Abhijith Ravinutala
17 min readMay 15, 2023

--

I’m sitting at the edge of my seat in the summer of 2008. Mid-morning light filters in through the living room blinds, showing a cadre of family and friends, faces trained unanimously at the TV screen. Atypically, I’ve been up for hours this morning, and atypically, I’m stressed, biting my nails and hiding them so my parents don’t make me turn away from the TV to trash what they consider impure clippings. Federer and Nadal are playing the 5th set of the Wimbledon final.

By this time, Federer is already undoubtedly one of the greats. An at-the-time unparalleled domination of men’s tennis from 2004–2006, winning 3 majors each year, had landed him squarely in the position of #1 in the world. But in tennis, as in many aspects of life, the pinnacle is fleeting. Greatness is but a seedling for competition, and my best friend Siddharth (who is as inextricably tied to tennis in my life as Federer is), supports the challenger Nadal. I’m vexed about it. Having grown up with the superstitions of a father who followed the frustratingly ephemeral brilliance of the Indian cricket team, I wanted nothing but support for Federer on that tense morning. All the positive energy I could get. It was a rare occasion in my house to hear pindrop silence, but that was what we heard when Nadal served for the match at 8–7 in the fifth set. Advantage, Nadal.

Instead of the expected play, a wide serve pulling Federer to his backhand, Nadal hits a heavy kick serve down the T, straight to Federer’s dangerous forehand. The defending champion loops back the 116 mph serve and Nadal waits for it on the baseline, turning to his right ever so slightly, and just puts the ball in play down the middle. An unremarkable shot, and Federer knows it. His famous footwork moves into gear, moving forward to attack the ball with a sharp angled forehand that can allow him to sneak up to the net and win the point. But the forehand, the perfect, dependable attack against that particular ball, smacks the tape on the net and falls straight down. The silence broke in my house, along with the status quo in tennis.

Federer and Nadal after sunset at the 2008 final. Peep the classy logo on the cardigan | AFP / Adrian Dennis

Nadal was ascendant. Siddharth was jubilant. Some guy named Djokovic had already won his first major that year. The kind of dominance Federer and his fans had enjoyed was coming to an end, and we saw the faded markings on the grass. Federer donned a cream and gold cardigan and walked out onto the court in near-darkness after the 4-hour, 48-minute final to accept defeat, calm, collected, and regal in a way only he had earned at Wimbledon. I couldn’t say the same for my own emotions.

When I couldn’t bear a defeat (mine or Federer’s), or an injury, I often cried. When I watched heartwarming or sad movies, I cried (different kinds of tears). My parents, back then, told me to “be a man.” Men find solutions, not emotions, they insisted. I could never help it. Was something wrong inside? I wondered. For most of my childhood, my father wielded an intimidating temper (leading to one hilarious story with a broken XBox) but rarely a single tear, not even the cinematic kind that forms and rests on the eyelid of a macho man before he wipes it away. Did some manly gene not transfer over properly to me? And if so, if I was to be this emotional mess, I could use some validation. A role model of a different kind of man, perhaps.

Months later, at the 2009 Australian Open, Federer was up against Nadal in the final again, trying to win a record-equaling 14th grand slam. He lost in 5 sets again, and this time, with his idol Rod Laver in the stands, his other hero Pete Sampras’s record on the line, and an opponent across the net who’d denied him in every meeting at a final over the past year, Federer didn’t remain calm. He broke down, unable to give his runner-up remarks at first, only managing to say, “it’s killing me.” This champion of men’s tennis cried uncontrollably in front of millions of viewers. When Nadal went up to the mic and began by saying sorry to Roger, the crowd laughed.

Indeed, with the amount of finals he would go on to lose to Nadal and Djokovic, Federer developed a bit of a reputation for crying. Those tears meant the world to me. Because I had to believe it was okay to be a man, and a champion at that, who cried hard and cried often. I had to believe there was a place for vulnerability.

