14 years ago, new to the big city, still in a state of culture shock, I made my way to my first day in college, far away from the small town I had grown up in. I missed my friends. I missed their families. For the first month, I made no friends in college. A couple of outsiders like me would awkwardly hang around together despite having nothing in common. I’d sit alone at the stairs and wait for the break to get over so that I didn’t have to feel lonely. When I went home everyday, depressed about this utterly uncool life I suddenly had, I’d switch on the television and mindlessly watch anything. One evening, I watched, awestruck, feeling my heart rise again for the first time in months, as a lanky long-haired tennis player hit the most beautiful single-handed backhands I had seen since, well, forever. A young, 20-something Swiss boy, becoming the antidote to the dogged power of the then top-player in the world, Andy Roddick, and repelling the doggedness of Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt. Who was this guy? Why did I feel so good when I watched him play?
As college went on, I made a few friends. I watched this guy, Roger Federer, play the kind of tennis that made it more of a personal experience. I always came back home every few evenings – a journey of around 1.5 hours – to watch him play, depending on which part of the world he was winning in. He gave me company. We became mates, even though we didn’t know each other. One day, as I bunked the morning classes to watch him play the 2005 Australian Open semifinal against a resurgent Marat Safin, three other classmates joined me at the quiet café. We silently cheered, cussed and pumped fists, as Safin overcame a peak-form Federer (then 25) to reach the final. I was disappointed, but the other three guys and I became friends for life. We had shared an experience, and an unbreakable bond had been formed. To this day, even from different parts of the world, we watch matches together and plan trips together. Because Federer lost that day. A year or two later, when Federer’s nemesis Rafael Nadal began to scale dizzying peaks at the cost of Federer, my own life began to mirror his career. Career conflicts, young relationship troubles, family issues – and to make it worse, Federer losing time and again to the bull-headed boy from Mallorca on every surface. The 2008 Wimbledon final – easily the greatest match of all time – gave me one of my most memorable match-watching experiences with a friend I would not see again for another decade. There was fire on all side in my life, but I remember looking to the screen, asking Federer to rescue me – or at least make me feel better. He couldn’t, but he tried very hard. I cried with him months later as he lost the 2009 Australian Open final to Nadal, wondering if this would be the asterisk on his career forever. One wall, always, stood between him and immortality. It didn’t feel fair, but even life wasn’t fair back then.
2009 looked up suddenly, as I found work, love and peace, and automatically, Federer got the biggest win of his career – that elusive French Open title, to complete his career slam. He then defeated old rival Roddick in a Wimbledon final for the ages. I don’t know if his positivity rubbed off on me or if it was the other way around. In 2010, when he won the Australian Open against Andy Murray, I was unaware that it would his only major for the next 2.5 years. He fell, Nadal rose again, Novak Djokovic rose more than anybody, and again, my life fell into a tailspin. It was spiritual happenstance, I thought. In 2012, when he won his 7th Wimbledon title at age 30, and became World no. 1 again after more than two years, it felt surreal. It was his 17th title, and he was six ahead of Nadal. I felt safe, and secure, and hopeful about the future ahead – for both of us. A lifetime happened between that night in 2012 and Sunday night in 2017 – almost five long years before I was to be reminded why he will forever remain my mate. He reached three finals on the way – the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals and the US Open 2015 final, losing to new nemesis Djokovic in all three, making me wonder why he defied expectations time and again only to be defied by one guy all over again. It felt like the Nadal years, only not as bad, because his ‘runs to the final’ were a bonus, well into his 30s with an ageing body. The 18th title would never happen, I told myself, and maybe I should get on with my life too.
At Melbourne, on Sunday night, he won his 18th Slam title against – and this is poetic – his greatest nemesis, Nadal. I couldn’t sleep all of Saturday night, knowing that this would be a crushing defeat if it happened, and Nadal’s strategy and his game was built to destroy Federer’s poetry. I felt again. I felt nervous again. I felt tense, jittery, angry and worried – things I hadn’t felt for a long time, because Federer hadn’t played competitive tennis for 7 months before the week. He was ranked 17 heading into the Australian Open, and Nadal 9th, and just watching them face off in the final felt miraculous.
My life flashed by in vivid memories as I watched Nadal pound Federer’s backhand, and Federer’s backhand reacting like a wounded tiger, giving us a performance that transcended time. My time. His time. All time. I remember all the friends I had made through him, all the nights I had been upset on because of him, all the days I felt glum because of stalled comebacks. It felt like slipping through the first two chapters of a storybook, only to be given the final chapter when you weren’t looking for it anymore.
The numbers are irrelevant. Defeating Nadal in a slam match – and a slam final – after 10 long years was remarkable. I was 20 when that last happened. It had been a rollercoaster, and yet, watching him celebrate like a teenager winning his first college title, I felt vindicated – even though there was no enemy, no hatred, no disrespect to any other champion. It was the golden era, and the most golden of them all had stamped his final signature onto our time.
We met again, after so long, like old friends catching up over an intense beer in an airport bar. He would leave soon, as would I – but this night belonged to us. An old friend – the one that had drifted away after that 2008 final – called me, and we talked like yesterday all over again. Gone were the bitterness, resentment and fickleness of our twenties. We became buddies again – because of 35-year-old Federer.
Because of his 18th title. Because he was the second oldest men’s singles player ever to win a Slam. Because he overcame injury, doubt and near-retirement to beat his rival for only the 12th time in 35 attempts.
Everything happens, because of Federer.