Tennis commentators live for statistics. Points won behind second serves and unforced errors are rattled off obsessively. Even at Wimbledon, where advertising is sacrilege, a discreet IBM sign on-court is a reminder that every detail is being fed into a giant artificial intelligence apparatus, which, among other metrics, measures fans’ cheering to decide what makes the daily highlights videos.
There was little in the numbers, however, ahead of Roger Federer’s quarterfinal clash at Wimbledon in 2010 to suggest an upset was imminent. Federer typically tended to feast on the power of Tomas Berdych, who is 6 ft 5 inches, and make him look flat-footed. Federer had lost their previous match but led their head–to-head 8-2. That day was different. The Czech’s groundstrokes and serve were struck so hard that one feared lines judges might be hurt by friendly fire. Berdych won in four sets.
In the quarterfinals at Wimbledon 2018, Federer was up against the giant South African, Kevin Anderson. Federer was chasing a record 35 sets won consecutively at the All England Club when he reached match-point at 5-4 in the third set. But, from that juncture, Federer’s forehand began to look as if it was being manipulated by aliens.
Watching the match, I became convinced my presence at Wimbledon was a jinx on the tennis player I most admired. Laugh at this absurd claim, but consider the statistics. After his first championship win in 2003, the Swiss eight-time champion has lost just three times in the quarter-finals. I was in the front row of the press box every time.
I am not superstitious, but after Federer lost the third set to Anderson on Court 1, I hid in the press room, convinced he would lose if I stayed courtside. I fiddled with an article I was writing for the Financial Times Weekend, making it worse. I was seeking to undo the curse by not watching, a comically futile task because TVs are on every reporter’s desk. Anderson won 13-11 in the fifth, anyway. I am therefore relieved that quarantine restrictions mean I cannot be at Wimbledon this year, Moreover, the further I travel to get there, the more likely Federer is to lose. In 2010, I had taken a break from an intensive language course in Beijing. In 2013, I arrived from Hong Kong where I was struggling to write a book on why China would never be a democracy.
There are few worse fates for a sports fan than seeing your favourite player lose repeatedly at your favourite tournament. Bets on Wimbledon are commonplace in the UK and the bookies are offering odds of 10-1 on Federer winning this year, but this summer, Federer, 39, has looked on occasion like a magician who has misplaced his wand. After several months on crutches and painful rehab for two knee surgeries last year, he lost in June to Felix Auger Aliassime. The Canadian shares a birthday with his idol Federer, albeit 19 years apart.
Yet paradoxically, watching Federer play time and again has been among those moments when I have felt most alive. The seemingly synchronised exhalation of air by thousands of spectators—when he hits, say, a drop shot from the baseline or an overhead backhand smash that looks as casual as an afterthought—is group exhilaration typically witnessed among very devout congregations of worshippers. It is as true of the discerning spectators at Wimbledon, many club-level players themselves, as of the first-timers in Shanghai where I first saw him play in 2005. What Federer has done is transform tennis before our eyes into art; perhaps one day the genius of IBM will transfer this, freeze frame by freeze frame, to a virtual reality experience that mimics being courtside for future generations to envy us. “Men may profess their 'love' of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, tribal and/or nationalist fervour,” wrote the late novelist David Foster Wallace in his article, Roger Federer as Religious Experience, arguing that Federer is so unusual because he makes tennis routinely beautiful.
I am a lifelong agnostic, but still believe the best explanation for Federer’s genius was on a sign outside a church in Wimbledon: “God made Roger Federer”. Less elegantly, I poked fun at a sportswriter’s description of watching Federer as akin to seeing the Renaissance artist Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. I wrote that this was too static an image, literally like watching paint dry. Instead, I likened Federer’s angles to witnessing Euclid reimagine geometry, and his footwork to the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s. This column landed me in Pseud’s Corner, a weekly collection of pretentious writing in the British satirical magazine, Private Eye. Reader: I was (half) joking, but Private Eye believes it has a monopoly on humour.
