In this long and painful period, the ATP is coming up with more new rules relating to the rankings, which, needless to say, have produced controversies and confusion among players who feel penalized by these changes.
MUSETTI AND ALCARAZ: THE FUTURE CAN WAIT
Before going into the details of whether this reform is fair or not, we could honestly say the Next Gen will have to wait even longer to take over. Even promising guys, like the Italian Musetti (N.116) and the Spaniard Alcaraz (N.131), seem destined to toil more than expected to join to the tennis élite. Until a week ago, the outlook was more positive. The world of tennis is divided in two groups: who think that this is a just and equitable reform and who find it completely unfair. It is likely that among those who support these modifications are to be found players such as Lopez, Kyrgios, Fognini and also His Majesty Roger Federer as well as Rafa Nadal – the Spaniard has always been a proponent of a bi-annual ranking.
VICIOUS RUMOURS SPREADING (ABOUT FEDERER AND NADAL)
Some people suggest that “it isn’t by accident that Roger Federer’s ranking will be safe until he’ll turn 41! The same goes for Nadal.” I am not one of them, but the rumours were so prevalent that I felt compelled to report them. Roger, who will make his comeback in Doha this afternoon, could eschew playing or even lose all the matches until August 2022 and still remain in the Top 100. In short, many people thought that the latest “idea” of the ATP is bespoke for Federer. Furthermore, the ATP is not the only association wishing to have Federer around for as long as possible.
As everybody knows, the ATP is made of professional tennis players and tournament directors. Each group represents 50% of the association. Guess which side the directors are on. All of them, the tournament directors, dream about having Roger Federer in their line-ups, even when Roger will be 45 years old. I think some of them would be ready to sell their 250 ATP licenses and host an event of the Senior ATP Tour just to have him!
A SUMMARY OF THE MOST RECENT ATP CHANGE
The ATP ranking system had been modified for the first time a few months ago. The ATP chose a “best of” approach to how a player’s ranking is calculated. In relation to a tournament played twice between March 2019 (from Indian Wells onwards) and March 2021, only a player’s best result is taken into account. Points obtained in tournaments that didn’t take place in 2020 (such as Wimbledon), or in those that could be cancelled in 2021, were retained. With the recent change made by the ATP, on the other hand, the players will now be able to keep 50% of the points they obtained in tournaments that didn’t take place in 2020, and also in those that did take place but in different timeslots than usual, such as the French Open or Rome.
THE 12 PLAYERS FAVOURED BY THE RANKING UPDATE (AND MAYBE OTHERS, SUCH AS NADAL)
Feliciano Lopez, Kyrgios, Fognini, Lajovic, Isner, Querrey, and Simon are those who more than others will benefit the most from this update of ATP Ranking System, and the same goes, to a lesser extent, for Federer, Paire, Monfils, Goffin, and Nishikori. Rafa Nadal could also benefit from these changes in the unlikely event that he loses in the first round (or did not play) at Roland Garros in 2021 – he would still retain 1,000 of the 2,000 points he won in 2020. Many of the other players found this update a little suspicious. Both Federer and Nadal are among the strongest PTPA opponents, and their support for the ATP policies is important, not just in the public eye. By the way, the Spaniard will also take a minor hit due to the new rules, since on March 15 he will be overtaken by Medvedev as the world N.2 due to the expiration of half of the 360 points he notched in Indian Wells in 2019.
TSITSIPAS OVERTAKES FEDERER IN THE RANKING
Thanks to a semi-final run in Rotterdam, and despite his defeat against Rublev in the semifinals, Tsitsipas has overtaken Federer, but the Swiss is still ranked 6th in the world. In the last year he played, the Swiss reached a final and two Grand Slam semi-finals (2,640 points); in addition, he won a Masters 1000 in Miami (he also reached the Indian Wells final, for which he will lose only 300 points) and three ATP 500 events (2,800 points).
FEDERER GOT QUITE THE GIFT! WAS IT PURELY COINCIDENTAL?
We will see how Federer is doing in Doha and (perhaps) in Dubai, but one thing is certain: the latest changes do him a great favour. I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve it, but let’s be honest, he couldn’t have picked a better time to stop and have surgery twice. While unfortunately reeling from nagging knee issues, he can still profit from the extraordinary results he achieved in 2019.
Considering Miami (where he will not play this year), Madrid, Halle and Wimbledon, Roger can retain 1,440 points without playing. Furthermore, the 1,020 of the Australian Open and Indian Wells (720 effective plus 300 frozen) are in the bank, and they will stay with him well into 2022. This means that, even without playing any match, he would have 2,460 points, a Top 20 score. A small caveat to be kept in mind: the Race to Turin will only consider the points earned in 2021.
Now, it should be recalled that the changes made during this exceptional period were introduced because the ATP decided to support players that didn’t feel comfortable to travel during the pandemic. But how justifiable is this attitude?
