I was lucky to be able to go to London at the O2 Arena this year to attend the ATP World Tour Finals and I wrote about my experiences in my previous post. That post had bits of everything; my thoughts on the fans, the Arena and the other players. I kept Roger away from it because Roger was an experience in and of itself and I couldn’t have done justice to it crammed into that post. He demanded a post of his own and so here it is – My Five Days with Roger Federer.
Now I know the tournament was 8 days but I saw Roger for 5 of them. He did not even come to the O2 during his off days. What’s interesting about the 5 days is they each showed me a different avatar of Roger. No days were alike and thus my experience as a Roger fan changed each day. By the end of the tournament I had seen a whole range of Rogers and what this comprehensive view did was make me realize in a whole new way how I really couldn’t have picked any other player to idealize and idolize, not only as an athlete but also as a person.
Day 1: Federer the Exemplar
It was the first day of the tournament and I practically ran into the O2 Arena because I was so excited. It was good that Roger was the 2nd session because I had plenty of time to get my bearings and ease into the tournament with the Kei-Andy match. After Kei’s surprisingly quick win I went back into the Arena to catch Roger’s 1st practice. We waited for a bit and then suddenly saw Stefan and Seve coming out. Then, right behind them, THERE HE WAS, walking his leisurely walk onto the courts, being greeted by applause from the lucky fans that had come in early to catch a glimpse of the Maestro.
All four practice sessions I saw that week followed the same pattern. Initially, Seve was always on Roger’s side of the court, softly talking to him as he warmed up with Edberg. When the warm-up was done, Roger and Stefan would sit on the bench and they would only talk to each other without Seve for a few minutes. It was their tiny bit of Fedberg only time and Roger was very reverent during these conversations. When they were done, Seve would rejoin them and Dorkerer would come back. Seeing him like that, with his arm affectionately around Stefan as they shared the bench and joked with Seve was amazing for me. It was a scene I had envisioned when we first heard about Stefan becoming his coach. So when they both came out on court together for the 1st practice I suddenly realized that my dream had come true. And I teared up a bit I must say, especially since 5 days before that moment I didn’t know if I would even be able to come to London.
The doubles match started first but honestly I was still so giddy from having seen him up close I just kept grinning like an idiot and going ‘eeeeeeeeeeee!’ every few minutes inside my head. Then somehow it was time for the singles and I thought frantically ‘I’m not ready!’ Imagine when you get all dressed up to go to a formal event and then spill orange juice right before the doorbell rings? That’s how I felt. Except I had spilled no juice and no one was going to look at me so basically this can only mean I’m not quite right in the head.
The blue heartbeat rang out. I got chills as the Arena clapped with the beat. Milos came out first to a decent amount of cheers. Then HE came out. You know the feeling when your ears pop hours after you got water inside them? Suddenly the volume goes from 3 to 11. That’s what happened when HE came out. Neither Milos nor I could get settled in quickly enough to process the first set. Milos and I were both totally overwhelmed by the occasion and by Roger Federer. I was Milos, he was me, and we totally understood each other for that set.
I was content to remain in this bliss of doing nothing except admiring Roger but for some reason Milos had other ideas in the second set; he decided to make a go of it. Why Milos? We were so in sync till now! That set brought back familiar feelings of digging my nails into the palm of my hands and fistpumping at my laptop screen – except I was fistpumping in front of him! Yes, I know he didn’t see me, but I saw him and that was enough. After scrambling to reach the tie-break, Roger thankfully finished it off quickly.
But wait, the night wasn’t over yet! Roger had won two ATP awards, his 12th consecutive Fan Favorite Award and his 10th Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship award! And then my ultimate Fedberg dream unfolded before my eyes. Stefan Edberg, the Maestro’s coach, came out onto the court looking mighty spiffy in his suit and awarded Roger the award named after him. Cue teary eyes again 🙂 Edberg can take pride in knowing he set an example for future generations on sportsmanship and fair play and here was proof that at least one little boy in Basel had paid attention. Edberg won the award 5 times and inspired Roger along the way. Roger has now won it 10 times and I’m sure he has carried the torch from his idol and set an example to the next generation of how to be great player on and off the court simultaneously.
