Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the author’s blog here.
The nature of sport, coupled with the nature of time, often give us moments that become markers of the inevitable changing of the guard. As Hubert Hurkacz approached to shake hands at the net with the man he’d just beaten on Centre Court, you felt this was one of those moments.
Because the man at the other end was Roger Federer. Oldest Wimbledon men’s singles quarter-finalist in the Open Era Roger Federer. Weeks away from turning 40 Roger Federer.
Not in this entire century had Federer lost a set 6-0 to anyone on grass. Today, he did. For a neutral, it was the romanticism of sport writ large over this seminal moment. A young new contender – who could be the next superstar – emerges with a statement performance. Federer would know. He himself was that guy against Pete Sampras at the very same place exactly two decades ago.
It’s not perhaps a final goodbye, but a circle sure closed at Centre Court on Wednesday.
But what does this moment make a lifelong Federer fan feel?
Is it bittersweet, knowing we got to watch him longer in this spiritual home of his, more than his previous form and the condition of his knees would have suggested... but watching him being helplessly schooled at his own game in the third set?
Is it dread, amplified by the gnawing unease and uncertainty over whether we will see him at Wimbledon again?
Is it pure disappointment, that the clutch Federer we have all come to take for granted at Centre Court did not show up?
Is it guilt, at expecting so much out of a man who has given his fans everything one could ask for, and yet we somehow, despite whatever we console ourselves with, demand even more from him?
Is it frustration, at our own selves, because Roger’s seeming infallibility had become a proxy for our own feeling of invincibility and now we are left to deal with the sensation of our own mortality, laid as naked in front of us as a 6-0 scoreline?
Federer has played 119 matches at SW19 and before today, he’s never ended with nothing in a set. I have often compared Federer’s reinvention of himself and his game (to be able to pull off competing this long at the highest level) to how an economy with dwindling resources might continue advancing at a great clip by more cleverly combining those resources – a phenomenon the great economist Robert Solow would call maximizing Total Factor Productivity.
But while that was always inspirational to watch, we all knew there are physical limitations to how far this can go, or to borrow an economist’s phrase again – how far the production possibilities frontier could be stretched. What happens when that frontier hits a wall? The world as a whole is facing that question and that dilemma right now.
Roger’s travails but represent a sporting microcosm of it in us fans’ minds. What phoenix can possibly rise from the ashes of our secret hopes when the tears of disappointment meet them? Economies have long measured quality of life by material means, using the growth of output as the accepted metric, just like we have been awed and impressed by Federer’s trophy count, and his stats.
As we hit the limits to the obsession with growth however, the paradigm is changing to recognizing that material aspects are but just one dimension of what we call the quality of life. Federer himself has recognised it, which is why he still carries on. Not necessarily hunting for more trophies but, to soak the sport he has loved all his life, in. For the pure love of the game, its drama, its thrill and its theater. And in being able to live with that feeling lies both hope and wisdom.
On Wednesday afternoon at Centre Court, whether it was his final appearance or not, it felt like things had come full circle. We were given a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the wall. It is that moment when the realisation of what Joni Mitchell wrote in The Circle Game hits – we are captive on the carousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look, behind, from where we came, and go round and round and round, in the circle game.
Allez Roger. We move forward, a touch bruised, but much wiser.