Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Federer as Irreligious Experience

Porochista Khakpour

In 2006 David Foster Wallace opened his much celebrated New York Times Magazine essay “Federer as Religious Experience” with “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” In 2015 we still have the Moments but there is now a different type of Moment to reflect on, one that Wallace never lived to see—namely Roger Federer in decline, a sort of half-decline, an uncommitted decline, the sort of decline that makes you question what a decline is really anyway, perhaps a decline that is inevitable for all greats, unless of course, like Wallace, they cut their own game short. Wallace lived only two years past that essay—just over a half year after the August 2006 piece came out, Wallace would get sick after a meal at local Claremont, California, Persian restaurant Darvish, and decide to discontinue the antidepressant Nardil that he’d been on for most his adult life, a decision that would spur his terminal battle with the depression—and so it is hard to imagine the same author of the canonical sports piece being just months away from his own downfall, at a time when Federer’s fall was also inconceivable. By the time Wallace actually hung himself on his patio, Federer was no longer at the top of his game, but as time has proven, not quite at the bottom either. I didn’t read the piece until a year after it was out—in the summer of 2006, I was in a terrible struggle with depression and was planning on killing myself by the autumn, while just months before, somehow spared from this very abrupt turn of mental health, I often schemed to stalk my favorite writer Wallace at Pomona College, where he taught and where my father also taught. I had eaten at that exact Persian restaurant months before, but by the end of the summer, I was far from thinking Wallace, Pomona, New York Times, Federer, tennis, Moments.

In 2006 Wallace wrote that Federer was “at 25, the best tennis player currently alive.” We could still say this: seventeen grand slam singles, 302 total weeks on top of world rankings (No. 1 in the world from 2004 into 2008, and again in parts of 2009, 2010, and 2012) are hard to be casual about. It’s been mostly uphill since Wimbledon in 1998 when he went pro at seventeen—he had already had his first sponsorship at sixteen—and then in 2001, a still-teenage Federer knocked out reigning singles champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round, prompting the Sport Illustrated headline coronation: “Changing of Guard.” And since then indeed he has been a giant to pretty much everyone; James Blake: “If you poll the top 500 tennis guys in the world, about 499 are going to say Roger. The only one who won’t is Roger himself because he’s too nice about it”; Tracy Austin: “Roger can produce tennis shots that should be declared illegal”; Andy Roddick: “Yeah basically nobody stands a chance against him”; Nick Boll: “He moves like a whisper and executes like a wrecking ball. It is simply impossible to explain how he does what he does”; Serena Williams: “The guy is the greatest male athlete of all time”; Sampras: “Roger is the best player in the world”; Boris Becker: “We have a guy from Switzerland who is just playing the game in a way I haven’t seen anyone—and I mean anyone—play before”; Andy Murray: “I can cry like Roger, it’s just a shame I can’t play like him”; even his greatest rival Novak Djokovic: “I don’t think that you can always—you can ever—get your game to perfection, you know. Only if you’re Federer.” Just last week, July 2015, John McEnroe clarified a previous statement, in which he claimed Nadal was the best tennis player of all time: “If I had to pick one person, I’d pick Roger. Generally, I put Nadal as the greatest clay court player, I put Roger all-around, I put Pete Sampras the greatest grass court player, and Rod Laver was my idol. Those would be the top four. But I think Roger is the best all-around. He’s the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen. While he has a losing record against [Nadal], he’s been so consistent, has DiMaggio-like records, incredible streaks like 22 semis in a row. . . . Roger, he can do everything, and makes it look easy. That’s always the first step of a great player.” Wallace himself had followed up his first sentence declaring he’s the best alive with “maybe the best ever,” and it’s a sentiment so common now that it’s nearly mundane to profess it.

Even I have said this, and you could barely call me the greatest sports enthusiast, as I’m just someone with an eight-year history of interest in one sport: tennis. This whole interest came in 2007 because of the very essay I’m focusing on here; once I had crawled out of that debilitating depression, I had somehow stumbled upon Wallace’s Federer ode and become not just any sports enthusiast but a specific one: a tennis fan. And not just any fan, but a Federer obsessive, all thanks to Wallace, who had already been my favorite writer for many years. His seduction by Federer was contagious, and I read and reread the more than 6,500-word essay over and over.

