January 27th, 2011

aus open 2010 triumph

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same

I was never much of a sports fan. The closest I got to following a sport was during my basketball craze, when I kept up with what was going on in the NBA. This was, first, when Michael Jordan was red-hot with the Chicago Bulls; then subsequently, when Tim Duncan was a force to be reckoned with and, along with David Robinson, led the San Antonio Spurs to victory on a few occasions.

Even then, my interest was perhaps casual at best, facile at worst. Basketball was something that looked interesting, which I could focus my attention on for maybe an hour once every two days, but which I never completely got into because it was a sport before anything else, and I just was not a sports person. I did not see what was so fascinating about sports that got people's blood pumping and adrenaline flowing.

Fast-forward a few years to 2008, Wimbledon semi-final, Roger Federer vs. Marat Safin. To further underscore how much I did not care about sports, I had only vaguely heard of the name "Roger Federer" - I knew of him, but I did not know about him, certainly did not know what a formidable force he was in the tennis world. That night, the television happened to be tuned in to Star Sports, which was broadcasting the Federer/Safin semi-final.

I knew of Marat Safin. One of my friends in secondary school was crazy about him, and for a good period of time, all I heard about from her was how hot he was. In 2002, I also knew of Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero; I even have a vague memory of watching one of them playing in Wimbledon. I was very much aware of tennis, but I was even less into it than basketball.

Then it was 2008, and I saw Federer on TV. What started off as a superficial interest prompted by my honestly-held belief that he was the most beautiful man I'd ever laid eyes on became a crazy and emotional journey with one man from a small European country who holds a stick in his hand and hits a fuzzy yellow ball over a net that has entered into its third year - and it is showing no sign of slowing down.

This one person inspired in me the kind of adrenaline rush and irrational personal investment in the outcome of a sporting event that other athletes, from tennis and other sports alike, could not. This man even inspired me to play a sport that I was never, ever once interested in because I'd always been disinclined towards sports and only knew how to swim because my parents made me learn when I was a child. The idea that I could be so passionate about a sport and, more importantly, about an athlete, would have been absolutely ludicrous to me even as recent as that fateful night in 2008 when I glanced at Federer play Safin in the semi-final of Wimbledon (I didn't even know it was the semi-final).

I keep trying to understand what it is about Federer that makes me go through such deeply intense emotional roller-coaster rides during his matches, especially those on which he is at the losing end; what it is about him that makes me so emotionally and personally invested in the outcome of his matches; and what it is about him that makes his victories feel like my own. He plays beautiful, graceful tennis that looks infinitely more effortless than it really is - so what? He has great charisma and is classy in victory and in defeat - so what? He's from Switzerland and speaks 4 languages fluently - so what?

It's simply this: Roger Federer inspires me. In an individual match, he inspires me with his determination and his self-belief - serving big on pressure points (what a clutch serve), almost always effortlessly closing out a match, applying pressure on his opponent and forcing them into error, so in control of the situation. As he said, he likes to play aggressively and "force the issue" - he takes matters into his own hands, he is the decider of his own fate, he does not sit back and let the other guy decide his for him.

In terms of his career, the records that he has broken and re-set, the kind of domination he imposed on the rest of the tour in an unbelievable span of 4 years, these are things that no human being thought were possible before Roger Federer came along. These are things that no one else is likely to come anywhere close to matching, let alone overtaking. Like I keep saying, it's simply incredible - incredible - what he has managed to achieve. He played at the highest level consistently, year in and year out, and stayed healthy, losing 4, 5 matches a year, winning 3 Grand Slams in a year, and doing replicating that feat two more times. No one had done it before; no one is doing it now; and no one is likely to ever do it again.

Sports is not merely about experiencing, albeit vicariously for the non-competitive ones amongst us, the raw happiness and triumph that come with a hard-fought or long-awaited victory; it is also about testing the limits of the human body, including the human mind. Roger Federer has toyed with and re-defined the boundaries of what is possible - further to that, he has made the unthinkable look easy.

Words are trite when they try to describe him, and all the superlatives in the world do not come close to doing justice to him. All I can write about is how much this man from Switzerland with soft-looking curly hair and a dorky giggle inspires me the way that no one has ever inspired me before in my life. I suppose it makes sense that it takes a sportsman to inject some positivity into my otherwise-predominantly negative mindset: sports is supposed to be invigorating and uplifting, seeing the triumph of the human spirit in full display.

But let's remember that I was never a sports person. Let's then think about the fact that Roger Federer is probably the biggest inspiration of my life. He shows me what it is to be unfettered by arbitrary limits put in place by conventional wisdom and popular opinion - to be something, and someone, greater than what you'd thought you would be.

Today, he lost in the semi-final of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic. The score was 7-6(3), 7-5, 6-4. I'd never imagined that a healthy, motivated Federer would ever lose in straight sets in a Grand Slam, but there you have it.

I was heartbroken; I was even close to tears. But I've never been more proud to be a Roger Federer fan. The score does not reflect how hard he fought and how close it was on a few occasions. His loss today only underscores even more what he has already achieved - his loss today only goes to prove, even more, that his results since 2003, especially between 2004 and 2007, were superhuman.

More importantly, Roger Federer is a great champion, classy in victory and classy in defeat. He acknowledges the fact that Djokovic played better than him, and he looks forward to the rest of the season and moves on. I'm reasonably sure that he handles his own defeats way better than I handle them.

I feel very good. I'm very optimistic about the next 15 tournaments, however many I'm playing. I've barely lost matches lately really, so I'm happy with where my game is at, with where my condition is at.

I'm really excited for what's to come. This is obviously a bit of a blow. At the same time, I played a good tournament. I have no regrets. I left everything out there. We'll see what comes next.

His positivity is foreign for someone like me. And so it is with a hopeful heart, and a heart full of hope, that I retire to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow morning, ready to face a brand-new day.