Heads slumped. Emotions were raw. Shattering, almost horrific howls filled Centre Court. Tennis could not believe that Roger Federer was being beaten back by Hubert Hurkacz.
You see, we had forgotten. And that was our sin. We had forgotten that Roger Federer is a mortal man. We had forgotten that Mozart at times played out of key; that on occasion Picasso’s strokes went awry; that da Vinci once ran out of ideas. And we had forgotten that Federer is less than perfect.
But our sin could be forgiven. After all, for many a blissful season, Roger has long enriched our lives. Year after year across the world, he floated across tennis courts with a flawless athletic ease. His grace was sublime, his humor gentle, his impact wide. His shots amazed.
No wonder Sue Mott suggested it “won’t be long before our dictionary writers are asked to absorb the verb ‘to Federer,’ meaning ‘to demolish with gasp-inducing precision.’” Others advised us to commit our sins on Sunday, since that would be the day when God would be preoccupied while watching Federer play.
Roger himself explained why he battled on: “When you do something best in life, you really don’t want to give it up…I need the fire, the excitement, the whole roller coaster.” And so do tennis fans.
When Roger came back from knee surgery at the 2017 Australian Open, he immediately swept to a stunning comeback win over his arch rival Rafa Nadal. Never mind that he was already 35. Naturally, earlier this year, in his second comeback, tennis expected him to again reemerge with ease. But there were many quite un-Federerian bumps in the road. He stumbled time and again, suffering losses to the likes of Nikoloz Basilashvili, Pablo Andujar and Felix Auger-Aliassime. But not to worry, Roger repeatedly assured us his goal was simple: Wimbledon.
And, once on his beloved lawns, fate took him by the hand. His considerable first-round opponent, Adrian Mannarino, pulled up lame. Then Federer got into gear and seemed to be playing into a form that gave us glimpses of the genius play we had grown to expect: balletic movement, liquid backhands, flash forehands, fabulous flicks. A Frenchman with a backhand (Richard Gasquet), a Brit with a crowd (Cameron Norrie) and an Italian with a future (Lorenzo Sonego) all fell to Roger. Here again before us was the man who could bend time.
With spirits high, an adoring crowd packed Centre Court today. Federer had beaten Hurkacz before and Hubert was “only” seeded No. 14. Yes, Roger lost the first set of the quarterfinal. He had little rhythm on his serve. The Pole was calm, his forehand firm, his confidence. But Federer would certainly set matters straight and prevail. In the second-set he led 4-1 before the two players struggled to a tiebreaker.
Then came the moment of shock. Long ago, David Foster Wallace told us, “Federer is of this type – a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to.”
But not today. Midway through the tiebreak Roger stood ready at net to dispatch the simplest of floaters. But then a fan shrieked. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Proud Roger, the man of grace, slipped and stumbled. Awkward and off-balance, he made a hash of the easiest of overheads. Brad Gilbert called it “a duck smash.”
Goodness, the Swiss who long had been considered to be the GOAT, in a flash seemed like the most awkward of hackers. Fans were frozen in disbelief. The great man stood humbled, his head down, his expression glum. He looked old and beaten, his magic muted.
His Polish foe didn’t blink. The 24-year old who beat Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev en route to the Miami Open title and who downed world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in a two-day marathon to reach the Wimbledon quarters imposed his youthful power on the man he’d once idolized, and scored an efficient, runaway 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0 win. Roger’s straight set Wimbledon loss, his first in 19 years, took the wind out of Federerians’ sails everywhere.
Roger later said that he wasn’t used to such definitive losses, that Hurkacz deserved to win, that he was happy that he had gotten this far and his goal was to play. He added, “But clearly there’s still a lot of things missing in my game that maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago were very simple and normal for me to do. Nowadays they don’t happen naturally anymore. I got to always put in the extra effort mentally to remind myself…to do this or do that. I have a lot of ideas on the court, but sometimes I can’t do what I want to do.”
He said the last the last 18 months have been long, slow and hard but he was “very happy about a lot of things that happened.” As for his loss, he said “I know I will be upbeat again…I go maybe very hard on myself, I get very sad.”
Roger confided he was happy Wimbledon was over and, for now, he was exhausted and almost falling asleep and could take a nap. He conceded that, he would have to put in more work if he wanted to beat truly great players and he was not at all sure about both the Olympics and his future. He told the Swiss-German press, “I need time to analyze everything well. And to let everyone [on the team] have their say. And to think about: Was it as good as I thought? Worse? How should the journey continue?” He added, “The crowds were amazing. The ovation was fantastic. Look, I love it. That’s why I play.”
As he walked off court Roger poignantly waved to all his fans. Radio Wimbledon captured the moment: “Roger’s departing Centre Court, hopefully not for the last time. But if you are, Roger, thank you for all you’ve brought to Wimbledon.”
All the while, there was little that could be done to subdue the collective sorrow. After 22 years of battle a glorious warrior had fallen, and for his devoted fans it was hard to realize that this god-like tennis wonder is merely a mortal man.