Before we moved to the US, I was a troublemaker at my school in Vijayawada. Loquacious, cheeky, extroverted. Far from caring about school, I spent my time being scolded by teachers and sitting in tall dunce chairs (it was an old-fashioned school, blame the Brits). When we moved to Euless, TX, outside the DFW airport, I was stripped of my language, and so, too, my personality.

Bustin’ moves at an early age

I attended ESL classes and hung out with an older Indian kid in my apartment complex. He integrated me into his friend group, who played video games and watched Pokemon religiously and studied. My American personality, and my English language, evolved along those lines until I became a little copy of those older boys. By the time I grew accustomed to the US, I knew 2 things: 1) athletic kids who played sports were valued by everyone else, and 2) I was not in that category.

After myriad, cliche instances of being picked last on the playground, relegated to playing some form of ineffective goalie, I stuck to the swings at recess. But if I couldn’t play sports, I could at least talk about them. So I overcorrected — I spent hours watching every sport I could, devouring stats and player bios, so I could at least follow along with what my classmates were talking about, even if I rarely had the confidence to interject.

When I turned 12 years old, my parents enrolled me in middle school tennis, so I could lose some weight and gain some friends. By then, I had been watching Sampras and Agassi and the new hotshot Federer, and could rattle off their stats. The teammates were actually inviting, a bonafide rarity in middle school. I might fit in for once.

One morning, the coach took us to nearby Lewisville High to use their courts, and after practice was over, I walked inside to retrieve the saxophone I’d need for band practice that afternoon. When I walked back out, the bus was gone.

Holy shit, I thought, they left me. Having paid just enough attention to safety seminars, I walked straight to the principal’s office and called my mom in a frenzy to ask for a ride. The office where I waited was vaguely beige and smelled of quitting. Tall, intimidating kids kept striding in and out, looking miffed. I kept one hand on my saxophone case, the only thing I could lay claim to. Minutes before my mother arrived, the coach walked through the front door and asked where I’d been.

“Right here,” I said. “I thought you left me.”

“We’ve been waiting around the corner the whole time. What’s wrong with you?” he yelled, and launched into a tirade that lasted until my mom arrived to find me crying as the coach continued to scold me. He told me to suck it up and be a man when I ran to my mom for safety. I expected her to agree with him, but instead, she told him my time on the team was over and gave him his own earful. After karate and the bassoon, it was the third thing I’d quit in as many years. Grit and determination weren’t exactly in my vocabulary. I wanted to be talented at something, to have it flow from my fingertips as naturally as water down a river, as Federer striking a forehand.

Three years later, it was 2006, and Federer was at his absolute peak. As anyone who plays tennis will tell you, no one made the game look as easy as Federer did in those years. In early-round matches at grand slams, you’d have to squint to search for any sign of sweat. When other players hit a perfect shot, commentators often say it was a “textbook forehand,” as in, the stroke was so fundamentally sound it could’ve been ripped out of a manual. Federer rewrote the textbook. He played tennis in a way that no one quite imagined or has since emulated. The accuracy of his serve, the trademark power of his forehand, and the quick shuffle footwork that’s been described before as gliding over the court, as opposed to running on it. I was mesmerized, and inspired to try again.

That same year, I tried out for the high school team and somehow scraped my way through as a sophomore. With a little less baby fat, a little more friendly competition thanks to Siddharth’s superior tennis skills, and a lot more court time, I fell in love with tennis. No more watching other sports and memorizing stats. I just played and played and played, whether in 20-degree weather or 100-degree weather. Starting as a benchwarmer, I grew into a key doubles player for the team in one year. And being a part of the tennis team helped me become more like myself again — outgoing, energized, feeling like I belonged. People who knew me in passing before I joined the team said they could barely recognize me the next year. And it was intricately tied to one idol.

