The Agony of Watching Roger Federer

Ever since I began watching Roger Federer play tennis, I have been startled by the grace and beauty of his performance. I have seen him make shots that no one believed were possible and swing his racket with the elegance of a ballet dancer. David Foster Wallace said that watching Federer play tennis was a “religious experience:”

“The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It 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.”

And yet, I have also been overwhelmed with anxiety that he will lose every time he steps out on the court. There are times I simply cannot watch him for fear that he will be beaten. Apparently I am not alone. A couple of years ago when Federer was about to play at Wimbledon, Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker:

“Some people are so enthralled by the way Roger Federer plays tennis that they can hardly bear to see him lose...Then I found out that others had similar reactions. “I can’t watch when he’s losing,” a friend of mine confessed the other day and then added, touchingly, “I go and clean the kitchen.”

What is going on here? What is the source of this particular anxiety? I am more than well versed in the fine art of losing, as only a Red Sox fan can know. What is this particular fear I experience each time I see Federer step out on the court, but not when the Red Sox begin playing another game?

Federer is no longer quite so young, although he is only thirty years old, five years older than his current nemeses Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He is said by some to be past his prime. And yet he continues to play with perfection, with the same grace and elegance as he always has.

Many players, past and present, consider Federer the greatest player of all time. Have a look at this magic:

As I write, he is now playing in the Australian Open, the first of the four grand-slam tennis tournaments each year and, is about to play a semi-final match with Nadal. I am not sure I’ll be able to watch, as Nadal has beaten him too many times, especially on clay courts like they have now at Melbourne.

What is it called when you fear another person’s misfortune, especially when the other person is admired and has excelled in some way? I am not sure there is such a word or phrase that describes this feeling.

Maybe fear or anxiety isn’t the right word, dread is better: “anticipate with great apprehension.” Yes that is it.

Regardless of the correct word or phrase, all I know is that I turn away when Federer is losing. Let us simply say that I don’t like it when beauty and grace lose. Maybe everyone feels this way. A thing of beauty should last forever. We are diminished when it disappears.

When a lovely old building is torn down to be replaced by mini-mart, when an inviting bookstore goes out of business and a yoghurt bar takes its place, the neighborhood is a lesser place. It is the same when an old winding road out in the country disappears to make room for a six-lane freeway or when a beautiful grove of olive trees is cut down so that a parking garage can be built.

Similarly it is disappointing when beauty and grace on the tennis court are defeated by the grunts and groans of a slugger. You don’t want beauty and grace to be defeated. You want them to last forever.

And so in anticipation of that kind of fear or apprehension, I often turn away when Roger Federer is off his best, especially when he falls behind his opponent. Better to leave the questions of why I feel that way and what is lost to mystery, just like the mystery of Federer’s genius.

Postscript: Nadal defeated Federer a four set match in which Federer made at least 50 unforced errors.