COMMENT: Rafa At His Best Was Way Too Much For Novak To Handle - UBITENNIS
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COMMENT: Rafa At His Best Was Way Too Much For Novak To Handle

The long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper, James Beck, gives his take on the French Open men’s final.

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Rafael Nadal (image via https://twitter.com/rolandgarros)

This French Open was all about Rafa Nadal.

 

Even the new women’s French Open champion, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, is one of his fans.

Matching Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles was pretty special in a year filled with the deadly coronavirus. The fact that possibly the sweetest victory of his long career came against longtime rival Novak Djokovic made it even more special.

Djokovic still stands three Grand Slam singles titles shy of the record number of 20. Only now, Novak  has to chase both Nadal and Federer for the all-time record.

NOVAK DIDN’T LOOK HIMSELF

Of course, Djokovic didn’t look himself in his 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 loss to Nadal on Sunday on the red clay of  Roland Garros, especially in the first set and maybe the second one, too.

Nadal obviously had something to do with that. Rafa played one of his best Grand Slam matches ever. He humbled Djokovic in much the same way he has totally dominated Federer in a couple of Grand Slam finals.

Nadal would not surrender even a point without a fight as he wore down the Serbian Wonder. Nadal actually out-moved and out-hit Djokovic. Nadal always seemed to be one move ahead of Djokovic, even during Novak’s usually dominant drop-shot attack.

DJOKOVIC’S DROP-SHOT ATTACK APPEARED TO SET RAFA ON FIRE

Djokovic came out drop-shotting as he attempted to frustrate the Spanish left-hander one more time with his deft drop shots. But Djokovic’s early strategy backfired as the strategy appeared to put even more fire into Nadal’s veins.

Nadal was ready for the drop shots this time, moving in quickly to repeatedly pass Djokovic down the backhand line or executing perfect slice backhands almost directly cross-court that Djokovic had no chance to return.

Obviously Nadal has been seriously practicing on his drop-shot returns. He also seemed to concentrate on hitting baseline shots with more air than usual, making them drop down closer to the baseline. He also used a heavily sliced backhand on balls near the surface line that hugged the net and stayed low, causing Djokovic to get low and  to hit up on balls just off the clay surface.

But at any time, at the slightest opening, Nadal turned his forehands and backhands into weapons of power.

NADAL’S TOUGHEST FINAL BECAME ONE OF HIS EASIEST

Yes, this was supposed to be Nadal’s toughest French Open to win, due to the cooler weather this time of the year in Paris and slower court conditions. And there also was the added pressure of going for Grand Slam title No. 20.

But the heavy court conditions seemed to be in Rafa’s favor, not Novak’s. And Nadal handled the pressure situation as if it was a walk in the park..

Nadal repeatedly pounded outright winners off both wings as Djokovic could only watch.

THE CLOSED ROOF MIGHT HAVE EVEN HELPED RAFA

Rain was in the forecast, so the new Philippe Chatrier Stadium roof was closed this time for its first men’s final. That solved the problem of heavy shadows that seemed to frustrate Sofia Kenin a day earlier in her one-sided women’s final loss to Swiatek.

Everything was perfectly aligned for Rafa on this day.

Even usual Djokovic fan John McEnroe was chatting from Los Angeles on the TV telecast that “Rafa is in the zone.” In the second set, McEnroe referred to the match as not even being competitive at the time.

Johnny Mac was simply telling it like it was. Nadal simply was the far superior player on this day.

James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.

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Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open

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Novak Djokovic - 2022 Nitto ATP Finals Turin (photo Twitter @atptour)

It’s a good thing the Aussies allowed Novak Djokovic to stay in Melbourne this year.

 

Otherwise, the young crowd of players might have taken over completely in this Australian Open. After all, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek among others didn’t stick around very long.

Novak is saving the day Down Under for the great ones.

This is an Australian Open unlike any in recent years. It’s almost like the Australian Open, with its usual midnight to early-morning Eastern Time matches has taken a step backward in world tennis. 

American fans apparently no longer can watch those great matches that start at 3 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. ET, except on ESPN+.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

This Australian Open appears to be kind of lost in the shuffle this January, virtually taking away its major status.

In the absence of those early-morning battles, I guess it’s okay that most of the top men and women other than Novak, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Tommy Paul, Elena Rybakina and Jessie Pegula have sang their Aussie songs and headed elsewhere, except maybe for doubles.

Don’t overlook the tall Russian Rybakina on the women’s side. She’s two wins away from her second Grand Slam title, having upended the top-ranked Swiatek in the round of 16 and then taking care of former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals.

ALMOST LIKE A COLLEGE EVENT

Ben Shelton and J.J. Wolf are certainly outstanding American college level talents that came racing out of the winter red-hot.

But like MacKenzie McDonald, who thrashed an unprepared Nadal with a college-like all-power game only to falter the next round against a journeyman player like Yoshihito Nishioka, it’s doubtful that either Shelton or Wolf can stand the test of the only great one left — Djokovic.