Just as kids today may hit a good shot and yell “Alcaraz!” Federer was the name on everyone’s lips when I fell in love with the sport. I would wake up at 4 AM to watch Federer play the Australian Open, and then, inspired by his victory, venture to the courts that afternoon to play with Siddharth. I modeled my game, my racquet, my shoes, and my clothes after Federer. Despite nearly everyone around me training with two-handed backhands, I ignored coaches and peers and persisted with a one-handed backhand to be like Federer. When I stepped into that shot, loading on my right foot and unleashing a looping, cross-court backhand, the best feeling in all of sport for me was hearing people say “ooh, like Federer.”

The beautiful one-handed backhand that’s increasingly rare in modern tennis. Image from the Independent (not by Trent Crimm) via Getty Images.

Of course, I was never that consistent or talented. When I played matches, I was far too emotional. I yelled for no reason, threw racquets, even broke them. I couldn’t take the feeling of not meeting my own expectations. But I kept playing, just for those few moments of brilliance: perhaps in the opening, or in the fourth game of the 2nd set, when I could feel like my idol.

The first description of Federer’s game from any of the countless articles to praise him over the years: “beautiful.” It’s common knowledge, but studies have also been done to prove that words like “beautiful” aren’t often used to describe men. Why? Is there not a place for men to display poise and natural grace? Would the world be better if we asked for more of that from men, instead of machismo and power?

Tennis, singles specifically, is a lonely sport. 39ft by 27ft is the space on your side of the court. You have 3 opponents at any given time — the player on the other side of the net, the fatigue creeping into your limbs, and the doubt thrashing against its cage in your mind. When you subdue the latter opponents, you have a chance at seeing and defeating the one who stands on the other side of the net. But the last two are the hardest. When you lose a match because an opponent completely outplays you, you’re not even upset — you take it as a learning opportunity and play with nothing to lose. But when you’re not able to play up to your estimation of your full capacity because of your mind and body, that’s when the racquets come crashing down. When we watch singles, we actively see players fighting all 3 opponents at once. It’s a window we don’t get when we watch team sports, where people can be subbed out when they’re tired or be buoyed by their teammates if their own morale is low. This is why I’ll always identify more with Federer than the other athletes I grew up watching, the Sachins, Souravs, Dirks and Kobes of the world. I saw Federer triumph out of sheer loneliness, and I saw him be broken by it.

The year I graduated high school, Nadal was shocked in the 3rd round of the 2009 French Open by Robin Soderling, who went on to face Federer in the final. It was the only grand slam Federer hadn’t won yet, as he was reminded by Nadal again and again that being the second-best clay court player in the world wouldn’t be enough. Federer defeated Soderling in three easy sets and fell back on the red clay of Roland Garros as champion for the first time. Weeks later, he braved 5 sets against Andy Roddick to retake his Wimbledon crown. By the time classes started, I was feeling triumphant about the way I finished high school, eager to experience college, and obsessed with the prospect of Federer capturing the US Open, perhaps even holding all 4 majors at once. Standing in front of a TV in Gregory Gym at UT Austin, I saw him lose to Juan Martin Del Potro and smacked the table in front of me out of anger. Passersby stared. Of course, there was no point explaining my emotions. It turned out Federer would never win another US Open.

As college progressed, I proudly (perhaps too proudly in the picture below) wore my Federer shirt before every major match, but more often than not, I wore it to watch a loss. During those years, Nadal and Djokovic were ascendant, and though Federer still won titles on grass courts and indoor hard courts, championships no longer gravitated towards the sheer weight of his talent.

Fortunately, my memory is not good enough to have an explanation for this

In my own life, the easy routine and easy dependence of high school were replaced by the first failures of independent college life. Heartbreaks, lackluster grades, unnecessary drama. Playing tennis faded as a part of my life, as did watching it, especially as Federer slipped from his pinnacle. By the time I graduated, the greatest player in the world went 2 years without reaching a Grand Slam final — for the first time since he won his first major in 2003. Injuries, which were never a concern before, creeped into his career. Age, and a new generation of players, had caught up to the maestro. It didn’t look easy anymore.

