It is nearly two weeks since Wimbledon ended, and I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms. You too? I think I know what our problem is: we’re coming off Federer Highs. Federer, I’ve come to realize, has a narcotic effect on many of us—he induces feelings of euphoria, and probably never more so than this year, with his improbable victory at the Australian and his romp at Wimbledon (oh, plus his wins in Indian Wells, Miami, and Halle). The elegance of his game produces exhilaration, but it goes beyond that: it’s also the way he conducts himself and the aura that he projects. He makes you feel unabashedly happy to be a fan, and there is a kind of ecstasy in that.
As I watched Federer at Wimbledon and listened to and read the commentary about him, two somewhat contradictory thoughts occurred to me: we have exhausted the English language’s supply of superlatives to describe Federer’s game—honestly, what more is there to say about his serve, his groundstrokes, his footwork?—and the conversation about Federer has not kept pace with the evolution of his public image. That conversation remains focused on the quality of his play. Yes, there are nods to his graciousness off the court, yet so much of the discussion is still of the David Foster Wallace variety—swooning about his great liquid whip of a forehand and all that. But I’m not sure that Federer’s artistry is still the main source of his appeal for fans; I think there’s something deeper at work now.
This may be stating the obvious, but it is tough to be an unabashed sports enthusiast these days. So many sports are riddled with scandal and corruption. Just think about the moral compromises necessary, say, to watch an NFL game. You need to be willing to overlook the fact that the NFL is plagued by domestic violence, and you also need to be willing to look past the fact that dozens of former players are suffering from brain damage and that the NFL for years buried the evidence indicating that football was the cause of their injuries. If you can still stomach watching the NFL, more power to you, but I haven’t put on a game in more than two years now.
Sure, the NFL is an extreme case, but it is hardly the only example. Baseball shed whatever was left of its wholesome image with its long-running steroid debacle. It’s impossible to watch the Olympics and not think about doping and also about the hideous corruption of the poohbahs who serve on the International Olympic Committee. Are you a soccer fan? Graft has been the mother’s milk of international soccer for decades now. Next year, the World Cup is being held in Putin’s Russia, and four years later it will be held in Qatar. What does this say about the values and ethics that prevail in soccer? Nothing good, I’m afraid.
Think about all the superstars who have let us down in one way or another. On July 6 2003, Federer won his first Wimbledon and his first major. Two weeks later, Tiger Woods tied for fourth place at the British Open, falling just short of capturing his ninth major. One week after that, Lance Armstrong peddled down the Champs-Elysees to claim his fifth straight Tour de France. By that point, both Woods and Armstrong had become transcendent figures a la Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, sports heroes whose exploits were celebrated even by millions of people who otherwise had no interest in golf or cycling. Federer would soon attain similar stature. And, of course, you know what happened next: Woods and Armstrong had their careers and reputations destroyed by scandal. And while both guys have become punchlines, we shouldn’t underestimate the toll their misdeeds took on fans. Armstrong’s comeback from cancer was arguably the most inspiring sports story ever; with the revelation that he was a prolific cheater and a manipulative thug, all that adulation gave way to disappointment, bitterness, and cynicism.
In an era in which so many athletes have given us reason to regret cheering for them, Federer has been a shining exception. He is the sports god who didn’t fail, and I think this, perhaps even more than the hypnotic beauty of his tennis, explains why he commands so much affection, why there is such deep emotional investment in him. His character is as unimpeachable as his game; he has never given us reason to feel conflicted about him or tennis. Quite the opposite: there is innocent pleasure in watching Federer play. Every so often, for a few hours, he makes you feel a little bit better about the world, and of all the things he has given us, that may be his greatest gift.
But, man, coming down from a Federer High ain’t easy.