The Cult: Roger Federer
Our society has lost all perspective when it comes to the importance we place on athletes. But with Roger Federer and his godlike tennis, perhaps we're not far off.
Ilustración de Dan Evans
Once you're done with Roger, why not clear your diary and check out the other 98 instalments of The Cult.
Cult Grade: The God Illusion
Deep in the mists of time, when this series began, I called it The Cult because it seemed that everyone had grown a little silly about who and what sportsmen and women were. The urge to venerate humans far above what they actually are is presumably as old as the human ego. I doubt that chimpanzees did it – they don't seem the type – but I'm pretty sure the Mayans did, up there on the highest hill, cutting off some child's head for a little blood sacrifice to their dead ancestors. You know what people are like: if we put our minds to it, we can control anything.
We live – or have been living, depending on how many miles you think are left on this particular road – in the Entertainment Age. You hardly need me to tell you that sport has stood side by side with movies to form its most beloved couple. Know how many movies were released in 2016? Nah, me neither. Too many. I stopped counting at 60, by which point it was January 8th. Friend Request. Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Crayon Shin-Chan: My Moving Story. "Gimme a break, kid," you'll have to tell some uppity grandchild who's asking whether you possess the know-how to construct a workable flood defence. "I was busy with other stuff."
Though most of the time I just accept it, every so often I'm caught by what 'normal' looks like in sport, the excess congesting its surfaces like a bad case of herpes. The umbrella sponsored by BNP Paribas, a digital display sponsored by Rolex, the sweetly innocent Robinsons, still trying to get someone to buy barley water. Loudest of all are the desperate solicitations – delivered in a tone that always puts me in mind of that poor salesman Gil from The Simpsons – to bet on anything and everything you're seeing. Please – *grips your arm* – please bet now.
Then there are the people playing it, and the labyrinthine distortion through which we now see them. What they are is humans running around and throwing things and having KEEP IT TIGHT TO HIM GARY as the central philosophy of their existence. What they also are, in the Entertainment Age, is one of the few things on this planet that feels like it truly matters. After all, it's always new, the drama of a 91st-minute winner is never fake, so blame me not for losing track of how important they are. In this Age, when all the stuff that matters most is the opposite of what has mattered most to the human race for millennia, you get a bit weird about how to define 'important'.
So yeah, that was what I wanted to get across in profiling the members of that cultish firmament. That, among other things, it's irresistible, but inane, to see them as anything but human beings. And then moonlight falls on the murky pond of human inanity, and you see a guy who, though you know you shouldn't, can't help but make you feel that we are gods. Capable of nonchalantly rewriting the laws of what is possible. And, happily, back into the pond you go.
Point of Entry: Keys To The Universe
Here are some sports players who can compete with Roger Federer in the cultish perception stakes: Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi. That's it. I mean, I say that like I have any bloody clue about how Rod Laver or Pele or Wilt Chamberlain were viewed, except for knowing that they came into the Western conscious at a time when the Entertainment Age was at best in its adolescence, when stuff like nuclear war or global communism or the rights of black people put more pressing demands on people's attention. As your correspondent at your service, I watched some old footage of Rod Laver playing tennis, and I can report back that he looks very good at it. But, running around an unadorned court in service-issue whites, that's all he looks: good at tennis. He isn't a god. He's a sportsman who won all four Grand Slams in the same year that the Soviet Union started shipping nuclear missiles to an island a few hundred miles from America. Barely 15 years previous – in fact, only slightly longer than the gap between Federer's first and eighth Wimbledon titles – America had emptied life from two cities with these weapons. They obviously weren't 'symbolic deterrents'. I sort of hope Rod did actually try telling people during that time, as their knuckles whitened around their corned-beef tin, ears glued to their radios: 'Guys, I'm thinking of eliding my initials to form a cool logo.'
Is it an error to think of how Roger Federer plays tennis as godlike? I can't tell anymore. I'm not exactly helped by all the people who assemble to watch him while wearing sportswear bearing his logo. During the semi-final against Tomas Berdych the camera repeatedly cut to a couple, who appeared old enough to dress themselves, sporting his and hers RF red caps as if that was a completely regular thing to do, even though they clashed dementedly with the rest of their outfits. At what point did they put them on? In unison? Or did they discover, as they reunited in the hall to leave the house, that they both had the same instincts? Is that not the definition of cult: the keenness to debase yourself in service of it?
But then he played, and he reminded you that, at his best, there is no tennis apart from his. Jordan, Bolt, Messi, Federer – they have the power to remove the very existence of competition, to destroy all worlds but their own. *Mutters, sotto voce - because of dunking a ball, running fast, kicking a ball, hitting a ball*
More than once – probably about 20 times – Berdych played a shot where your natural reaction was: "He'll do well to get that one back." And then, whip. He does indeed do well. There's a music that plays, a saturnine Federer key into some rhythm of the universe that only he knows, where every single element of the winner he produces has a one-millimetre margin for error, the angle of his racket and the height of the net and the position of Berdych and the length of the court leaving it with a possibility for success of *grabs calculator* not very much. And yet his most difficult shots are the ones that seem somehow most sure to work, a restructuring of physics, the silly music of humans as gods, because it's also just tennis. The consequence is, when you're not distracted by the BNP Paribas umbrella and the Rolex display, you feel innocent about life, about how to judge and measure it. He did that to you. Your humble correspondent would argue that his ability to make you childlike and awestruck is why he seems to have a pretty neat split between girl fans and boy fans of all ages, because as kids we're less aware of our gender.
