Keen followers of the professional tennis tour and Roger Federer fans have been anxious for some time. The two questions on their minds are - when will Federer retire, and what will the tail-end of his career look like? Back in 2013 Ed Smith wrote a piece in The New Statesman called, ‘The last days of Roger Federer’. In it he asked if Federer should continue, given that a dip in form had forced him out of the US Open in the fourth-round against Tommy Robredo. There is a ‘sense’, Smith argued, ‘that there won’t be much more to come from Federer, that the last warmth of autumn is fading.’ This questioning of Federer’s abilities is evidently premature, though it has never really gone away.
Initially, this kind of thinking makes sense. A constant eye on Federer’s abilities and in turn his appetite to continue and not retire comes from a fear that inevitably, one day there can be no delight from watching him play because he will no longer be on-court. Followers of the tour and Federer fans value him continuing to play at a high level because it produces markedly enjoyable matches to watch. It also gives them the opportunity to relish Federer achieving yet another milestone – perhaps a grand slam or a return to the number-one ranking. Recurrent monitoring to make sure Federer’s okay gives temporary emotional relief. However, the worry among fans at how long their enjoyment of Federer can last is actually a mindset that detracts from the viewing experience. Ironically, what followers of the tour and Federer fans value – the enjoyment of watching him play – diminishes as their anxiety increases.
The journalist William Skidelsky in his now famous homage, Federer and Me, details how the outcome of Federer’s match-play impacted the crowd’s feelings in the ATP 250 grass-court tournament of Halle. There’s ‘tension’ in the crowd because ‘there’s a hope – even an expectation – that he’ll do something magical. Accordingly, the sighs that greet his misses don’t necessarily express disappointment at the point he’s lost; more a sense of a vision of not being fulfilled.’ While the crowd is not annoyed directly at Federer for losing a point, they are deflated at not being able to have enjoyed something they greatly desired. On a tournament-by-tournament basis, frustration at not seeing Federer progress is human for an enthusiastic admirer. But to hope on a point-by-point basis for a constant feed of Federer magic is setting oneself up to fail, because to win every point in a tennis match is a near impossibility. Unfulfilled expectations inevitably lead to a sense of disappointment. Enjoyment therefore, while still present at seeing the great man in action, has declined if we necessitate that visual stimulation from tennis – from Federer in particular – should be endless.
A better mindset for the viewer would be a shift from expectation to appreciation. In an appreciation mindset, the continual desire for Federer to perform at every moment is dropped. This reduces the chance for disappointment because we are not depending upon Federer winning every point. Without a clasping for stimulation we are left in a state of pure observation. Instead looking for excitement in the future, we simply take in whatever the present moment has to offer. Federer is watched but without judgment from the mind on what happens. The result is an experience of complete enjoyment without dissatisfaction - something that a follower of the tour and a Federer fan would value given that an expectation mindset does not afford this opportunity.
Pure observation is the state in which commentators and tennis spectators first saw Federer in his early years and were unabashedly delighted with what they were seeing. In the first round of the French Open in 1999 Federer was playing against Pat Rafter. No one expected anything from Federer as much as is done today because at the time no one had really heard of him. After being lobbed, Federer ran to the baseline and swatted an overhead with his back turned halfway against the court to make a successful passing shot. ‘Oh yes! He’s smiling about that one. This is why this guy’s going to be good for the game,’ excitedly stated one commentator. ‘He has this sort of arrogance, he’s got a bit of a smile about him. He’s going to relate to crowds as his personality develops.’
Later in the 2004 US Open final against Lleyton Hewitt, Federer had won the first set 6-0 and was serving in the second set after breaking Hewitt in the opening game. At 30-all Federer served out wide, hit an approach shot down the line, came in and on his backhand, drop-volleyed Hewitt’s passing shot into the ad-court. It was a sudden injection of power followed by the lightest of touches. Federer was 22. John McEnroe commented on the point, proclaiming – ‘How’s that for feel? Yeah, you’re witnessing someone who may go down in history, he’s getting there, as the greatest player that ever played.’ There was an atmosphere of relaxed appreciation at seeing Federer on the edge of winning his third grand slam, blossom into the most dominant figure in men’s tennis of the decade and play with such skill. McEnroe was enjoying charting the rise of Federer - but simply by observing rather than expecting it to happen. The pleasure for the viewer in both cases seeing Federer play arose spontaneously from the match. No seeking was necessary. An appreciation mindset helps us to keep everything that’s good about watching Federer while jettisoning any pitfalls for negative emotions.
The question is how do we go from an expectation to an appreciation mindset? The answer is time. We may not have much of it left. Federer turns 40 this year and has not yet returned to the tour, opting out of the Australian Open after recovering from surgeries left him with an insufficient training period. He may still surprise us for a while to come, as his career continues to defy the projected lifespan that most attribute to professional tennis. We are however, not in the last days of Roger Federer, but perhaps the last few years. Federer is still performing at a level that most players just starting out on tour will never achieve and that in itself is something to appreciate the next time we watch him play. But if we accept rather than resist that there’s not much time, we need to make the most of it and for that, the idea of constant expectation seems pointless. Nobody wants Federer’s career to end. The best thing is to cherish it while we still can.