So, let go, let go, jump in
Oh well, what you waiting for?
It’s all right
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
So, let go, let go, just get in
Oh, it’s so amazing here
It’s all right
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
-by Frou Frou
Despite having a ton to say I have been having trouble finding words. This is an unusual situation for me. Either I get writer’s block and can’t write or I write with glee. Very rarely does it happen that I am excited about writing, yet unable to express it. Then I understood. For me personally as a Roger Federer fan, the simple heading “Roger Federer wins his 6th Dubai title” did not have enough weight to describe the journey we were all on till that point. It somehow felt inadequate and lacked gravitas. Here is a sampling of what all the headlines were:
• Federer wins a record 6th Dubai title
• Federer wins his 78th title and moves to the 3rd spot in winning the most singles titles of all time
• Federer defeats two top 10 players back to back
• Federer is now 4-1 against matches against the top 10 while last year it was 4-10
• Federer has never defeated four top 10 players by March in any previous year
• Federer is now tied with Lendl with 14 consecutive years of winning a title
All of them were accurate and rightly alluded to the amazing records that the Maestro broke and set with this win. But for me, this tourney meant so much more. As I watched him raise his arms in victory at his box, tears ran down my face. I went to bed that night ridiculously happy. Then came next morning and the morning after a win is always wonderful with articles and posts singing the Maestro’s praises. As I read them I thought it’s been a while since I’ve had such a morning. Then it hit me. Out of the blue I felt a wave of emotions and of all the things I could have felt, what I felt most was strangely, exhaustion.
I felt mentally and emotionally drained. It took me by surprise and I needed two days to figure out why. As I pondered my state I realized that I had been holding my breath. In fact, I had been holding it since at least Wimbledon last year. 2013 was tough for fans in many ways. Some jumped ship entirely, others lamented at his rapid slide, and some remained his die-hard fans, defending him to the world that seemed insistent on tearing him down. I belonged in that final category. I kept cheering him on no matter what round he was losing at or to which player.
But I do have a confession. In the deep recesses of my mind, at times I questioned his judgment, something I had never ever done before. I had always trusted his decisions because I always understood them. But last year I wasn’t on board with some of his actions. Adding Gstaad and Hamburg gave me a nagging feeling. The timing of the initial racquet change was another. His decision not to play anything before Shanghai confused me too considering how much we knew he would want to make it to London. I never lost my faith in him but for the first time I had ‘only’ my faith because the logical part of my brain didn’t always agree with some of his choices.
So I held on, fighting the world while trying to suppress the questions in my mind. The lowest point for me was Shanghai when he lost to Monfils. Thankfully as we now know, we didn’t have to wait too long for the rot to stop because in the very next tourney he started to climb back up. His rejuvenation started where it usually does, his hometown of Basel. We have seen this before; through Basel he emerges fresher, stronger and more confident. From then on, each tourney was a step in the right direction. After Basel came Paris, then London. An intense off-season was followed by even better results in 2014 with Brisbane and a fantastic Australian Open. Then came the ultimate test in Dubai.
Based on the draw I knew I would be happy if he reached the SFs. He would face Novak and while I knew he had started this year much better than he had ended the last, I was unsure about whether he was ready to battle Novak. Even the Maestro himself had suggested he wouldn’t be fully back before April. So when he overcame the Serb he had already exceeded my expectations. Two finals and a SF in the first three tourneys of the year? Not bad at all. Or so I thought. He clearly thought otherwise and went on to win the shiny sailing boat 😀
His Dubai route was not smooth. He struggled in 3 of his 5 matches, got broken at the beginning of each of them and was pushed to 3 sets. He had been in similar matches in 2013 which ended in heartbreak. But that’s what was different in Dubai. The matches were tough and tumultuous but finished with wins not losses. One could cite many factors for this; his back injury was healed, he had a good off-season, his new racquet gave him more power or his dashing new coach had added more dimensions to his already-dazzling game.
Whatever the reason, a mentality shift had happened. In 2013, when he would inexplicably lose his form mid-match, he would panic. This year, we’ve seen him take his time, keep hanging in there, being patient and weathering the storm. We didn’t see this fully manifested in Brisbane where he lost the final. We did see it at the Australian Open though, in the Tsonga and Murray matches but then there was Rafa who, let’s face it, is by far his biggest mental block. He wasn’t ready for Rafa… yet. By Dubai however, he had gotten enough match practice to feel confident about his progress. So when he faced Novak, he believed when many didn’t; and that same belief finally enabled him to hoist the trophy. Yes, he achieved all those records but more important than that, the back to back wins against top 10 players and the trophy finally gave him that mental breakthrough he was looking for.
Before 2013, winning was the norm. I used to watch his matches with nervous excitement till he would produce his special brand of magic and ultimately despite the drama, all would be right with the world. Federer matches meant living on the brink of ecstasy. They could keep you on the edge of your seat till the final winner at which point you fell off the cliff in happy, liberated bliss. 2013 however, had a bigger impact on me than I had anticipated because it seemed I had temporarily forgotten those feelings of joy. In order to insulate myself from the hurt, I got used to living on the brink of agony instead. I was ready to accept a loss when it came because otherwise, the alternative was to never move forward beyond the Wimbledon loss. Digesting tough losses was the order of the day and especially those where he came agonizingly close but fizzled out at the end. It was a draining experience yet I kept holding on waiting for the day the storm would break – and it finally did, in Dubai.
When he won in Dubai only then did I realize how exhausted I was from maintaining vigilance against the losses from hurting me. Dubai made me recognize that it was finally time to let it go. Time to let go of the shield I had built to protect myself, time to let go of the perpetual fear I had with every match, time to get used to Federer winning. Not winning in his previous lethal, god-like manner but rather winning like everyone else – having up and down performances and still finding a way. That Saturday evening, Vintage Federer did not show up to the Finals. Unlike 2013 however, he didn’t let it bother him. He allowed 2014s Gritty Federer to come and play instead. Apparently this Federer can make a ton of errors and sometimes wins ugly. But a win is a win, ugly or not and this Gritty Federer can win.
Maybe as he gains more confidence we will see Vintage Federer more consistently. But for now I think Gritty Federer will do just fine. It has been an emotional journey seeing his evolution. He was a god who fell from the heavens but even when he lost his super powers he had the one thing age or injury could never take away, the mind of a champion. It took a while but he found his way and I don’t think I could be any prouder of him if I tried. He embraced his fallen state and now works with it rather than against it. He let go of his mythical persona and has begun fighting back as a mortal which makes his warrior’s spirit all the more remarkable. While I am sure the trek will be uneven, watching him overcoming his demons is a thrilling new chapter in his glittering career. It is a different path but I have no doubts that at the end of the road, his arms will still be raised in victory.
So it appears that I had been living in that no man’s land between agony and ecstasy. But in the past few months, culminating with this win, Roger taught me that it’s ok to let go of all of that. Letting go gives you a clean slate, it strips off all expectations, and allows you the freedom to build yourself back anew in whatever avatar you choose. So I am done with my exhausted sighs. I have had enough of holding my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bring on the new season filled with hope for I am done with the old. I too am letting go.