AN EQUILIBRIUM THAT DOESN’T EXIST
Finding the right balance is not always easy, but even the regularity of a competition should be safeguarded, particularly in relation to its ranking systems and for players, especially young people, who make sacrifices for years to achieve their goals and are not helped by the tennis establishment. I am referring to the few points awarded in the ATP Challenger Tour compared to the points that top players easily get even if they obtain results only in a few tournaments per year.
I confess that, despite the wrong manner (and timing) chosen by Novak Djokovic to support them, I generally understand the grievances that players ranked outside of the Top 20 have! We are referring to the majority of tennis players, constantly relegated to a backdrop role and suffering discrimination from tournament directors, who, compared to these players, enjoy a much bigger role within the ATP.
VASEK POSPISIL: “THE ATP IS A COMPLETE DISASTER!”
Former board member of the ATP Players Council Vasek Pospisil was asked by his colleague to comment on the men’s association’s latest decision: “The ATP is a complete disaster! The only way to deal with these problems is to have a players-only association. We are trying to create it. The ATP Tour will never work in the best interests of the players. The role of tournaments promoters is relevant. Our executives are influenced by powers-that-be such as IMG (owner of the Miami tournament and of the TV rights of several tournaments) and the other Masters 1000 events. The Tour is in the hands of those who control and manipulate it. We must look after each other, and the PTPA will be the beginning of a new story. It is difficult to imagine the path towards a positive solution without the PTPA.”
THE ATP IS TRYING TO STIFLE DISCONTENT BY OFFERING MONEY TO THE PLAYERS
The ATP board fully realized that the association has received a lot of criticism. Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi and CEO Massimo Calvelli, with the help of President of ATP Player Council Kevin Anderson (who replaced his predecessor Djokovic) are trying to earn the players’ trust by offering additional financial contributions to assist them in covering for the losses they have suffered in the past year. The players will receive a payment of $5,040 in order to cover travel costs and other expenses. The criteria are the following: eligible players will be those ranked 31-500 in the year-end Singles ATP Rankings or 1-200 in the year-end Doubles Rankings who earned less than 150,000 in prize money throughout 2020. Tennis players with a protected ranking who meet the abovementioned criteria and have competed since March 2019 will also be eligible to receive the financial contributions. This is the message sent to the players: “We are pleased to inform you that as part of efforts to support players affected by COVID-19, the ATP has made additional contributions to further assist players with the expenses and travel cost in 2021through the ATP Year-End Player Relief “
More good news came for players who were ready to play the Indian Wells tournament a year ago. The tournament was canceled at the last minute when players had already faced travel and accommodation expenses. Now all of them will receive $10,985: “We would like to inform you that a compensation of $ 10,985 for the 2020 edition of Indian Wells will soon be paid to eligible players, once the ATP has received the funds.”
Previously, a $6 million relief funds had been created by the ITF and the four Grand Slam. The ATP and the WTA split the amount equally to distribute it to the players depending on their ranking and on whether they had featured in the four Grand Slams. Initially, it was set up only for Top 10 players, whereas now the hope is that the funds will be distributed to those who are struggling. At this time, however, no official statement regarding the distribution system has been disclosed.
TOP AMERICAN PLAYERS ARE READY TO PROTEST AND BOYCOTT THE CIRCUIT
Wealthier American players are some of the most bitter detractors of the current ATP establishment. Isner and Querrey, in solidarity with Pospisil and Djokovic, stated that the ATP’s “financial aid” is more akin to a small handout when compared to the thriving budget of the association, which hasn’t been heavily affected by COVID. What incenses them the most is that some tournaments, like Miami, have reduced the prize money by 60%. In fact, a good number of tennis players would even be in favour of a boycott to fight for a higher prize money. The argument is that “If we never stand up to this situation, we will always be subjected to the will of the tournament promoters” – however, several others are already claiming that they cannot afford to stop playing (particularly those from South America).
CAN THE TENNIS ESTABLISHMENT AFFORD TO BE THIS SHORT-SIGHTED?
In short, it is a period of turmoil. Players argue and criticise the association. The tennis establishment has always safeguarded the top players because, as always, it is money that makes everything go round. However, even taking into account the completely unpredictable circumstances caused by the pandemic, it is also necessary to have a plan to support second- and third-tier tournaments (Challengers and Futures) as well as lower-ranked players. Players who are over 30 are still fighting for their positions in the ATP ranking and have no intention of giving them up to younger guns, but the tennis establishment must not discourage those young people from striving for their goals.
We know well that in European football tens of thousands of players earn more than €100,000 per year, while tennis players ranked outside the Top 120 struggle to make ends meet. Someone with a forward-thinking vision should find a solution that ensures economic sustainability to at least 200-250 players. In particular, we should bear in mind that, nowadays, with the exception of top Next Gen prodigies, players face a decade of financial losses until they turn 22 or 23. Does anyone who oversees the promotion of tennis find this situation convenient or fair?
Translated by Giuseppe Di Paola
Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open
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.
A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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