By the time Andy Murray and Roger Federer were ushered through the weirdly holiday-hotel-looking main lobby of Centre Court at Wimbledon to emerge from under the arch for the final, it was a giant relief to have them setting sail for the great continent of the Actual, after so many days of forecasts, tributes, foreboding, odds-making, and frazzling in the land of the Possible. But once they got out there and had played a few games, once the initial fizzy thrum of excitement to see them actually playing died down a little, you got a bleak wake-up call about just how actual the actual really is. It’s an endless continent, a massive field they have to hack their way across, and at times when they reset their shoulders and squinted at each other across the net, it felt like it was just too hard, just too much.
Viewer fatigue? Or is it really too much? I once complained to a writing teacher of mine, “It’s too hard.” To my surprise, he agreed with me. “Writing is hard,” he said. “I’ve done lots of different jobs, physical jobs too, and writing is by far the hardest thing I’ve done.” It came back to me, watching Andy and Roger today – as fans we go through a lot, cheering and agonizing with them, but they’re the ones regathering their strength over and over, re-mustering their inner resolve, and reaching up over and over to serve and follow the zinging energy of the point. It was exhausting just to watch – imagine the feeling if you were playing it.
And then there was the managing of hopes – the steep climb once it was clear Murray was composed, steady, hitting well. Who couldn’t hope, as he carved his way patiently and undramatically through the first set? After all, Federer isn’t infallible. Murray’s beaten him before, for heaven’s sake. And he got the first set, by dint of his calm, crafty playing, and to an American, it was tremendously positive and hopeful!
But the British crowd cannot allow themselves to hope – it’s too faulty a strategy. So much emotion has been packed into the story of Murray’s incredibly impossible shot at the final that by the day of, the crowd was actually subdued. I wondered if they just couldn’t take the intensity, and had told themselves on the morning, “It’s only a tennis match, after all. Not life and death, let’s keep this in perspective.”
Well, they did, but at the risk of allowing the Velvet Fog to have his way. Who knows if a more fiery crowd would have ignited Murray’s sneakers – it’s a flimsy theory. Still, their politeness and calm were a little bit bizarre to this American. They cheered Murray on, but they seemed to have an inkling – maybe they told themselves to avoid the disappointment – that Federer would play to perfection. And he did. He played beyond perfection. He fought off the charge of obsolescence with a non-stop (after the first set) display of his trademark virtuoso tennis. He leapt, balletic, and volleyed sharply and smashed overheads brilliantly. He ran well, served well, anticipated well, returned well. There’s not much anyone could have done.
It’s been a long time since I’ve hoped against Federer. I love his stubbornness and his pride, his refusal to cede the stage to the young guns. I love his girly-man mien masking a core toughness and will of iron. But I hate his brilliance at times, have hated it against Roddick, and hated it today. It’s almost unbearable, I think even to him, to be so effing brilliant, to have enough in your quill to defeat nearly anyone, to be so driven to excel. After the match Fed was tearful – he sat in his chair with brimming eyes for quite a while, staring sightlessly up at the crowd. He’d won yet another match where the loser was a decent striver with a desperately hoping crowd behind him. Asked about that aspect of things in the post-match interview, he immediately mentioned Roddick, saying it was hard for Roddick to lose that heart-crushing time (2009), too. But I think that was a shade tone-deaf of Fed, since Roddick’s loss wasn’t in front of a hometown crowd or an attempt to beat a 74-year drought. There was, of course, a higher pitch of crowd hopes for Murray this time than for Roddick, that time. If Fed was really ignorant of that – he claimed to have been avoiding newspapers – then he’d be the only tennis person to be so. And of course it’s his right, his business, to tune that out. As I said in a post not long ago, his nature is set to Win. No one grudges him that, and he’s a much-loved champion. But there are times when your ineffable brilliance will bring you not the moral victory but only the victory victory. It’s that, the latter, that Fed wants, and no one questions his right to it. But we’re as blitzed by it as he is – the dazed look he had afterwards summed up the way we were all feeling. Luckily, Mirka, Fed's wife, doesn't feel he's untouchable -- in the Wimbledon clubhouse amidst the jostling media scrum she threw her arms around him and kissed him several times, and he murmured something into her ear. What was it, I wondered for a while. "I can't believe I did it again, can you? How awesome am I?" or "Everyone hates me, help me stick to my story that I didn't realize the match meant anything special to Andy"? We'll never know. Congratulations on another championship, Roger Federer. And thanks to both players for an electrifying final.
An earlier version of this post concluded with a line about a kiss from Mirka showing Fed's neediness -- that wasn't right. I guess I was gesturing towards his humanness, but as someone pointed out to me, that's been in no doubt after many losses, including a crushing one at Wimbledon.