THOSE SADISTS at Tennis Channel were showing the 2019 Wimbledon final again the other day, and, what luck, I flipped onto it just as Roger Federer was serving for the epic match at 8-7 in the fifth set. I watched long enough to see him fire off consecutive aces at Novak Djokovic to reach double match point. That was it, all I could take. I wasn't about to relive the pain again of seeing Federer make the insanely radical regression from the verge of cementing his status as the greatest male player of all time to tennis tragic figure, if only in the context of what this match was potentially worth to him.
All summer, I encountered devout Fed fans--I count myself as one even though I'd like to believe I have reported and opined on him as any objective journalist would--who recoiled in horror as he lost his serve, then dropped a third tiebreaker to Djokovic, the fantastically perseverant Serb. Then we all settled into a weeks-long malaise, which included a revulsion to the mere sight of tennis.
My New York Times colleague, Chris Clarey, ran down a few more such fans before the start of the U.S. Open--they, too, shared their sadness and foreboding that Federer had somehow missed, or blown, what was likely his last best chance to add to his ever-fragile record of 20 grand slam titles. Yeah, most of us have written him off at various times in the past decade and delighted in being wrong. But he's 38, for crying out loud. His upper back barked again during his quarter-final loss to Grigor Dmitrov at the Open. Damnit, he should have won Wimbledon because that would have been the fitting career exclamation point even as he played on for another couple of slam-fruitless years.
A 21st major title would hardly have fortified Federer's record, or laid undisputed claim to the greatest ever throne, a subjectively assigned seat for any player in any sport. If he never wins another match, Federer will always have his dedicated GOAT support, in part based on the sheer majesty of his game--just as a generation of baseball fans would swear they never saw a better ballplayer than Willie Mays. But Wimbledon would at least have been the signature debate clincher for those who have spent a decade and a half aboard Federer's tennis-as-ballet bandwagon. Weeks before his 38th birthday, he took out Rafa in the semis and Novak in the finals on Centre Court. Case freaking closed!
Honestly, I doubted he would win the match until that second ace skittered away from Djokovic on the scarred lawn. I sat up on the couch--downsized now to occasional Times contributor and an ocean removed from any vow of journalism ethics--and raised my fists. One more, Roger. Then slowly sank back onto the pillows, resigned to the inevitability of the outcome.
Now the equally deserving force of nature that is Rafa, crowned Sunday night as Open champion for the fourth time, finds himself, at 33, one measly slam behind. The King of Clay at the very least has a handful more French Opens in his future, barring serious injury. Djokovic remains four behind but is only 32, arguably late middle age for a sport whose superstar time clock has been dramatically reset by Federer.
There, of course, remains the possibility of a long-awaited next generation breakout--Daniill Medvedev anyone?--imposing itself on the Big 3's ultimate pennant race. But who knows? Maybe Federer actually does have another Aussie Open or Wimbledon run in him, and he will create another moment like 8-7, 40-15, the edge of triumphant eruption. For now and possibly for a very long time, his failure is replayed again and again in the minds of his deflated fans across the globe.
That in itself is punishment enough. No thanks to ever watching it again on TV.