A little necessary background, first of all: I am such a big Federer fan that when he loses, I generally feel gutted. I just want him to win so fucking badly. I was watching the Federer-Tiafoe match Tuesday night with a friend who perennially roots for underdogs, and I told him that while I sometimes do the same, I will never root against Federer. I said, "That's like rooting against beauty itself."
At the heart of it, beauty is why I watch sports. I invest a lot of energy and emotion into watching because, agony or ecstasy in the result, there is that frisson in getting to the see physicality and physical expression elevated to the level of art. Even in the realm of professional sports, the grind of "this is a job" can never fully suppress the joy inherent in the sports themselves. These are games after all. You know, like children play.
With all that in mind, it pleases me to see that my viewing of tennis has gotten a little more astute, that I see the game a little more clearly, and that therefore I bring a bit more energetic balance to my watching. Sometimes it's clear that there's no real point in investing any energy into a given match. Sometimes you can just see it: today there will be no magic. That was the case in Federer's match yesterday against Mikhail Youzhny. Right from Federer's first service game, it was clear that his play was off. I first noticed it in his serve. His follow-through looked muted, like he was holding back from putting the full weight of his body into the serve. I started paying close attention. By the middle of the set, he was hitting some serves at less than 110 miles per hour, a good ten-to-fifteen miles per hour. slower than he usually does. And some of his first serves were going wildly astray. Still, somehow he won the first set, 6-1. But in his first service game of the second set, he got broken. He broke back, held, then broke again and was serving up 3-2 when I decided to stop watching. Federer clearly wasn't right. I said to myself, "Either he will win because he's Roger Federer, or he will lose because he's injured. Either way, nothing particularly worth watching is going happen here." I had work to do, so I went to do my work.
So as the match went from Federer serving for the set in the second, to getting broken to even things up, to losing in the tiebreaker (without even being especially competitive), then getting broken early and losing the third set, I didn't feel my usual anguish at an impending Federer loss. I was sad because it was disappointing, but sometimes players get injured. Whaddayagonnado?
Except that he didn't lose. I was working at the computer, and I had the muted TV on behind me, and I checked on the match from time to time, and in the fourth set I turned around to see Youzhny receiving treatment. I checked the score: Federer was up a break. "Wow," I said. "Is Federer going to win because the other guy got hurt?" And that's what happened. Federer pulled it out in five sets.
But Federer is clearly well below 100 percent. There's just no question. He won yesterday because Youzhny got hurt. He plays Feliciano Lopez in the next round, and, barring some miracle of healing, Federer is going to lose.