My favourite thing Federer does, and it usually happens once or twice a match, is to go down three break points. "Oh my god, I've got three break points against Federer!" The way in which he then takes those break points back, like a sniper who manages to put three headshots on you before you've even bent a knee, probably makes it even more disheartening to have got them in the first place than if you'd just lost the game conventionally. The most likely interpretation of this is that he's supremely unruffled by the situation, being who he is; and the awesome, godlike interpretation is that he really is toying with humans who have made multi-million pound careers in tennis by giving them imaginary break points.
This stuff is so illusory. You've learnt from all those interviews with sporting superheroes how regularly they disprove the possibility that exciting, compelling things are occurring in their heads. From Kobe Bryant to Pete Sampras to Steven Gerrard to Lewis Hamilton, they're all boring; they weren't made to talk. A large part of me suspects that if you were to ask Roger Federer whether, like a cruel, godlike tennis cat, he was toying with his opponents in these situations, you would be met with the same reaction as if someone asked you to describe the dynamics at play in your mind while tying your shoelaces. But I'm afraid, and this will forever hold true, a small part of me just can't help but wonder.
The Moment - A few seconds in an interview from 1999, when he had terrible highlights in his hair
Is Federer boring in interviews? Again, it's hard to tell. I mean, obviously he is. There are about eight sportsmen who give genuinely interesting interviews, and they're all fuck-ups who demonstrably had minds that distracted them from operating consistently in elite sport. But still, that happy, bulbous-nosed serenity – I end up retrofitting it in my mind, as if somehow this talking-style will be taken on to the court and turned into godlike tennis. In fact, I suspect the reality is that it's not much like him, that talking isn't a whole lot to Roger Federer, a minor significance compared to what life is really for.
Take, for example, a brief exchange during this interview, which is meant to be presented in rapid-fire 20-questions style, but, thanks to the hilariously literal-minded approach of his Dutch interviewer, comes across more like the interrogation of a fighter pilot who's been captured behind enemy lines. 'Last book you read?' Fed swats the question back in that way we've all grown to know and love, like it's literally nothing to him. "I don't read books, so I don't have a favourite book."
But relax, I have an update on this particular saga. I have sat through a little clipoid called Favourite Book? from Tennis TV. A smattering of them are proper readers, though not the Americans, obviously. It has some strong moments: Andy Roddick telling us that it is because he is 'a big history buff' that his favourite book is Angels and Demons by Dan Brown; Sam Querrey pronouncing 'book' like he isn't quite convinced of the spelling; Rafa sitting there for a second or two, looking like he isn't even convinced of the definition, and then naming a book in the magic-realist Latin American tradition from the daughter of the ex-Chilean president called City of the Beasts, like a sudden topspin whip kicking up in your face.
And then we get to Roger. A decade has passed; his cap is now adorned by an elided RF. You've never heard a more practiced answer; he says it literally as soon as he can: "I actually read a lot of magazines, newspapers, so I actually don't have a favourite book… but autobiographies are quite interesting as well."
You know what I think Roger Federer's not prepared to do? He's not prepared to get anything wrong, ever, including answers to questions like 'What's your favourite book?' Do you know how hard it must be to have that as your overall sense of life? I think, in its coiled springs, it makes you want to hurt people. Could you truly imagine that the person who occupies his spot in the sporting world would simply be the one with the most talent? The talent has to be strapped to, needled by, something darker. Something to force it beyond where anyone else's talent goes. If you looked at Roger Federer's eyes, would you say they look light or dark?
And so we get to the true god illusion. A gentle god, his image perpetuated by how handsome he looks in a white jacket as he strides on to Centre Court, by dippily idolising TV pundits, by the creation of his smoothed, chaste, on-camera style. The illusion that somehow, Mr RF is simply playing alone, a solitary maestro bestowing his hallowed brand of tennis on a grateful world.
Bullshit. You know who doesn't get mentioned enough in any discussion of Roger Federer? His opponents. Because I can guarantee you, Roger hasn't forgotten them. He is not the charitable foundation of RF Tennis. He is, lest we forget, possibly more than anyone in the history of men's sport, the one whose forte is beating another human one-on-one. And beating them in a way that's relentless in torturing their dream that they might escape a beating. You don't get to do that, year in year out, unless you want to. Find a friendly way to describe that one to Sue Barker, eh Rodge? 'So what did you think when you knew Cilic was injured?' Can guarantee you wouldn't like the answer to that, Sue, if he could only find a way to spell it out. And here's a question: if he could, would he still feel the drive to keep on playing? Does he need tennis to spell out the darkness?
And so to The Moment, which occurs around 48 seconds into the video above. In the silence when the interviewer is asking him "Is it tough to be on the tour?" his face spells it out, even if it's gone in a heartbeat. And you know why I think that is? Because what he'd just said regarding recent tour results was that he'd taken a good scalp, a top-10 player, "So this week is already great."
And my theory, dear reader, for you, brought to you from a kitchen table where I have made an apple core into an impromptu ashtray, is that when 18-year-old Roger talks about beating people and then uses the words "already great", it causes a reaction in his face that gives his eyes juuuust the slightest hint of axe-murderer around enraged, tightened cheeks, before it disappears. Something inside him would never be satisfied, would never think the job was done. You cannot keep beating people, to the extent he has, unless you need to, unless it is a means to cool your insides off. And what are any of us really looking for but a way to cool off our insides?
Some suited commentary goon stood next to one of those blue ATP courts in 2010, doing a bit-to-camera:"I had a chance to chat to the top eight players. I asked them a few 'random questions'.First of all, which actor would they like to portray them – *pause for effect * – in a film.
Federer: "Pffft, I dunno. Hopefully one of the greatest actors around. I don't know which one that is right now."