Before they mobbed the venue, they crowded apparel stores. From the upmarket Khan Market to Sarojini Nagar’s labyrinth of chaos, they streamed into any store that upheld the tick-mark, the swoosh, above its awning. Delhi felt the need to be branded, branded like horses, so alphabets embossed upon their foreheads could differentiate them from the pack as true fans. So alphabets embossed upon their skulls could make them indistinguishable in a herd.
So in that herd, they marched towards the IGI in a sea of ‘RF’ caps, to pay obeisance to Roger Federer.
This, though, was less a pilgrimage and more the act of relic-collecting. A horde of art-fans on the threshold of the Louvre realising that all that separated them from reliving the Renaissance was a single step ahead. They were about to ogle and appreciate the creator’s every brushstroke and spot his trademarks in the forthcoming exhibition — the balletic backhand, the flawless forehand and the sway of his hair before he served.
“Everything he does on the court seems to be in slow-motion,” said someone in the queue to the turnstiles. The rest nodded in agreement. “I hope he serves and volleys, that’s what I remember the young Federer do,” said someone else. The rest hoped with her. A pre-maturely bald, 30-something man drained the last dregs of a rum and cola mix from a plastic bottle. “It helps take the edge off,” he said, sheepishly. The rest empathised.
The God-man, not a soi disant one, was waiting for them inside, and they entered like they would a magic show, hoping for him to almost produce ash, perhaps just make his opponents disappear. He knew his role and emerged from a cloud of smoke.
“Ladies and gentleman, our final Micromax Indian Ace is a recent Davis Cup winner and a 17-time Grand Slam champion,” said a voice in the sky. The emcee perhaps had more to say, but it couldn’t be heard, for Roger Federer had just entered the building, with a school-girl in tow (as is the custom these days) appearing from a tunnel filled with the vapours of dry ice. The hero they came here to idolise would later say that the welcome made him feel like a ‘superstar’.
LEAGUE OF HIS OWN
But now, back in the present, he takes his place court-side, dignified with his arms folded behind his back, next to his idol, friend and team-mate Pete Sampras. Sampras, the man he replaced at the top of the Grand Slam winners’ list, the man he replaced as greatest, the man he replaced as tennis god. He will soon be urged to replace him on an Indian tennis court.
Sampras is now 43 and in our unforgiving eyes, just human. So much so that when he is about to serve, once a benchmark in the sport, the IGI crowd gets into a chant reserved for a cricketing immortal. “Rogeeeeeeer, Roger!” they bellow, not allowing a jet-lagged American to find rhythm. He loses 6-1. Federer takes the cue and strips off his jacket. The roof rattles above.
To say that Federer is a popular champion, a talented sportsman who has transcended his sport with his universal appeal, is an understatement. Just ask the saree-clad woman standing on her feet with two A4-printouts of Federer pictures (one playing a stroke, the other a family portrait with wife Mirka) in each hand. Her name is Saraswati Sinha and she is a 42-year old housewife and a mother of two. “He made me understand tennis and watch Roger for the first time,” she says, making the older of the two boys smile sheepishly in the background.
Down below, Federer is practicing with Sania Mirza at the other side of the net, even as a cheerleader makes her pom-pom moves just an inch or so away from his backhand backlift. She moves away unhurt. He joins Mirza, amused. “My first mixed-doubles partner after Martina Hingis, Martina Navratilova and my wife.” The crowd laughs and as the match begins, falls silent. A Delhi crowd, silent enough to hear a proverbial pin-drop. Such are his powers.
Federer’s first swing of the racquet on an Indian court is a backhand into the net. The crowd ‘aaahs’. His next swing of his racquet is a backhand into Bruno Soares’s body. The crowd ‘yeaahhhhhhs’. A few more sensational swings later, Federer’s side has won the set 6-0. As is custom, the very embroidery of his being, the Swiss approaches the net for a clasp of hands with the vanquished. But he is quickly ushered away. “Ooooops,” his face says, “almost forgot it wasn’t allowed in this league.”
The rest leave the court but Federer stays. He is joined by Rohan Bopanna, whose claim to fame before becoming a doubles specialist was pushing Federer to a tie-break on the grass of Halle in 2006. Today, with them on the same synthetic side of the court, with Federer kneeling alert by the net like a runner at a starting block, there’s no tie-break. Aussies Lleyton Hewitt and Nick Kyrgios are outrun, outhit and outwitted 6-1.
Again, the rest leave but the ubiquitous Federer stays. Now his opponent is Tomas Berdych. Now his opponent is a more worthy one. Now he is all alone. Now he is a perfect backdrop for selfies. All of the stands it seems has trickled down to the lowest railing — smiling, grinning and pouting with a cell-phone in hand. Between all those pouts, they miss the best rally of the day, the only rally of the set that exceeds 10 strokes. It occurs at 5-4, 15-0, with Federer serving for the set. The set, and Federer’s presence on court, ends at 6-4.
This match, let alone the next ‘primetime’ one, isn’t over. But the half-empty stadium is now nearly-empty. Apart from the faithful in ‘RF’ caps waiting for his end-of-match wave and the press waiting for end-of-match quote, everyone has left. His gives his wave and arrives for the press conference.
TALKING THE TALK
In the media centre, a journalist is interviewing the nine-year old girl that Federer had walked hand-in-hand into the stadium with. “What does it feel like to know Roger,” she is asked. “Like a queen,” the girl replies. No time for queens now for the king is about to arrive, and the conference hall is electric.
One journalist has brought a ball to be signed. Another has slid Federer’s namesake cap over the microphone table. “Let’s wait till the session ends,” he says in all politeness. The question-answer session begins. The question of the day is when someone asks him to define genius. We all want to know the answer, so we arch ahead.
“You know, it’s hard to say.” says Federer. “These words are thrown around quite easily. I’m happy to be appreciated for what I do but at the end of the day I’m just a tennis player, you know.”
The tennis player signs the ball and leaves. Then, we do too.