Day 2: Federer the Teacher
Day 2 started with me rushing to get there in time for Roger’s practice once more. By then the first shock of seeing Fedberg had worn off and this time I watched without any scary palpitations and thoroughly enjoyed the whole session. Then it was time for the doubles which I enjoyed but as the match started to end I got pre-match nerves. I knew Kei was going to be tougher than Milos. Kei always gives him trouble. They came into the match at an even H2H of 2 all. Kei started the match strong, buoyed by his win over Andy and even had break point chances early on. But then Roger starting to turn the screws and began to take control of the match. One break was all Roger needed to take the first set.
I though Kei would make a big push in the second set but Roger would have none of that. He smothered any idea Kei might have had with even more aggression showing that when it comes to the big occasions Roger can still take it a notch above 5th gear. He never let Kei get back into the match. This wasn’t just any indoors tournament; it was the ATP World Tour Finals where Roger is the King. No way was Roger going to let some kid brush him aside. Sure he’s 33 but that also means he’s been qualifying at this event ever since Kei was 12 years old. That immense experience combined with clean shot-making gave Roger his easiest match against Kei since their first one 3 years ago. Kei left the court a little wiser with his awe of Federer still intact.
“Every time we play, I feel really tough to play because he takes the ball very early, come to the net a lot, very aggressive. Sometimes, you know, you don’t ready for it. You don’t expect he comes to the net. Today I think he served really well, first and second. Especially, yeah, tough points, he hits a lot of aces. You know, just tough to return his serve. Yeah, I think he’s, you know, getting better every time. Yeah, actually I never feel that he’s 33 right now. He looks still young and playing amazing tennis. I think the age doesn’t matter right now.” I imagine in an alternate universe after hearing Kei’s presser, Roger said to Kei ‘Much to learn you still have…my old padawan.’ – ok no more Star Wars references I promise 😀
Day 3: Federer the Transcendent
I don’t know where to even begin with this match. It was probably the worst match Andy has played in a while and then there was Roger. Roger the Sublime, Roger the Magnificent, Roger the Exalted, I had difficulties picking the right one because they all fit. Back in his prime of 2004-2007 such matches were more frequent. Matches where Roger is untouchable, where he is unplayable and he constantly flirts with the line between genius and insanity. The strange thing is Roger didn’t serve well at all. But that was his only flaw that night and in a way it magnified the rest of his game because he was able to play like a tennis god despite not having one of his most formidable weapons.
This match was for the purists, and for those who got hooked by the Maestro for his tennis skills first. I love Roger Federer’s warmth and personality and how he carries himself but I first noticed him for his extraordinary playing style and sheer variety of shots. A dropshot here, a half volley there, a searing inside-out forehand or a down-the-line backhand, he could put all those shots into a single rally. And so he did that night, against Andy. He toyed with the Scott as he threw his whole arsenal at him.
Andy summed it up well himself in his presser “…But if I played well, he probably still would have won anyway…. everything he tried tonight came off. He has the ability to do that.” We hear you Andy, it must have been brutal to face that. To be honest, by the end, all of us including Roger were urging you to win a game and we all cheered when you did. I left that match feeling dizzy and overwhelmed from that display of brazen, unmasked brilliance. Roger Federer in full flow is breathtaking to watch.
Day 4: Federer the Warrior
Interestingly, Roger looked the most relaxed at this practice before the SF match than he had in his previous practice sessions for his Round Robin matches. He was extra smiley and dorky and gave a ton more time to the fans than he had on other days. As such, it was on this 4th day that I was finally able to get my RF hat autographed by Roger, though Efie had to help me get it within his reach at the last minute! Because of that autograph and his cheerful demeanor, the day already become the best of the week for me. Of course all this happiness gave no inkling of the drama that was about to ensue less than 3 hours later.
Roger had played his best match against Andy so it was strange how listless he seemed at the beginning of this match. He wasn’t going for his shots as much, there was something off. Stan started in the best possible way but Roger couldn’t get going and for a while it seemed he didn’t even want to. I don’t like his matches with Stan; that personal connection he has with him is always an unknown variable. Sometimes he seems a bit too happy to lose to him, other times he somehow doesn’t bring that competitive fire he brings against others. Both players seem tortured in varying degrees with their own demons.