Over the next few years, as I continued to drift away from the one sport I’d ever truly enjoyed, Federer lost a few heartbreaking Wimbledon finals and a US Open. In 2016, he underwent surgery for a meniscus tear, and proceeded to be written off by the army of punditry who get paid to prognosticate without a clue. Like many people, I thought 17 majors was a good enough record to be the GOAT (little did we know even 22 isn’t enough), and hoped against the odds that Federer would at least return at the ripe age of 35 for a sendoff tournament.

In early January of 2017, my ammamma (mom’s mom) passed away unexpectedly, two days after my 25th birthday. I had flown to Vijayawada, India to be at her bedside in the hospital, and I experienced my first Hindu funeral. I couldn’t bear the site of her body laying out in the open, propped up by wood and adorned with flowers. My little cousin (also named Abhi) and I went into a room to bawl, heads buried in pillows, as we laid side-by-side on the bed. Then, too, came the refrain from one of our elders: Don’t cry. Be a man. I may have understood their admonishment in years past, or been more willing to listen, but at that moment, I simply couldn’t tolerate it. I carried out my funeral duties in a watery haze, the tears forever welling in my eyes. I knew no other way to be anymore.

Towards the end of that January, I returned to Texas, and for the first time in years, I found myself waking up way too early to watch Federer in a grand slam final. Anything familiar, comfortable, was a gift in the bleak days after that funeral. I went over to my friend Raamis’s house (this time, I made sure to watch alongside a fellow Federer fan) and snuck upstairs to watch the game, cautious of waking his parents. As we had been 9 years ago, we were rapt again, following the furor of 5 sets of incredible, overpowering tennis. In the business end of the 5th set, Nadal is serving at 3–4, and throws a kick serve at deuce to Federer’s forehand. The maestro guesses wrong, assuming the serve would go to his backhand, and steps back at the last second to get the ball in play. What ensues is one of the most tension-filled points in hard court history (7:40 at this link), resulting in a break point for Federer that he converts.

Roger’s second championship point, a game later: His left arm swings up as gracefully as it did in his first serve of the match, throwing the spinning ball into the air, only for it to be smacked down the T with a slight slice, drifting away from Nadal’s backhand. The latter lunges to float the ball back in play, an absolute sitter. Federer takes 2 calculated steps and angles the ball toward the right sideline, and Nadal hangs his head as it whizzes past him. But his arm raises up, challenging the call. The Spaniard’s face is full of micro-expressions, his shoulders shrugging as if to say “might as well challenge it” and meanwhile, thousands of fans are on the edge of their seats. Raamis and I can barely contain our excitement. The ball is called in. We scream and high-five and lose our minds and the magic of sport is alive and well in the hearts of two nerdy kids from a Dallas suburb.

Emotions of an unexpected victory | Image from official Australian Open Youtube channel

Federer went on to have one of the best years of his career, picking up the 3 majors that took him to a total of 20. Even though his knees were breaking down, his movement stayed the same, his shots just as confident. His game just as beautiful. And motivating: I finally picked up a racket again, and took to the courts during grad school whenever I could to find a moment of peace during a turbulent time in my life. Returning to the sport, I discovered that tennis was one of the few acts that stopped the train of thoughts in my head, stopped the anxiety of all the little uncertainties revolving without a speed limit. After that discovery, of course, I couldn’t stop playing (despite my own meniscus injuries).

I can at least wear Federer’s shoes to look like him!

