Twenty feels really big. Somehow much bigger than simply 19 + 1. Twenty feels gigantic. It sounds unbelievable, impossible and frankly speaking, ridiculous. We were in the teens for so long that I didn’t think there was anything after it. We hit thirteen back in 2008! For a decade we have been talking about the Slam count in the teens. And then once we got to seventeen we were stuck there for 4.5 years! I am used to teens. Twenty feels like we unlocked a secret door to a whole new level on a video game. We didn’t use any cheat codes either; we sort of stumbled into it. And I am not sure if we still quite believe that we’re here. The air feels crisper, the sky appears clearer, and the world looks shinier than it did before January 28th, 2018. “Before January 28th, 2018” feels like a different life.
When the 2018 Australian Open started, Roger Federer said he wasn’t the favorite of the tournament because a 36 year old shouldn’t be the favorite of a tournament and I agreed with him. Winning a Slam is tough. To maintain the intensity, rhythm, focus and the emotions for two weeks across 7 matches without suffering any injury, physical or mental, is difficult to say the least. And besides, I was still stuck in 2017 nostalgia. 2017 Australian Open was so magical that with each passing day I grew a bit sadder, knowing the fairy-tale is about to come to an end. I told myself to enjoy it till the inevitable. Plus there are so many players out there, Novak and Stan were back too. Any of them could win. It’s not that I didn’t believe in Roger, but I just thought, TWENTY is insane! Right? I mean, we waited so long for eighteen and then we got a bonus with nineteen only months later! Surely asking for twenty is too greedy right? Right.
I know now, that what I was doing was putting blinders on myself out of fear of wanting it too much. Let’s not look right or left; let’s focus only on Roger till however deep he goes into the tournament. Which is why it took a while for me to realize that the seeds and stars across the draw were dropping out like flies. On the other hand, Roger had sailed through the first, second, third and even fourth match without dropping sets. But so what? That has never been a guarantee for success. Besides, let’s not forget, Rafa was still in the tournament. So there’s that. Meanwhile, Berdych has been playing very well this tournament and he is our QF opponent. Things will get dicey.
Except that it didn’t, not really. Boom we were in the SF – in straight sets – again. While on the other side of the draw, Rafa retired in the 5th set. Wait, huh? What now? And then before we could settle in for a drawn out battle in the SF, our opponent Chung, retired without finishing the 2nd set. How the? What the? So we are in the final? THE FINAL – without dropping any sets and as the defending champion?!
“DEFENDING Champion” – That felt heavy. Suddenly it became hard to breathe. There was a huge weight on my chest; like a 100 ton lead box, filled with expectations. Defending a title is a whole other beast. Roger hadn’t defended a Slam since the 2008 US Open when he won his 13th Slam. He didn’t defend his 14th, 15th, 16th or 17th Slams. Now, a decade later we are expecting him to defend his 18th?
Defending a Slam requires a whole other level of steely nerves and determination that very few players have. In fact, only 3 active players including Roger have ever done it but Roger has gone the longest of the 3 without defending one. Did he still remember how? Defending a Slam means you have two opponents, your actual opponent and YOU. You have to play your opponent while maintaining your high level and simultaneously preventing yourself from getting caught up inside your own head. A twentieth Slam seemed so far away at the start of the tournament and now suddenly it was here like a freight train and I didn’t know if I had prepared myself enough for the possibilities of winning one… or losing one for that matter.
When the day of the final dawned, I was still partly in denial. I was trying to block the thought of twenty out of my head which of course made me think about it even more, and I got stuck in that loop. Then I went off to work and thankfully work kept me busy so I couldn’t focus too much on it till about an hour left to go before the start of the final. I don’t remember much of what I did for that hour except to keep glancing at the clock every few minutes and wondering why the time was passing so slowly and also alternatively, why the time was going by so fast. Needless to say, the clock did nothing right that hour.
Then the match started and the first set is over like lightening. Marin was nervous, Roger was flying and poof, it was done. But I didn’t feel relief at all. I knew a storm was brewing and it hit us in set 2. Back and forth both players went, Marin created some winners and Roger committed some errors and both were far more evenly matched. We headed to a tiebreak and then, as Roger would confirm later on, he froze. Roger dropped his first set of the tournament and it was one set all.
Never mind, this is a marathon, not a race and we’ve been here before. Roger got a break in the 3rd and held on to his service games enough to take the third set 6-3. Then came set 4 and he got a break again. Hmm, is this actually going to happen? Look, we are so close to even getting a double break! OMG is the twentieth really happening? These thoughts went through all our minds and they must have gone through Roger’s as well because Roger, like the rest of us, jumped ahead and lost focus. The next thing you know, he gets broken back and then broken again and his first serves are nowhere to be seen. Where did this collapse come from? Inexplicably, from being a break up in a possible deciding set, a nightmare of 15 minutes saw Roger lose set 4 and all the momentum he had. Onto a decider we went.