When I think about it—or more truthfully obsess about it as Federer approaches 40, long an issue of greater concern to me than my turning 60 in a few years— my pilgrimages to watch Federer have been doomed and blessed from the outset. When Federer won Wimbledon for the third time in 2005, like a pestering teenaged fan I sent off a flurry of emails seeking an interview for the FT Weekend with Federer to his girlfriend (and now wife) Mirka Vavrinec, who then handled his media appointments. Federer had quixotically decided he could manage without a business agent as well. (He later re-joined International Management Group before starting a sports management company with Tony Godsick in 2013; according to Forbes, he earned more than $90 million last year in endorsements)
Mirka had initially offered a long phone interview with Federer, but I said I needed to speak with his coach and mother as well. A month later, Mirka suggested Dubai, where they have a home. Eventually, we settled on November in Shanghai, where the year-end Tennis Masters Cup for the world’s top eight male players was being held for the first time. Federer’s arrival in Shanghai was thus covered as if he were a visiting head of state. Billboards and giant terracotta statues of the players dotted the city.
When I arrived at the hotel lobby in Shanghai for my interview, Mirka broke away from chatting with friends to tell me Federer was caught in traffic and joke that the stadium was so far from the Hilton that it would make sense to hire a helicopter. Making small talk as I entered their suite, I mentioned interviewing someone at the Basel club Federer had played at as a boy. This immediately sparked a misunderstanding. Mirka was visibly irritated. I can only guess this was because she had, after emails over several months, set up interviews with Federer, his mother, coach and trainer just as I had requested. Perhaps she did not see the need for interviews with people peripheral to the story.
No interview I had done started so inauspiciously—before turning hugely enjoyable. I was still flustered when Federer changed the subject by asking how long I was in Shanghai. When I said I would be there for the entire tournament, he postponed my conversation with Pierre Paganini, his long-time trainer, to later in the week. Federer then doubled the time for our interview that evening to an hour.
My only explanation for this generosity is that Federer routinely takes post-match press questions even after night matches in English, French and Swiss German; in Shanghai, he would leave the press room near midnight. In Halle this month despite the shock of losing in the second round, in the press conference afterwards, Federer was critical "about the negativity" that crept into his game in the final set while graciously thanking tournament staff around the world for keeping tennis going, despite not being allowed spectators in many cases. In Shanghai, he had played doubles with the city’s mayor at the enormous stadium built for the prestigious event. When he heard about a banquet for the tournament staff, he and Mirka dropped by to say hello.
Federer is an unusually laidback interviewee. Overawed when I walked in, I was soon relaxed enough to foolishly suggest he come to the net more; the slower playing conditions at Wimbledon and today’s strings that create exaggerated topspin have made volleying much harder. As I wrapped up, he asked if I could wait to interview his mother as she was arriving the next day from South Africa and might be jet-lagged. A couple of days later, Federer called to set up breakfast with his mother Lynette, whose vivid stories of him as a teenager lifted my article. After “Ace of Grace” was published, Mirka sent a warm email.
So far, so fairy-tale like, but since then bad feng shui and twists of fate have had a field day. In Shanghai itself, Federer had lost after leading two sets to love in the finals at the Qi Zhong stadium. The stadium and the developments around it became embroiled in allegations of corruption that eventually led to an 18-year jail term for the Shanghai party chief.
A decade and a half later, Federer won the Australian Open in January 2017, storming back to beat Nadal with a turbo backhand, which he credited advice from his father for helping him develop after knee surgery. I pitched a Wimbledon curtain-raiser to the FT, arguing that this win heralded a seismic shift to tennis’ domination by thirty-somethings. Before I had even boarded the plane to a warm-up event on grass in Stuttgart, however, Federer had lost to Tommy Haas, who is three years older than Federer.
I have broken this unlucky streak just once—at the 2019 Tennis Masters Cup in London. Things started badly. Waiting for my suitcase to come off an A380 from Doha seemed akin to watching a whale vomit in slow motion. Federer was about to go on court, leaving me irritably mapping a route from Heathrow to the O2 stadium to see if the tube could get me there in time. (I failed.) Two days later, though, Federer served like a man possessed and beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets, avenging a painful loss at Wimbledon months earlier. It happened to be my birthday. My eldest brother mischievously remarked that his wishes were unnecessary: Federer had won and that was all that mattered.
Rahul Jacob is a former South China correspondent for the Financial Times.