foster Wallace, who immortalized the man, and himself, in a famous essay in the New York Times (“Federer As Religious Experience”). As Wallace says:
“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch him play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK. The moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.”
Given the deplorable pantheon of our current fallen sports heroes (think Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez), Federer is like some classical Greek or Roman half-god / half-statesman (think Pericles, Cicero, Augustus).
Cindy and I first noticed Federer in the summer of 2003, after he won his first of seven Wimbledon titles.
But when we started closely watching him play, we noticed a breathtaking difference: the way he played, how his body moved, was like nobody we’d ever seen. He was simply beautiful to watch.
“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”
Soon after his first few major victories, fans started talking about Federer’s rivals. The first was the teen prodigy, Rafael Nadal from Spain, and he proved to be not just Federer’s main rival but also his nemesis. Later we saw Andy Murray come to the fore and start to beat him in big tournaments. And these days, the best rivalry in pro tennis is between TMF and Novak Djokovic.
As far as statistics and records of achievement, TMF has so many they are too numerous to name. They are all just a Google search away, so knock yourself out.
A dozen years is a long time to closely follow a sports hero, and his playing has given my sister and me much more excitement than sadness. But TMF turns 34 in August, so his career is now in twilight. What an amazing ride it’s been, for him and his fans together. A strong case can be made that he’s the greatest sportsmen ever, if you consider his accomplishments, and his conduct, on and off the court. Married with four children, a thriving philanthropic foundation, a consummate gentleman and paragon of class, such an incredibly complete human being – as well as the most sublime tennis player in history.
There will never be anyone like him, and Cindy and I, from the vantage of Hillsborough, were there for this golden age that he made, thrilling to it every step of the way.
Duncan Shaw is a freelance writer who lives in Hillsborough.