Stan took the first set to thunderous applause. That finally awakened something in Roger. He didn’t necessarily play much better, but at least he was finally fired up which was good to see. He started set 2 a bit shaky but then kept improving while Stan got a bit inconsistent. Finally, serving to get to a tie-break, Stan got broken and Roger took the second set. We were at 1 all and I allowed to get my hopes up a bit. Then at the beginning of the third set that bizarre umpire incident happened and Roger got broken. Angry Roger had definitely arrived but thankfully he channeled that properly to hold from then on despite immense pressure from Stan. Roger had a breakpoint to level to 4 all but missed. He had breakpoints again to level to 5 all but then Stan also had match points too. In fact he had 3. But Roger saved them all and broke Stan to level. He saved another match point in the tie-break before finally winning the match.
How did he win, you ask? Well it wasn’t the Maestro’s tennis skills in my opinion but rather his sheer will power that got the job done that night. In his match with Andy he reminded us of the beauty of his tennis and his immense talent. But talent alone won’t get you 17 Grand Slams. A players needs to have a champion’s winning mentality, tremendous fighting spirit, unwavering focus, steely nerves and the confidence to back oneself despite facing a 70 ft wall. That night there was no magical tennis; it was war. And our hero fought for every inch, for every second, for every bead of sweat.
From the time he was down 4-5* I had watched the match clutching my few-hours-old autographed RF hat and didn’t let go till he won. When that triumphant moment finally came, I stood up and cheered. Then I burst out in tears, from pride, relief, happiness and exhaustion and I lightly kissed my RF hat; not only had it brought me immense joy, it had also helped me get through this match.
As I sat quietly in the tube ride home that night, still in a daze, a young man said ‘Excuse me, is that Roger Federer’s autograph? Did he really sign it?’ pointing to my hat. ‘Yes he did!’ I said happily. His mother said, ‘He was playing tonight right? Did he win?’ ‘Yes he did!’ I exclaimed again, barely able to contain myself at that point. The young man then said ‘Wow, you had a good day then!’ and I remember that warm, golden feeling I got with that comment. And then I remember replying back with a content smile and nodding ‘I had a VERY good day!’ 😀
Day 5: Federer the Gracious
For some reason, from the time I woke up on Finals day, I had a bad feeling. It was a gloomy day in London but that’s normal I told myself. I still couldn’t shake the feeling though and it surprised me considering the previous night. Maybe it was beginning to sink in that my week in heaven was coming to a close? Who knows. We heard that for the first time in the tournament Roger was going to practice at Practice Court 1 at 3pm instead of Centre Court. There was a crowd 8 rows deep and 1.5 tennis court lengths long as we all patiently waited for him to come, missing the beginning of the doubles match in the process, but in vain. The clock ticked by and soon it was clear he wasn’t going to come to practice so I went off to get a bite to eat and then catch the second half of the doubles match.
It was all going well and I enjoyed the doubles match till suddenly the announcement came that Roger would come out for a special message after the doubles awards ceremony. That basically did two things. One, it killed any interest I had in the doubles ceremony (can they leave the court already?!) and two, I became petrified. Soon Roger came out in his track-suit to break the bad news himself. I went through so many emotions right then: I wanted to give him a hug; I was also deathly scared of how bad the injury was; I felt really, really alone somehow; I felt tremendously sad; I also felt numb and empty; and lastly I felt a strange combination of warmth and awe at him and the crowd. He was so genuine in his words and not only did no one in the audience boo, they all clapped for him and showed him respect. Bboth Roger AND the crowd had handled the situation with great class. As I walked away from the O2 one last time I thought, maybe I wasn’t meant to see him lose that week. I had seen 4 matches and he won all of them with aplomb and that is the memory I will carry with me.
Throughout the week I had been able to see Dorky Roger, Smiley Roger, Sexy Roger, Role-Model Roger, Reverent Roger, Fan Favorite Roger, Superstar Roger, Tennis God Roger and Roger Fighterer. So in a way, it was perfect that I got to see Roger the Gracious too, it was the one avatar left. I know that week of tennis was disappointing for many due to the lopsided matches but for me it was so much more. Most of all it confirmed for me once and for all that I could never even hope to be a fan of another player, not in the same manner at least. For me, no one comes close to being such a complete player and person on and off the court. He will always have my belief, loyalty, love and dedication as a fan for as long as we are both alive. And really that’s all there is to say. ❤
***All photos were taken by me. Click on the photo collections for larger views***