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Growing up, I idolised Steffi Graf. I wanted to be like her. Although I am nowhere close to being a tennis player, or even a sportsperson for that matter (I am a scientist), she will always remain my childhood hero. I would cry when she lost an important match and I would be ecstatic when she won one. I mention all of this to state how crucial tennis has been in my life. I have followed tennis since I was 6, and I have watched many fantastic Wimbledon matches, matches that made me cry, matches that made me scream in joy. But I do not remember watching a match as excruciatingly painful as this week’s Wimbledon quarterfinal encounter between Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

 

It is difficult to say whether I was upset or furious after that match. Whether I was heartbroken or indignant. Either ways, it was devastating. Not because I am a huge Federer fan (will always be) and it breaks my heart to see him lose. No, not because of that. Not even because he will turn 30 this year and this was probably his last chance to equal Pete Sampras’ record of 7 Wimbledon titles, and most likely the last opportunity to win a Grand Slam. With Novak Djokovic’s form this year transforming him into the most formidable player on tour, to the never- say- die French Open winner Rafael Nadal who still has several years on him, to Andy Murray who is almost there and whose time might come just about any day now, Federer is not going to have too many opportunities. None of that was the reason for my dismay though. What shocked and disappointed me as perhaps scores of Federer fans all around the world is the fact that half way into the match, the greatest player to have ever played this game, the most stylish player to have ever played this game, simply gave up. He surrendered. And I couldn’t understand why.

 

Federer didn’t have a great start this year. He consistently made it to semifinals and finals of ATP tournaments, but invariably lost to either Novak or Rafa, mostly Novak. Rumor has it that Roger hasn’t really warmed upto Novak. But that’s a different story. I remember watching their matches earlier this year. Federer’s form wasn’t great. He was making too many errors. Too many loose shots, and Novak was playing brilliantly. The guy has the best return of serve in the business and his jaw- dropping angles are to die for. But Roger’s game was nowhere close to being competeitive enough for Novak. And the worst part was he never seemed to care enough to fight for the match. Agreed, Roger in general has a calm and composed demeanour. But you know a fighting spirit when you see one. And you also know a man who has resigned to his fate when you see one. That’s exactly what Federer has been doing throughout this year, including the quarterfinal match on Wednesday. He loses a few points in a row, maybe a set, and decides to give up, just like that. How is that the mark of a champion? Guys like Rafa and Novak will fight until the very last point. Especially Rafa. Irrespective of who his opponent is, or how intimidated he is by him ( I personally believe Novak scares the living hell out of Rafa, which is why Rafa’s game always dropped a notch when he faced Novak this year), he will fight until the very end. You can see that in his body language. He wont give you a breather. If you want win against him, you will have to work really hard for it. He has enough perseverance in his character to wait for the other guy to fumble just a tiny bit, so he can take advantage and sneak his way through. Before you know it, he is winning.

 

Does not seem the case as far as Roger is concerned. Tennis is as much a mental game, if not more so, as it is a physical one. I don’t want to take credit away from Tsonga. He was good. I don’t think he was exceptional in that game, but he served very well and at least the third set onwards, he was consistent. He looked determined. He wanted it bad and he didnt give up. It is no mean feet, psychologically speaking, to come back from two sets down, win the next three and take the match. That too a Wimbledon quarterfinal, that too against someone like Federer. Just the mere thought of it is discouraging enough. But Tsonga hung in there, kept his cool, and got what he wanted. Roger on the other hand, simply gave up as soon as he was broken in the third set. Now what kind of an attitude is that? Which champion does that? Is it because he was fatigued? I don’t think so. He didn’t look the least bit exhausted. Is it because he lacked motivation? This is Wimbledon, for heaven’s sake! If you are not motivated here, then where? I am a huge Federer fan, and it kills me to say this, but was it mere arrogance? Did he think it wasn’t worth fighting against someone like Tsonga, especially since he proved just weeks ago, to all his naysayers, that he still is the greatest by ending Djokovic’s match winning streak at the French Open? Something that even Rafa could not do, after repeated attempts? Could it be ego? I don’t know and I hope not.

 

That French Open semifinal victory gave all of us Federer fans a lot of hope. Prior to Roland Garros, Roger was nowhere close to his top form. And many of us thought maybe it was time for him to hang up his boots. Rolnad Garros changed that perception even for a lot of tennis critics. Suddenly, Novak, who had hogged the limelight for half an year, disappeared from almost all tennis websites. Federer was the talk of the town, with fans and critics rooting for him to win Wimbledon. Maybe he could, although it doesn’t take away from the fact that he is getting older and there are flaws creeping into his usually flawless game. Personally, I was, and still am, wishing for Roger to win one more grand slam before he calls it quits. Sampras won the US Open the year he retired, and Steffi won the French and reached the Wimbledon final before admitting her motivation level isn’t what it used to be. Great players should quit when they are at the top, not when they are down and out. Whatever be the reason for the decline in Roger’s game, maybe its time for him to quit. Maybe he shouldn’t wait until every Tom, Dick and Harry who knows how to play tennis, starts snatching matches away from him.

 

In the last three sets of Wednesday’s match, Roger made too many errors, once again those loose shots (I have no idea where they are coming from and why there are so many of them these days!); he couldn’t even return Tsonga’s second serves properly!! Those were the only opportunities he had to score in Tsonga’s service games, since Tsonga served really well, and it was impossible to score off his first serves. So all Roger had to do was wait for Tsonga to make a first serve error, and capitalize on the second serve to score a point. He didn’t do it. Not that he is incapable of doing it. I don’t think Tsonga’s second serves were that brilliant. I don’t think Roger tried hard enough, or tried at all!

 

To top it all, in his post- match press conference he actually had the nerve to say that he thought he played very well. Was he talking about the same match? At least have the decency to admit that you messed up the last three sets, that you were nowhere close to your good from (forget best). He seemed the least bit bothered by the fact that he just lost what might be his last opportunity to win the Wimbledon. He didn’t even appear disappointed. Agreed he doesn’t carry his heart on his sleeve, but its pretty darn hard to hide disappoinment, unless you are not feeling it at all! I don’t like Federer- bashing. I love the guy, I love his game, I love his style, I even love his smile, and I really am a big fan! Despite everything, I still think he is the greatest tennis player ever. When Rafa or Novak hit a winner you can see and hear the amount of effort that goes into it. When Roger does the same, you can barely notice it! His shots are the very definition of effortless. It is extremely difficult to stay on the top consistently for years in a row, whatever sport that might be. It is easy to get to the top. To maintain yourself there is a completely different ball game. Very few can do it. And they are usually called a ‘genius’. Roger Federer is one. And despite what many believe, I don’t think he is an arrogant guy. I think he is a very good ambassador of the sport. But yesterday’s performance got me thinking. Was I wrong about him all along? Or is his refusal to struggle for a victory simply because he doesn’t want it Bad enough. But if that’s the case, why is he still playing? And why does he keep saying he thinks he can still win Grand Slams? How will he do that if he is unwilling to push himself?

 

 

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