Sunday, February 01, 2009

I don't need another hero

I just saw Roger Federer break down after losing to Rafael Nadal in a tense, grueling match to determine the champion of this year's Australian Open. Federer had been gunning to equal Pete Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam wins, but instead fell to his younger opponent, who claimed his very first AO championship. As Roge received his runner-up plate and stepped up to the mic to address his horde of supporters in Rod Laver Arena, he dissolved into tears. The sight of the normally perfectly poised Swiss weeping openly stunned me into silence, and I could feel my heart breaking along with his. And dammit, I loved him all the more for showing he's actually human.

I am a fan of both Roge and Rafa, but between the rivals, I have always been more partial to Federer. Since their thrilling Wimbledon showdown in 2007, I have been convinced that I will forever be a Fed fangirl. To Nadal's credit, he has matured a lot in the past 2 years, and truly deserves his current spot at number 1
in the world rankings, previously occupied by Federer for a record 237 consecutive weeks. Even when Rafa dethroned my beloved Roge, I came to develop a respect and a liking for the Spaniard (it helps that I saw him in person and realized just how hot he is, haha). Today, as he accepted his trophy, he turned to the distraught Federer and sincerely said, "Roge, sorry for today," knowing full well how badly Roge had wanted to get Grand Slam #14. I never thought I'd ever use the word "sweet" to describe Nadal, but the gracious way he comported himself won me over.

When you have come to expect nothing short of greatness from someone you idolize, and they fail to deliver, there's disappointment, and there's also the compulsion to create excuses on their behalf. But even to my untrained eye, Rafa was the more consistent, confident and focused player throughout the entire match. His speed and stamina were amazing, especially considering he only got a day of rest after a doozy of a semifinal in which he prevailed over compatriot Fernando Verdasco in a gritty 5-hour long slugfest. On the other hand, Roge seemed but a shadow of his self, playing tentatively, committing unforced errors, and eventually collapsing in the final set, 2 games to 6. It appeared the pressure had gotten to him, and it almost never does. Sure, he still played some excellent tennis, but despite being trimmer and more well-rested, it was obvious his best efforts weren't enough to defeat Nadal.

My dad pointed out that age is a big factor. 27 is already considered ancient for an athlete, and I'm guessing that very thought hit Roger as well and must have helped trigger the waterworks. Perhaps he was thinking Grand Slam #14 may already be out of reach, the way Rafa is steadily improving, even as he himself is perilously teetering on the edge of decline. Perhaps he was already seeing a future where other younger players would be besting him and making him look pathetic. Perhaps the phrase "washed up" was echoing hauntingly, mockingly in his head. Perhaps he was sensing this was the beginning of the end for him. "God, it's killing me," he managed to choke out, before his face crumpled in anguish. It killed me as well.

As I was watching the match, it occured to me that while Roger is my age (28 this year), Rafa is the same age (22 going on 23) as my first batch of students. The age difference may not seem much, but it was a big enough difference for Nadal to outlast and overcome Federer, and big enough for me to feel outdated and plain OLD relative to my students. That realization heightened my empathy toward Federer, and made it all the more agonizing when I saw how hard he took today's loss. The dread of being put out to pasture, of being dismissed as past one's prime, of being forgotten together with yesterday's news-- it gets worse with each passing year. It would be nice to believe one's heroes are immune from such a cruel thing as age, but teachers and tennis players and screen actors and favorite authors (rest in peace, John Updike) are not superhuman nor immortal.

However, what is also nice about heroes is their ability to acknowledge when they have come up short, and when their time has passed. After taking a few minutes to collect himself, Federer made it a point to go back to center stage before Nadal was awarded, and like the gentleman and class act he is, told the crowd he didn't want to have the last word when it belonged to Ra
fa. He then congratulated Nadal and wished him luck for the rest of the year, and thanked the audience for their support. For all his emotion, he was not asking for pity. For all his pain, he was not taking anything away from his rival's glory.

And though Rafa had been the better man on court today, Roge showed that he could still be as good a man off-court. He may never reach Grand Slam #14, he may never beat Nadal again, or he could retire from tennis tomorrow, but I'd still be a Federer fangirl for life.


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