But it wasn’t completely accidental: the truth was I’d taken tennis fifteen years before that, in my teens, at a local organization, hoping to join the school’s tennis team. I wanted to be good at tennis for some reason. For two summers at a local park I struggled along with my backhands and volleys with my Prince racket, all to quit by my own free will at age fifteen, never to play again. The reason was the teacher, whose name I can no longer remember, but whose name was, back then, etched in my heart; I had developed such an intense crush on him that I could no longer continue the classes, I had decided. I pretended to my parents that I had heard taking tennis could cause deformities in the arms and that somehow worked on them, though they were no doubt happy to save the money on the expensive lessons. And all I was left with—I had little skill in the game—was the memory of that teacher, probably only in his late twenties, his shock of bleached blond hair and overly tan physique—a sort of Midwestern Agassi. From then on I casually watched the game on the television, here and there, as I did with swimming and ice skating and gymnastics and ballet—all sports that I had taken up at some point in my adolescence and abandoned for various reasons, probably none of them very good. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2007 when I’d encountered the year-old Wallace piece, that I became obsessed with not just following men’s tennis but Federer specifically, so grateful to that favorite writer of mine, who unbeknownst to me, at that very moment, was disintegrating rapidly just twenty-seven miles away in my hometown of Pasadena.

            *

Wallace wrote in the middle of his essay: “This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ‘06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a ‘bloody near-religious experience.’” Two greats at the end of their best runs merging at a paper at the end of its best run too, it can be argued. Wallace after all wrote the piece in what could be called to this day Federer’s best year, in which he had twelve singles titles and a 92-5 match record, in which he got into sixteen out of seventeen tournaments that season.

Over the past few years I’ve constantly contemplated writing this very essay, the essay of Federer in descent against Wallace’s Federer in ascent, the essay in a world without Wallace. At one point in the middle of the essay Wallace attempts to summarize the personal life highlights of Federer’s bio, but today there seems so much missing. Wallace never lived to see Federer the Husband or Federer the Father, which happened—one would have to and in fact need to assume coincidentally only—to correspond with Federer’s Fall. Less than a year after Wallace’s death in September of 2008, Federer married the former tennis player Mirka Vavrinec, and just three months later she gave birth to twins. It would be his first but not last set of twins, as in 2014 they’d welcome another duo. Even these seem to be Federer miracles: two twin girls Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, followed just five years later with two twin boys Leo and Lennart. It’s also unclear how much Wallace could have known that 2008 was Federer’s most physically precarious year—just as it was Wallace’s—with Federer’s bout with mono tainting the first half of 2008, followed by what plagued the end of that same year, a back injury that would never quite go away.

In Wallace’s piece his “kinetic beauty” is emphasized, which, he writes, has “nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” Wallace dissects a Federer-Nadal match for his example, but when I think of beauty and my own Federer Moment, it’s not quite on the court but just barely off it, and it also involves Nadal, the original thorn in his side before Djokovic. By the time Wallace had died Nadal had already crushed Federer more than once, but he never lived to see what I’d classify as the most beautiful moment of the Federer decline, “Federer as sacrilegious experience,” maybe one could say.

            *

It’s the 2009 Australian Open, where Federer lost to Nadal in the final. Federer needed just one victory to match Pete Sampras’s career record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles but as well as he played, ultimately Rafael “Rafa” Nadal, the Spanish sensation five years his junior, destroyed him. In the postmatch ceremony, Federer got his runner-up plate from one of his idols, Rod Laver, and was positioned at the microphone to speak to the fans, who were lost in overwhelming cheers.

In his blue shirt with the signature white Nike swoosh—Nike had signed a 130-million-dollar ten-year endorsement deal with him just months before—he looks for a moment like he can do this, a man who has been here before. One male voice bellows “I love you, Federer!” and Federer nods and half-waves in acknowledgment, looking a bit embarrassed as if undeserving. He breathes hard and audibly, the half-whistle/blow/near-moan of someone who has been through an unthinkable physical ordeal, the sound of frustration and disappointment, with just a tinge of relief. He shakes his head, looks up and down away from fans and the prize. “Maybe I’ll try again later, I don’t know,” he begins, with his usual cool smile. But then he breaks character and blurts, “God it’s killing me,” with a loose fist to his head, eyes closed, and as he looks down, still at the microphone, one can see heaving. The camera pans to Mirka who like everyone, looks on in total disbelief, an icy horror maybe even, and you get the feeling even she has rarely seen him break like this—her hand is at her face, her eyes on him, as all around people cheer. This is a Moment for sure, for everyone there, a god of our time revealing himself as flesh. The camera goes to Nadal, who is clapping slowly but firmly, and looking embarrassed, almost regretful, like a small boy suddenly, not the ruthless competitor just moments ago pushing Federer around on the court. The Moment feels like forever as Federer raises his hand to his eyes and eventually looks up revealing a red and wet face, his body still in heaves. Eventually, only eventually, he is helped to back away. Nadal, clapping onward. Federer, crying still, looking up once in a while at his audience, not hiding behind his grief, as if the Moment itself has taught him that is what courage is, to break character in front of the whole world, to let his most private self come out, the only way to overshadow the victory of the game without even trying. Mirka, still with hand on face; Nadal, still clapping, a bit red now; Federer, crying and crying.