In the long run, Shelton especially and Wolf likely will be stars. But these newcomers aren’t likely to hit the tour with the greatness that Carlos Alcaraz displayed when he was healthy during the last half of 2022.

WATCH FOR THE OTHER STARS AFTER AUSTRALIA

Other stars from last year such as Jannik Sinner, Cameron Norrie, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime will make their own noise once the tour hits Europe and America.

As far as Americans other than Paul, I like the looks of young Jenson Brooksby, who upended the second-ranked Ruud in the second round. The 22-year-old Brooksby looks like a future star, that is if he gets in better physical condition.

Thus, Novak appears to be an almost certainty to sweep to his 22nd major title in an event that has been his own private playground for much of his career. That shouldn’t change on Sunday in the Australian Open final. 

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris

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image via https://twitter.com/RolexPMasters

Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.

 

Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.

To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.

Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.

It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.

He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.

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Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.

Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.

There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.

And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.

Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.

Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUTX37tFaos

Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.

Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.

An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.

In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.

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Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.

Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.

No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.

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What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.

In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.

Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.

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Roger Federer Through The Mirror

In the week of Roger Federer’s home tournament, Basel, a Ubitennis writer pays a heartfelt tribute to the Swiss legend that spans beyond tennis

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Roger Federer - Roland Garros 2021 (Twitter, @rolandgarros)

by Agostino Nigro

The last image of Pete Sampras was a triumph. Roger’s was a public statement. The mirror of a fragile champion, not a robot as Borg and Lendl were. Federer may have stammered after victories, but he did not change tennis: that’s just fake news! And there is also a time when he told a lie… 

 

They say that Mithridates, king of Pontus, was so daunted by the idea of being murdered by someone of his court, that he ingested small doses of poison daily.

As a result, when Mithridates tried to kill himself, swallowing a whole phial, he failed, since by then he had become immune. The term mithridatism is named after him. It means getting used to a huge pain in advance through little and constant sorrows. A homeopathy of feelings, spreading all over, often involuntary.

It will be said that 2000 years after Mithridates millions of people worldwide went on ingesting, day after day, tweet after tweet, news after interviews, through many little doses of harsh reality, the same poison. Through small doses, in these three years, everybody has been ingesting the poison that was announcing the end of Roger Federer’s tennis career, meaning that the Swiss tennis player would abandon his athlete’s body, tormented by all the surgeries, by 1500 matches, by 41 years of worldly life and by four children, who for sure had insisted on piggyback rides with their dad.

Today, looking around in this valley of tears, we can say that Mithridates was only a mythological bragger.

Nobody expected Federer to be Federer again. Many had understood that the Swiss was no more the player he once was. Those who still believed in him, had looked at his last match, at the 6-0 inflicted on him by Hurkacz on the Centre Court of Wimbledon, as a bad dream one can easily escape from. Those who still believed had wanted him to go on playing, with a little insolence and a courteous indifference towards his persona. Those who still believed had maybe wanted a last win against Nadal or against Djokovic, a last match in which he would be shedding pieces after pieces on court, losing a knee in a lightening run, an elbow during a volley, his back while serving, till nothing would be left but remains, cannibalized by limitless love.

Those who indeed do know what years mean, had already figured out that Roger Federer would not leave tennis holding a trophy, as it happened to Sampras who quit tennis throwing up his arms. Those who were there still remember. Sampras lifted the trophy, bid farewell, and forever everybody would remember him as the best, as the invictus.  Pete Sampras’ last image was a triumph. Roger’s was a public statement. Maybe an echography.

Three years ago it was revealed that the great ending was not meant to be, when in the Wimbledon 2019 final, he got to the most famous 40-15 in history. That match is going to be talked about forever, by everybody, so I’d rather not. Actually Roger suffered many other defeats throughout his career, but it’s very complicated to explain why. The poison we’re not yet immune to is still producing its effects: it would have been better to expel it before writing, because my thoughts about what is happening in the sport I love still seem to be confounding me.

Certainly some still remember the Australian Open 2006 trophy presentation. Seventh Slam in his pocket, a worriless final against Baghdatis. Everyday routine. Nevertheless, during the ceremony, emotion played a monologue that no one was expecting. Federer just wasn’t able to talk. He started stammering, he blurted out confused words people even laughed at. Then he burst out crying, out of the blue. The Rod Laver Arena was shocked by the winner’s tears and began wondering if that Slam, by many considered the least important of the four, was concealing a secret. When Rod Laver gave him the trophy, he was hugged by our Roger the way someone hugs you when they feel lonely, but before 20,000 people. The scene was so emotional that the public ceremony was transfigured in a story of his persona, in an intimate manifestation of the self.

At that time, I just used to appreciate very much Roger the tennis player, who could elegantly perform any shot allowed by laws of physics, but in that precise moment I walked through the mirror that led toward the Roger Federer persona. And I never came back. 

Since then, every match I was so lucky to watch ceased to be just a sport affair and started to become an exploration of the inner self. “What is he feeling right now after winning? What was he thinking before missing that shot? What is he feeling, playing so damn well, and what is he feeling now that the other one is playing better than him?”.

