This article in The New Yorker about Federer’s loss to Djokovic in the US Open Semi-final is absolutely worth a read. You don’t have to care about tennis as long as you have a personal stake in the deep question of what style of perfection really wins.
But I have a slightly different take.
All Fed-Heads knew right away when he won the second set to go up 2-0 that nevertheless was going to lose the match. The tragedy of that match, and of Roger Federer in general is not that perfection failed. He was never perfect or anything close to it. The irony is that, by comparison to Nadal and Djokovic, especially Nadal, Roger Federer is so much more like the rest of us mortals.
Nadal has pure animal fighting spirit branded onto his DNA. Yes, his tennis is wrong, but that doesn’t matter because he is the one who has the aura of invincibility, not Federer. You can count on Roger to make impeccable shots. To play like an artist. But you can count on Nadal to win.
Federer is not like a superhero who just effortlessly deploys his superpower and watches the results roll in. When you watch him long enough you start to see how tightly wound he is at every moment, mustering every ounce of concentration to keep himself in that groove. If he is a master of anything he is a master of trying.
What you learn from watching his matches the last year is just how unstable that groove is. And what makes his decline so depressing is how it reminds us that if you have to try you are not a master. He carried the banner for all of us who have nothing going for us except the will to try, and even he The Master Tryer, the man who tried so hard that he was Perfect, can’t beat those guys whose strokes are hacker strokes next to his, but who were born winners.
And that is why this particular match was really his most tragic. Match point against Djokovic. After tanking sets 3 and 4 and then pulling himself together to go up a break and serve for the match in the fifth set, we still knew he was going to lose. It was just a matter of how.
Djokovic is not Nadal. He does not win by sheer will. A lot of trying went in to his streak this year. And to Federer fans, Djokovic is something of an interloper. You look at his game and there is no real reason he should be pushing Roger out of the top 2. He is super solid. But we want our iconic battle between Mr. Made-Perfect against Mr. Passion. Djokovic doesn’t belong.
But when Federer had Djokovic match point down, Djokovic did something that made a total mockery of everything about Federer’s game. He took a blind swing on a service return and hit it for a stinging winner. He became Nadal for a single shot. You are not supposed to be able to become Nadal. That is not something you can try to do. And indeed there was no trying involved whatsoever. He just did it.
Federer could never, ever do that.