Like millions across the world, the Wimbledon men’s singles final had me transfixed with rising emotional fervour. It’s been a bit of a ritual stretching back to the late 1970s: watching the finals with family and friends. Remember those glorious Borg vs McEnroe finals in black and white on Doordarshan where suddenly in the middle of a tense moment the TV signal would go on blink with a ‘rukavat ke liye khed hai’ plastered on your screen? We are now in the age of 60 inch mega screen TVs with HD sound and much more. They even take you into the players’ locker rooms (well, almost) and the camera is able to catch every grin and grimace in close-up. It’s like having a box seat for the best live theatre in sport: two supreme athletes going for each other, not with boxing gloves, but with the whiplash of a tennis racket. In the hallowed centre court, tennis is transformed from sport to art form, the players ballet dancers and sprinters in the same frame.
Last night though, was special. It could well be the last time we see the great Roger Federer in a grand slam singles final. Thirty three is an age where sportsmen, even master craftsmen, are meant to play snakes and ladders with their children, not lock horns with Novak Djokovic, arguably the most well trained athlete the sport has seen. And yet, Federer has defied age and time, the ultimate gent in an age of ruthless professionals. He was asked once why even after 17 Grand Slams, he kept pushing for the next one. His answer typified the man: ‘because I am in love with tennis and I just enjoy playing it!’. Sounds a bit like Tendulkar who again was driven almost entirely by his passion for the art of batting. Federer doesn’t need another trophy in the cabinet, he just revels in the idea of competing, of playing one more glorious forehand pass, one more delicate stop volley. It’s like a painter who after taking you through an entire exhibition of his works will leave you gasping for more with one more brush stroke of genius just when you think you’ve seen it all.
Which is why Federer was the sentimental favourite across the globe. We wanted him to win, if only to remind us all that age is just a statistic, so that next morning when you go to work there is a spring in the step in the belief that we all can be eighteen all over again. Sadly, he lost to the younger, fitter man. A bit like the circle of life. There is, cruelly, no place for sentimentality in sport. A Tendulkar didn’t score a century in his last innings, neither did Bradman, and even the great Muhammad Ali couldn’t make one last comeback. You thought for a moment when Federer won that second set in dramatic fashion that he might just carve out the seemingly impossible. But he couldn’t. He is mortal. Only, unlike most of us, he is touched by the divine. To watch him play is to be in the presence of a tennis God. In this age where Bhakti can be dangerous for the devotee, I am happy to have been a Roger bhakt for a decade. Which is why I still fervently clutch onto the hope that maybe, just maybe, there is still one last performance he has left in him to lift the soul and touch the heart. And even if he doesn’t, just the thought is enough to bring a smile to the face. Thank you Roger for the memories. And let the tennis play on.
Post-script: Federer is not alone in his Peter Pan like enthusiasm for the sport. Look at our Leander Paes, winning another grand slam at the age of 42! When Paes won his Wimbledon junior title in 1990, guess who were in the Wimbledon men’s finals? Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, now coaches for Federer and Djokovic!