While watching him playing I was jotting down mental notes. I had been enriching with posthumous details the champion I wanted to be when I was 10 years old, when another me, in his childhood bedroom, waving his racquet about, was winning against everything and everybody, bringing home a Slam, made up of dim hopes and May afternoons.

Once you’re through the mirror, many observations seem trivial and stereotypical.

Some wrote, years ago, that Federer was a cold tennis player, a tennis player who, since he had repressed his youthful outbursts, had been turned into a robot, or, even worse, into a frustrated person. There is no need to prove the contrary, which has been under everyone’s eyes ever since. It’s more helpful to explain that this idea started haunting those who could not accept that a person, who had been revealed as so fragile and emotional, could win so much, in a robot-like way as Lendl or Borg. This idea was born from the minds of those that could not accept the normality of a never-seen-before talent, from the minds of those who still today cannot accept that an individual blessed by the gods can be close to you.

There will be an eternal debate whether he is the best ever, as if, in tennis, time could be employed as an objective unit of measurement. As if numbers could tell the only true story in a sport made of countless variables, of changing surfaces, of expanding tennis balls, and which indeed are less objective than the eyes of who’s watching and expressing their opinion.

Still today do they write, yet another fake, that Roger Federer has changed tennis. Just look at our tennis, today. And tell me how Federer changed it or tell me what remains of this change and can be seen today. Federer has been the tip of a compass that stretched out till it collapsed. Federer’s claws have bonded one era with another. A 24-year long bridge has been the last noble ground we’ve been allowed to walk on before landing on an anonymous land, where everything is the same. It is impressive if we think that Roger bid farewell one minute after a 19-year-old who claims to be his fan, but is only the prince of clones, rose to the throne.

Forgive me, and please, may Carlos Alcaraz forgive me. It’s because of the poison, which can arouse anger even in the most innocent.

During a press conference in Paris I asked him if he was aware that after him nobody would ever be playing his shots. Shyness prevented me from asking him what I really meant, if he knew that he was simply the last. I hoped he would scream, in his native language, “Kameraden, ich bin der Letzte!” (Comrades! I am the last!), as the last rebel prisoner of Auschwitz did in front of a disenchanted Primo Levi. Instead, he just looked at me sternly, replying that it was not true, that there would be new tennis players worth following, that he would watch the new generations with interest. Then he turned away. The question bothered him, and maybe his answer bothered him as well. “Liar”, I thought. Liar even now that you’re leaving.

Cleansing every form of emotion, what’s the point of grieving over about a rich Swiss sportsman who will never again hit a felt and rubber ball with the goal of winning a tournament? Why suffer about it? Why transfigure these days in a laic 5th of May, in a secular grief, everyone reading out “He is no more” (TN: from the ode The 5th of May by Alessandro Manzoni), while our problems persist? How can a passion for sport, for what is nothing but a game, for a tennis player or for a football team, grow into something so akin to love?

Walking through the mirror that separates the public image of a sportsman from the private dimension of a man that you have never had the chance to know is a personal journey. As an embarrassing hug with Rod Laver could be as well.  Just like suddenly being halted at 40-15 of a London final, turning the engines off to fly like a glider, so as to better inhale the stress.

It’s a journey that no one can explain because no one is able to explain to us why we like a certain thing, why we are so different, why we love.

Perhaps it’s because we all need something, and I hope that some may see themselves in these words. We strive for something we understand is missing because we never had it, or because we lost it. Something belonging to the past, something which a bit of elementary psychoanalysis could exhume from our childhood, concealed amid those dreams of glory that never came true. It’s quite similar to Mithridates’ poison, but it works reversely.

A friend of mine wrote to me saying that once you have read some news you feel older. It’s the opposite. These episodes act differently. They pick out from the sand the silver threads which had been hidden for years, they stretch them out, they shake the dust off and they connect us back to when we were kids. They reactivate the umbilical cords with ages where the soul used to be pervaded by dreams, and if one of these dreams vanishes, a ripple crosses time and makes the children we were sad.

Sport means being a child, when everything is a challenge, when you’re convinced to eat a dish of vegetables only because another child has already done the same, when in the one hundred meters that you run with your father, you can imagine running at least six Olympic finals.

Roger Federer, for us who have loved him, has been the avatar of our sport dreams. The tangible representation that, even through an interposed person, our dreams were true. And now that we are compelled to put away that avatar away in the basement, now that a physical form dreaming for us no longer exists, we have discovered we are no longer able to dream. We feel lonely, on the other side of the mirror, and we cannot afford to remain trapped there.

Before breaking free, however, it would be beautiful if we could be lulled by the vanishing dreams. Before becoming adults with no way of escape, before the silver thread is buried once again, before Roger Federer disappears, I ask you, Roger, to throw that child up in the air, and then catch him. Throw him up again, higher and higher, so high that he can barely see your arms, so that he will slowly get used to the farewell. Throw me up again Roger, for my glider flight, and again, one last time, dad, and then let me go away.

Translated from Italian to English by Massimiliano Trenti

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