Suddenly the four hours and twenty-three minutes that was the match seem to disappear in the nearly five minutes when Roger Federer broke down before the world.

The tournament director eventually steps up the microphone, shaken himself, and says, “Let’s give Roger a moment to settle down.”

Federer is turning twenty-eight. The average tennis pro peaks at twenty-three.

In the end Federer still won this one, his display of emotion mythic, what I would classify as one of his most beautiful Moments, in its rareness, in its lack of control—that control that has defined him his whole career—in its intimacy, in its honesty and vulnerability. We love the boastful, unflappable, brash Federer who never seems to blink, but his final words that day, like his sobbing, also felt special in their overwhelming humanity: “I don’t want to have the last word; this guy deserves it. So, Rafa, congratulations. You played incredible. You deserve it, man.”

            *

In an interview with Charlie Rose, David Foster Wallace talks about his own tennis days—saying that he was “good, [but] not even very good.” At age fourteen, he was ranked seventeenth in the US Tennis Association’s Western Section (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, most of Wisconsin, and West Virginia). He also appears to have been ranked second in his USTA district in central Illinois. But by eighteen, he was no longer ranked in his section. We have only Wallace’s 1996 magnum opus—his 577,608-word word debut novel Infinite Jest, centered on the junior tennis academy, Enfield Tennis Academy—as evidence of his past life.

And of course, the 2006 essay. Apparently Wallace had taken a lot of pains for what would become a number-one-forwarded sports story of 2006, a cover in PLAY magazine—the short-lived sports supplement to the New York Times Magazine. On a notebook page with the heading “R. Federer Interview Qs” he had a subhead: “Non-Journalist Questions” against the final “Qs the Editors want me to ask [w/Apologies].” He had even mapped out his trademark self-deprecating preface: “I’m not a journalist—I’m more like a novelist with a tennis background.” Initially, ESPN’s David Higdon reported that Federer found the “questions were inane, the dude weird, and the whole exercise a complete waste of his time,” but several years later Federer said “I had a funny feeling walking out of the interview. I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of it because I didn’t know exactly what direction he was going to go. The piece was obviously fantastic.” Federer was again asked about it in 2013, during an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on the social media platform Reddit, and he wrote “The thing that struck me is that I only spent 20 min with him in the ATP office at Wimbledon, and he was able to produce such a comprehensive piece.”

            *

Online you can find many who are obsessed with the Wallace story—and his intersection with Federer—which tells me its influence on my interest in tennis might not be exceptional at all. Some go quite far—I find one bizarrely titled “Roger Federer Killed David Foster Wallace” by “anaesthetica” posted on Saturday, August 22, 2009, at 02:16:46 AM EST. “What did DFW choose to see, to consciously give meaning, to worship? Tennis. More specifically, it was Federer as Religious Experience. And it was Rog who ate him alive,” it says and goes on to wilder leaps: “DFW imagines Federer as a gnostic Christ, the avatar of God on earth, a Neo-like savior with the ability to transcend the constraints of the material world, to return living flesh to the dead.” The final section of the episodic post is titled “When God Died” and concludes, “DFW committed suicide by hanging himself in September 2008. It is no coincidence that 2008 was a disastrous year for Federer. . . . Federer would win the US Open on September 13th, but it was likely too late for redemption. God’s immanence on Earth had been retracted, the age of miracles was over. DFW was found hung the next day.”

