Before I begin, I am taking the liberty of slightly misquoting Stephen King’s famous lines from Shawshank’s Redemption, Sports is a good thing. Maybe the best of the things. And every good thing is worth emulating.
Sports shows us what it takes to achieve the impossible through skill, dedication and valour. And the exhibition of this near-perfect superhuman skills takes a lot of grit, determination, blood, sweat and Adrenalin.
Roger Federer, the greatest of all time, pulled off a near-impossible win against American Tennys Sandgren on Wednesday for a place in Australian Open semifinals.
To give you a background, 38 years old Federer came into the quarter-final match having played a gut-wrenching 5 setter with Australian John Millman which ended in a super tiebreaker. He has admitted to having difficulty in getting up from bed in the morning after the match. The sore was so painful that he literally had to kick himself out of the bed.
The old man then went out the day after to play his 4th round against Hungarian Fuscovics which he won in 4 sets.
Having won 2 marathon matches, Roger was facing Sandgren on Wednesday for a place in semifinal. As the match began, he won the 1st set comfortably. However, there were signs that he wasn’t moving enough. One senses it right away if Federer is not moving into baseline after a strong return.
The trouble started showing in the 2nd set. Something was wrong with his legs and his movement was restricted. Federer who generally serves in 180-190 KMPH range was now serving at 140-ish. And the result showed. He lost the set 6-2 and the match was tied at 1 set all.
Undeterred, the old man continued. But it wasn’t getting any better. He was immediately broken in 3rd set and was trailing 3-0 in 3rd. That’s when Roger decided to take a Medical timeout. The treatments, however, takes time to kick in. This was enough for Sandgren to take advantage of a semi-mobile Federer. He soon bolstered his lead to 2 games to 1 winning the 3rd set 6-2.
People on Twitter started writing obituaries. Federer carried on. Played regulation Tennis in the 4th set. Didn’t pull out any punches, not that he could with his injured body. He was still not moving well but his serves improved. There was no way he could break Sandgren but he gave it all to hold his own serve. It paid off and the set went into a tie-breaker. Again, Federer was first broken in the tiebreaker and was soon facing triple match points. He saved them all to face another couple of match points again. He kept fighting for each point and results showed. Federer somehow saved 7 match points, won the tiebreaker and lived to play the next set.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) January 28, 2020
The start of the 5th set saw a different Federer, the classic one, the one we are used to seeing for the last 17 years. He was moving, he was attacking and he was serving well. And it showed. He broke Sandgren in 4th game, held his serves; eventually won the set and the match at 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6 (8)-7 (10), 3-6.
To defend 7 match points and come back when you are literally limping for half of the match is incredible, historical, legendary, in fact demigodly. However, there lies a greater life lesson beyond a mere Tennis match and a quarter-final win.
In his post-match interview, Federer admitted of having back pain and suddenly having pain in his groin too, which grew with each passing minute to a point where he could not move his left leg anymore.
He wasn’t moving, had a medical condition, was trailing 2 sets and had a tired body. He had virtually no hope of winning as per his own admission. Everything was stacked against him. But he came out of the medical timeout hoping for a miracle as he puts it jokingly. Maybe it would rain, maybe something. But even if none of this happens, he came to let Sandgren win it and see him off in style.
Herein lies the lesson. He came out of medical timeout not to win the match but to hang on there and keep doing what he does best. Play Tennis. Losing is perfectly fine. But giving up isn’t an option. Keep going, keep giving your best, whatever your best happens to be, keep fighting. Just keep at it. The result may come, it may not. But it should not matter.
Federer turns 39 in 6 months. A baby born last time an American (Andre Agassi in 2001 US Open) defeated Federer in a slam is eligible to vote today. When Federer came to slams, he used to tie a ponytail. Today, Federer has lost hairs from his forehead, married his girlfriend and is a father to 4 kids. USA has seen 4 presidents, India has seen 5 general elections. The world has changed at an unbelievable pace, so has Federer’s game. But what has remained constant all these years is, he still goes out and plays irrespective of results.
In his prime, Federer was superman. He was undefeatable. Today he struggles. Fights his battles. Loses some, wins some. It’s a human thing after all. May be his way to tell us, he too is a human being. But he keeps at it.
To quote Thomas Bowden, “The essential value of spectator sports lies in their capacity to illustrate, in a dramatic way, the process of human goal-achievement. They do this by making the process shorter, simpler, and more visually exciting than it is in daily life, and by giving us heroes to admire.”
Sports demonstrates human achievement in a crisp and powerful way with required drama and Adrenalin like no other. Of course, there are inspiring stories all around us. Amitabh Bachhan was rejected by All India Radio before he went to become the greatest ever cinema star. Dhirubhai Ambani failed at so many businesses before being the richest Indian. Federer’s match against Tennys Sandgren presents the same grit, valour, determination and never-say-die spirit in a 3.5 hours package packed with Adrenalin.
On Thursday, when Federer takes on world no 2 and a very much in-form Novak Djokovic for 50th time he has everything stacked against him. His back is gone, his groin is gone, he has played 3 marathon matches, the court is slow, he isn’t serving well and Djokovic is in supreme form. Yet, whether you are a sports fan or not, tune into the match as the legend steps on Rod Laver Arena under lights, in his true indomitable spirit, to fight, to live for another day. Savour Federer’s playing moments because these are life lessons. Don’t long for a Federer win. Enjoy his game, savour him, relish him, as long as the legend is playing.