What do you think of when you think of Roger Federer? Do you think of perfect? With a capital R and capital F, like peRFect?
I think of pornography, thanks to the late David Foster Wallace, of course.
Having watched a rally between Federer and Andre Agassi at the US Open final in 2005, a set of strokes that forced the American writer to fall off his couch whilst spilling pop-corn and get down on one knee, he wrote: “That’s one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV — and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.”
So stash away your tennis porn — magazines and books and videos describing Federer running around his backhand and hitting a peRFect winner between the chair umpire and the net’s stump — because the real thing is coming to India. In the flesh. To New Delhi. To the IGI Stadium. This weekend.
He’s real. The league he is playing in too could be argued to be real. But for some reason, were we to carry on with Wallace’s analogy, the IPTL — the IPLisation of the last smudge-free sport — feels like the act of attaining human love with wads of hard cash.
Why? For one, the IPTL is not part of the ITF season; it has nothing to do with the tried-and-tested, self-sufficient system that divides January to November for every tennis player and fan into winning points and defending points — match after match, tournament after tournament, month after month and year after year.
The IPTL, on the other hand, commits the ultimate sacrilege — that of eating away into the month-and-a-half window of rest that every player on the circuit desperately claims to need at the end of a no-room-for-wiggle season.
Yet, here they all are — Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — voluntarily appearing for the Micromax Indian Aces, Musafir.com UAE Royals and Manila Mavericks when in the past there has been some kicking and fussing to show up for Switzerland, Serbia and Great Britain in the Davis Cup respectively.
The purists mock it, and rightly so, even the gods have sold out they say. But we, us ticket-holding Indians on the verge of the felt reality of human love brought to us by some businessmen who can make these gods perform, aren’t complaining now, are we?
“Journalistically speaking,” wrote Wallace in his compelling essay Roger Federer as Religious Experience, “there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer.” A profoundly prophetic statement, once you are told that it was written back in 2006 — just three years after Federer became Federer, almost four years before he conquered the clay of France and a good eight years before today.
Wallace thought he had seen everything and had every reason to believe so. When the erudite essay was published by The New York Times in August 2006, Federer had already established himself as the undeniable tennis GOAT (greatest of all time); an easy title to bestow upon a man who has just defended his Wimbledon crown for a third successive year, a man who had claimed eight out of the previous 13 Grand Slams.
Then Wallace took his life in 2008 and just a year later, in his birthplace of New York no less, the following happened.
It’s semi-finals day in 2009 at the Arthur Ashe Stadium and Djokovic, at this point still a one-Slam wonder, is two sets and a break down in the third and serving to stay in the match. Federer’s match. At 0-30, he whips his first serve cautiously into the heart of the service box, deep and angling into his opponent’s backhand. Federer chops it back in play.
Some frenetic criss-crossing, a lunge and the poetic backhand later, gut meets ball meets the other side of the net.
The return falls limply in the middle of Djokovic’s court. Federer’s not even within the tramlines, but Djokovic decides to tempt fate. He drops his arms and slips in a drop-shot — adding theatre to what should surely be a failed Federer run towards the net.
Only, Federer doesn’t run, he glides like a witch on a broom, and with a dive, pokes the ball back to Djokovic. The crowd is on its feet, but they haven’t seen nothing yet.
Standing just inches away from Federer (both drawn toward the net like magnets), Djokovic coolly lobs the Swiss over his head, deep and knowing that now it is certainly a winner, even against the Federer of 2009. But Federer gets back on to that broom and catches up with the falling ball, just in the nick of time.
Then he splits his legs and decides to do the impossible — hit a stroke from under his innards and against momentum back in play. You’ve seen it done a thousand times before, but not like this.
Federer being Federer has not just thought of the impossible, he has thought of making the impossible blush with embarrassment. With a slight turn of his racquet grip between his legs, he gets the ball to dart crosscourt past a dumbfounded Djokovic, who then, like a mere fan with a great view, pumps his fist.
With his back to the play, the great man hasn’t seen any of it, but everyone else watching — Djokovic, the spectators, you, me and Wallace up in the heavens — now believes in the holy ghost.
Then, just when you think you’ve seen it all, this happens. “I guess this was the greatest shot I ever hit in my life,” Federer says to the on-court interviewer, causing more gasps than applause. God had just told you of his greatest creation. And it was perfect. Capital R, capital F.
This was Federer telling his past, captured best in words in Wallace’s piece: “Hot news: I just outdid myself.” And to pull it off, to outdo everything he had achieved, took all of one-point, one short eight-stroke rally.
So what will you make of it were genius to occur again in New Delhi? Will you prick your nose and say that in a quasi-exhibitional setting, it doesn’t count? Or will you drop down to your knees at the edge of your IGI seat and agree wholeheartedly that the felt reality of human love is so much better than video porn?