            *

In 2006 when I was in the throes of the darkest depression of my life—my first stint with agitated depression, still many years from the diagnosis of late-stage Lyme, which was at the root of all my mental health difficulties—there was one thing I could not get myself to do: cry. It was nearly impossible for me. Occasionally I would be close—I’d almost get to an edge and then something would make me withdraw. It was almost as if I’d forgotten how. Only months later when I was mostly recovered did I go back to crying, and almost as if to make up for those many months without tears, I cried and cried and cried, not so much for myself in the present but for that near past that I’d suffered under silently.

Years later stints of depression came and went, and I could never quite find its triggers except that it had to do with fear and unreasonable expectations and perfectionism. And those issues always made crying a sort of stranger—does one let it in or keep it at a distance?

I often think of Federer’s moment of release in front of the whole world. Not how hard it must have been for him but how easy. It seemed remarkably natural. Like his game, it went on and on, felt like an eternity, like he’d found his element: a grieving man, an inconsolable man, a broken man. As if for once, he was able to shed that perfectionism and just be a human, a man.

Not someone perfect. Not a god.

Not a religious experience.

Federer as irreligious experience, one could say, at his best.

Perfectionism has always been one of my oldest and most lethal struggles—a competition not with anyone else but with myself. I see this with Federer, of course, and I see it with David Foster Wallace.

Who knew better. Wallace: “The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” So many have said of his death that his final book was more a catalyst that the antidepressant-cessation—the possibility that his best writing years were behind him.

Which is the very reality that Roger Federer, still in 2015 on the court, lives with every day. And so this is what kills—when you read that essay, the very thing he valorizes, canonizes, casts Federer in pure gold for, is a fallacy: the perfect, what can be most optimally classified as a religious experience. It wouldn’t kill Federer but himself, and sooner than he’d know.

            *

In our time, Federer the best and Federer the unbeatable has been anything but: second and third even, and beatable by Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal, as well as lesser players like del Potro, Berdych, Tsonga, and Nalbandian.

Brian Phillips, who has tracked Federer’s rise and fall, in Grantland wrote in 2011, “Now, in 2011, in his endless middle-sunset as a player, Federer has become something mysterious, an all-time great whose career feels increasingly fragile,” but in 2014 he countered his own claim. He wrote the “best athletes usually have a ‘still’ phase. First they’re fast. Then they’re slow. In between, there’s a moment when they’re ‘still’ fast—when you can see the end coming but can’t deny that, for now, they remain close to their best. Federer, I wrote, had spent longer in that ‘still’ phase than any great tennis player I could think of. Again: That was in 2011. Four years later, he’s still there. In fact, he’s ranked higher. His period of epoch-conquering dominance is years in the past, but he’s still a reliable top-five player, one who can compete for majors if the circumstances are right.”

In 2015, after a loss at Indian Wells, it almost felt as if the rough years might still be here, but Federer’s attitude had changed. He was never near tears. He could no longer take defeats seriously it seemed. He had weathered even the Vulnerable Moments—or Moment—and now he was in a phase of pragmatism, acceptance with aging and his past, present, and future, and his place in professional tennis. As whispers of retirement come in and out of the game—his 2014 racket-change decision seemed to indicate he was realizing he had to change something to stay in the game—Federer still played like someone who’d never heard anything of it. This is not the Federer crying before an audience, when he says of his loss to Djokovic at Indian Wells, “I’m not going to look back on that match, on that moment very long. That will be forgotten probably in 25 minutes or so.” In its own way, even as it opposes the fragility of his Crying Moment completely, it is startlingly beautiful. Time is not just passing him, he nearly hints, but all of us. What use is it to think in terms of forever? Everything will be forgotten, even the apparently unforgettable.

Andy Roddick once said he would continue to play as long as he felt he could play “relevant tennis.” Two months later, at the age of thirty, in 2012, he retired. At his announcement he denied his age had anything to do with it: “I think wear and tear and miles is something that’s not really an age thing. If you look at my contemporaries that started with me, Roger is the only one that’s still going and still going strong.”

And here we are, this Moment: Federer inspires other tennis players and then by turn another tennis player, a lesser one, who becomes a writer, and writes an homage that inspires another once-tennis-player (just two summers), another writer (definitely a lesser one), who writes an homage to the homage.

And if I warn that within this is a cautionary tale about perfection—not ultimately Federer’s whose greatest brilliance might be in his survival without the thing we all defined him as: perfect—one can’t deny the value in the momentary seduction of a sort of celestiality from Federer’s racket to Wallace’s pen: “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform—and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”