Roger went off-court during the changeover and I remember tweeting ‘Roger, splash some water on your face, shake this off and focus!’ and it seems he did just that. But renewing focus and holding onto one’s serve doesn’t always go hand in hand. Roger had to save two breakpoints in the first game of the set before he shakily held his serve. Looking back though, that wobbly service hold turned the match around for our champ. Long live wobbly service holds! They may be wobbly, but a hold is a hold!
In the next game, he pushed Marin with everything he had and Marin showed his first signs of cracking since the middle of set 4. Finally Roger got a breakpoint opportunity and for once, he didn’t waste it. Suddenly, we were up 2*-0. But a break isn’t a break till you consolidate and thankfully another tough hold pushed Roger up to 3-0*. Even though Marin held the next game, by then Roger was on a roll. Finally his first serves showed up and a love hold took him to 4-1*. Then in Marin’s next service game, he finally snatched the match away by getting the double break. All that was left was for him to serve it out and I am sure, the double break allowed him to play without fear. At Championship Point, he served to Marin’s backhand and Marin netted the return which meant… but wait! Marin challenged his serve! Two years in a row, his Championship Point winners were challenged but just like the year before, this too, was INNNNNN! We have always had a tenuous relationship with Hawkeye, but thank goodness these past two years the challenges went our way when we needed them the most! Game, set, match Federer!
I squealed with delight and danced around my office like a maniac, jumping up and down. But I think the significance of the moment hit me during the ceremony when they announced Roger as the winner of Twenty Grand Slams. I felt the tears prickling my eyes yet I still didn’t shed them. But when I heard Roger’s voice shake in his speech, well that was it for me. I started to cry and then he started to cry, his friends and family started to cry and then I am sure, the whole world watching cried as well.
How could you not? There was the pressure of being expected to win. His H2H with Marin was lopsided enough to make him the favorite by a margin. Then there were the expectations of defending his title from 2017. Adding to that, all the blood, sweat, tears and fears that helped him get to this point, all the sacrifices he and his family had to make the past 20 years, and the weight of the roles and responsibilities of being “Roger Federer” throughout his career, the culmination of all that is enough for the toughest dams to break.
The realization that now, we are in rarefied air with the stratospheric heights we have climbed with Roger, truly humbles me. We are privileged and honored to witness this moment in tennis history. I am spellbound by his sense of belief, determination and the tremendous hard work he had to do the past 10 years to not only keep up with younger rivals at their peak, but in this case, outlast them. I don’t know if I have a passion that I love as much as Roger loves tennis and that love he has for the sport hits me anew each time and leaves me awestruck. I feel so lucky and blessed to be his fan and to have traversed the world with him and his legions of fans over the years. Not only have I through the ups and downs of his career but he has been there for me too, throughout the roller-coaster of my life.
Roger has been playing for so long, he is actually a life-constant. He’s my very happy and positive life-constant, even though he has no idea of my existence. I have written before, that even though Roger had reached dizzying levels of greatness in his career a decade ago, the Roger of NOW is my favorite Roger. He is human, he stumbles, he gets angry and he misses. It’s what makes his rise from the ashes so much more heroic yet somehow relatable at the same time. When I need positivity, I look to him. When I want a giggle and a laugh, I look up his many dad jokes in pressers and interviews. When I am in the depths of despair, I scramble for a youtube clip of his majestic tennis to lift me up. I depend on him for comfort, for motivation and for inspiration. Roger Federer is unique on-court but he’s even more amazing off-court, and no one deserves TWENTY Grand Slams more than him.
Thank you Roger for taking us along on this epic journey. Whether you win another one of these or not, you will always have me waking up at ungodly hours to watch every match or livescoring your matches during work meetings. As long as you keep going, I will be right there with you. It is the least I can do in return for the immense joy you bring to my life.
Congratulations on winning your TWENTIETH Grand Slam Roger!
TWENTY Slams won for twenty years on tour.
TWENTY Slams won in a span of fifteen years.
TWENTY Slams won out of thirty Slam finals reached.
TWENTY Slams won out of 200 total Open Era Slams i.e. 10% of all Open Era Slams.
TWENTY Slams won at the age of 36.
TWENTY Slams won as a father of 4.
TWENTY Slams won despite knee surgery.
TWENTY Slams won out of 72 Slams played.
TWENTY Slams won despite a gap of 4.5 years in the middle.
TWENTY Slams won, with the love of his life by his side for each one.