So he’s done it again.
After two and a half of years of wandering in the wilderness of, well, not mediocrity exactly, but second or third best-ness, after climbing the small foothills of adversity, a twingey back, a few disappointing chokes, a couple of kids, after going four sets with Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin, Federer is once again the number one player in the world. Terrific.
I never liked Federer. He may be a nice guy. He may have as many moral virtues at his disposal as he does tennis strokes. And I’m happy to believe he’s the greatest tennis player ever. But I always want him to lose. He’s one of those stars, like Helen Mirren, that people seem to admire because they want to say something about themselves.
‘Federer Moments’, as David Foster Wallace famously called them, are part of what I dislike. ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ says more about Wallace’s genius than Federer’s. The ‘mystery and metaphysics’. Those elaborate physiological explanations. You could give a neurological account of what it takes to tie shoelaces that would make the act seem almost mythically complex and difficult. You don’t need tennis to make the body wonderful. But the best way to explain the difference between Federer and, say, Andy Roddick, isn’t physiological.
I once saw Federer live at Wimbledon, a third or fourth round match, against Mario Ancic. This in the days when Federer won everything. Ancic was being talked about as a potential stumbling block, because of his serve and volley game. But it became clear pretty quickly that Federer was going to win. And not for any complicated reason. Federer had a better serve than Ancic, a better second serve, a better return, a better volleying game, better groundstrokes, better forehands and backhands, and he covered the court better.
Most professional athletes have clear weaknesses – holes in their game. Except Federer. And that’s why I don’t like watching him. What I find compelling about tennis is the way players have to manoeuvre themselves into a position where they can exploit the things they do well – in one way or another, they have to run around their limits.
Sampras, for example, had a pretty basic game, and watching him play was like watching someone build a house with a hammer and saw. He had to make those tools do everything. Federer’s victories lack the sweetness of struggle, of obstacles overcome. To make his air of perfection even less attractive, his record when someone stands up to him hasn’t been great.
There was always something self-regarding about his modesty, especially at the height of his success. He sometimes talked about matches as if the only opponent that mattered was himself. But his legacy is an odd one. Generally regarded as the greatest player of all time, he has a lot of records to back up this assessment – including majors won. But it’s hard to think of someone as the best ever when he has such a poor record against his greatest rival. He’s lost to Nadal 18 times and won 10; of the eight major finals where they’ve met, Nadal has won six.
I loved watching Tim Henman – his implausibly symbolic Englishness. If there’d been a Barbie figure to represent English tennis, it would have been Henman. Asparagus-long and pale, he looked as if he grew up with a grass court in his back garden. (He did.) People attribute his failure to advance beyond those six major semi-finals to a failure of nerve, but the truth is, he probably overachieved.
The way Murray has taken over Henmania is curious. His relationship with his audience has been defined by one of the least important things about him, where he was born. It’s like falling for a boy because of what he looks like – and then being stuck with his personality.
And yet the personality came across well yesterday. Federer on court shows little but the odd fist pump of celebration. Sometimes he lets out some frustration at bad line calls – impatience with underlings. But Murray talks to himself, he internalises visibly. And after it was all over he couldn’t keep back the tears, and his girlfriend, seeing him cry, couldn’t keep them back either, a strangely private moment.
When he managed to find his voice he said the right things honestly, which isn’t always easy, and showed some self-awareness along the way: if I look at the private box, he said, I’m going to cry again.
But the tears were oddly boyish, for a 25-year-old multimillionaire, and you couldn’t help feeling that the emotions that prompted them had something to do with the reason he lost. Federer, by contrast, looked as sleek as a banker. Somehow he’d found time to put on a big gold watch – did he get paid for doing that? Murray will win one major one day, he said, or something like that – a grand little gesture, the big man sweeping the crumbs off his table, while Murray stood there, looking even more like Raskolnikov than usual. Something for the crowd. No mention of the wife and kids, until Sue Barker prompted him. OK, it’s none of our business, but none of this is really our business, and we judge these people on what we can see.
After the fact, it’s easy to read all this backwards into the match. The sense of inevitability. But Murray could have won. He was up a set, he had a couple break points in the second, one of which he should clearly have put away. Federer broke him against the run of play. And even afterwards, Murray had his opportunities. If he could have got his first serve in a little more. If he hadn’t slipped on the damp grass. If he had put away his chances at the net. He can beat Federer: their record against each other is 8-8. He just didn’t do it this time, and the painful thing about sport is the way things that could have turned out differently don’t.