By Zaheer E. Clarke
(Published Monday, July 6, 2015)
A fortnight ago, US President, Barack Obama delivered an enthralling eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina, for Pastor Clementa Pinckney of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In closing, he bellowed an old, yet popular folk song, “Amazing Grace.” This famous ‘African-American’ spiritual was ironically written by a white man, John Newton, who was once a vile slave trader but later reformed to be a man of God.
A few days after the President’s rapturous rendition, which had over 5000 standing and singing in chorus, I sat in the depths of depression over West Indies cricket. Miraculously, my haemorrhaging heart perked a beat when I surveyed the still unfolding career of tennis legend, Roger Federer. Maybe due to years of West Indian asphyxiation, my tiny vocabulary gasped to find the right descriptive words to fully encapsulate Roger’s career. Just then, as hope vanished, the title of the old Negro spiritual, sang often in that old Methodist church, came to me forcefully, “Amazing Grace.” Without a doubt, those simple words are the fitting description for Roger Federer.
Whenever Roger hits the court, his every movement exudes “Amazing Grace.” It can be seen in the way he smoothly tucks his hair behind his ears before each point, the gracious manner in which he gently blows warm air onto his right palm, as well as how he effortlessly unleashes his long-looming forehand shot – which the experts consider an art form, with its own cult following.
His grace is perpetually on display when he casually skips across the court, then flicks the ball from his ankles, leaving you to watch the ball acutely, yet knowing it will caress the lines according to his courteous orders. His opponents are often heard groaning in agony to the nonreturnable finality of his shots. After which, you’ll see him raise his left hand, with head bowed as he walks back to the baseline, embarrassingly and sincerely apologizing for his dumbstruck execution. His opponents are usually left to smile, or curse, in resignation while the fans, with mouths opened and jaws dropped, erupt in ecstatic applause.
Many surmised that Roger’s career would have been over a few years ago. Frankly, at one point his seemingly meteoritic descent from tennis’ outer space was supposedly indicative of the impending end. How so wrong they were! While Rafael Nadal storms up and then plummets down the rankings due to injury; and Andy Murray flutters on the waterfall edge of greatness, often eloping with being just good; Federer, on the other hand, embraces his age-associated blunders, and with each cultist-like shot, he keeps oozing “Amazing Grace.”
Not surprisingly, we have seen top athletes from various sports hit the wall as the grandfather years stealthily approach. Fortunately, a few of them exit before falling apart in the public’s eye like Humpty Dumpty. Yet Federer’s current play, a mere mountain pass below his indomitable best, remains world-class and keeps climbing tennis’ Everest.
At almost 34 years old – literally grandpa years in men’s tennis – and despite the emerging young guns, Federer finds himself ranked number two in the world. This week, he also finds himself at his favourite battleground: Wimbledon. A place he has conquered seven times with unadulterated eloquence. Federer’s records are innumerable; however, they will show that he is the greatest male tennis player of all-time. It’s hard to argue with 17 Grand Slam titles, 25 Grand Slam finals, umpteen Grand Slam semifinals and quarterfinals, 6-time World Tour Final Champion, Olympic Champion, Davis Cup Champion, and much more. The list of achievements keeps expanding. Hopefully this week, it swells to his eighth Wimbledon title.
For years, his rivals, Novak Djokovic, Nadal, and others, had the edge in larger and more powerful racquets. Yet, Federer trumped their technological power with infallible human elegance, beautiful execution, and poetic movement.
Retired tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri, who has worked with Boris Becker, the Williams sisters, Andre Agassi, and others, once noted of Federer, “He moves like a whisper and executes like a wrecking ball. It is simply impossible to explain how he does what he does.”
Several tennis careers are less lustrous and sublime because of Federer’s razing array of shots, including the forehand, which John McEnroe describes as “the greatest shot in our sport.”
Another former player, Mats Wilander, a winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, enviably remarked once, ”I’d like to be in his (Federer) shoes for one day to know what it feels like to play that way.”
Murray, a rival, who has had some torrid battles against Federer, muttered after losing to him in a Grand Slam final, “I can cry like Roger; it’s just a shame I can’t play like him.”
Coaches, past players, current players, the fans, and commentators all have an appreciation for the graceful greatness of Roger Federer on the court. Even with marriage, travelling around with four kids (two sets of twins), moving from hotel to hotel with an entourage including nutritionists and coaches, Roger still exudes grace, both on and off the court. This, at an age well past the twilight of many tennis careers.
Andy Roddick, one of several players who suffered at the grace of Federer on the court, off it, noticed this of the humble man, “He’s a real person. He’s not an enigma. Off the court, he’s not trying to be somebody. If you met him at McDonald’s and you didn’t know who he was, you would have no idea that he’s one of the best athletes in the world.”
During this ‘Championship Week’ at Wimbledon, we might see another all-time athlete and soon-to-be 34-year-old, Serena Williams press to capture her fourth consecutive, and 21st overall, Grand Slam singles title. Nevertheless, even she has resignedly said, “I wish I could play like Roger Federer.” As such, after 63 consecutive Grand Slam appearances, we might well see Federer make one more graceful push to recapture his most beloved title.
With that, I’m off to London in hopes of singing, and seeing “Amazing Grace” at Wimbledon’s Centre Court this Sunday. Hopefully, I’ll see Serena too. Don’t worry, I’ll be back my friends.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” column in the Western Mirror (Published July 6, 2015)