In the summer of 2019, the Wimbledon final watch party was at my house again. Federer vs. Djokovic. The combatants played an entire additional set in the 5th, extending out the drama of the occasion and taking the game to 12-all and initiating a tiebreak, which Wimbledon was forced to include after one match went to 70–68 in the 5th in 2010. My father kept switching the TV back and forth with the cricket World Cup (we still consider that one of the worst mishaps in sports scheduling ever made), which was fine with me, because I was an emotional wreck. I kept running upstairs to hide under the covers in the guest room and watch the scores change on my phone, which understandably weirded out my girlfriend (now, wife, because it didn’t weird her out enough). Ultimately, at 3–6 in the tiebreak, Federer hits a deep second serve that Djokovic returns with pace to his opponent’s backhand side. Federer glides to his left to hit a forehand instead and shanks the ball high into the air. The price of a precision game is having the worst misses.

That would be his last Grand Slam final. Further knee injuries in the 2021 Wimbledon quarter-final sidelined Federer until his eventual retirement at the Laver Cup in September of 2022, which felt sudden to his optimistic fans even as it seemed long overdue for everyone else. As smooth as his play seemed to most of us, as divine as it looked, the reality of the toll on his body, his spirit, was quite different.

Federer and his wife at his farewell event. Unlike another legendary sports figure who retired (and then didn’t) around the same time, Federer thanked his wife for “allowing him to play” all these years, “because she could’ve stopped me a long time ago.”

In a way, tennis mirrors the central struggles of a life well-lived: one has to live well in their own mind and body before they can even begin to face the external obstacles of life. This takes ridiculous amounts of hard work, and most of us fall short frequently. We make the same weight loss goals every January 1st. We suffer silently with anxiety or depression. We curate our social media feeds to make it seem like we’re winning those battles even when we aren’t. And we admire the ones who make it look easy, who “have their shit together.” Unfortunately, once someone has made it look easy, that’s what they’re known for, instead of the work they did to make that happen.

By the time of his triumphant win in 2017, I no longer admired Federer because he made it look easy. I knew by then that it was the work Federer put in behind the scenes, transforming himself from a temperamental teen, a sporadic talent, into a complete player, a better sportsman, that was truly worthy of praise and emulation. In a 24-year career, Federer never once retired in the middle of a match. He toiled behind the scenes, conquering the opponents of mind and body, to give us the best show possible, to make it seem easy when it wasn’t. A flower blooms through a million small toils and happy twists of fate.

“I’m proud of how far I have come, because I know that this was something I really struggled with early on. I was criticized a lot, heavily maybe sometimes even, fairly or unfairly, whatever it is, why wouldn’t I fight more when losing? Because they thought when I lost I didn’t give it all I had, even though I care probably more than most players. So I didn’t quite understand what that meant. Do I have to grunt, do I have to sweat more, shout more, be more aggressive towards my opponents? What is it? It’s not me. I’m not like that. That’s not my personality. A lot of people then told me, Well, you have to be tougher and not so nice maybe, you know. I tried, but that was all an act. And I said, Well, I will try it the nice way. Let’s see where it takes me. Let me just try to be normal and be myself, and I’m very happy I was able to stay authentic and be myself for this long.” — Federer at the 2022 Laver Cup press conference

Federer played plenty of 5-set matches that could’ve been 3-set matches. He squandered match points in finals, especially in the latter half of his career. But the mistake people make is assuming that perfection is worth celebrating. There’s no such thing.

Perfection is artificial, never natural. But striving for perfection, nearing it despite the way it eludes us, therein lies beauty and grace. Federer strove to give us beauty and grace while keeping the grit behind the scenes, and that beauty was often delicate, fragile.

At Federer’s farewell in London, the paparazzi latched onto an image of him and his longtime rival Nadal shedding tears and holding hands. It was emblematic of friendship blossoming through rivalry, of two giants of the game reckoning with the turning of the tides, of chapters closed. But for me, it was emblematic of what drew me to Federer in the first place: a more vulnerable way of being a champion, a man.

Iconic photo courtesy of Ella Ling/ Shutterstock

Federer begged the question: in a world that prides machismo in sport, what is the place of beauty? Of vulnerability? The answer, resoundingly: #1 in the world. Greatest of All Time.

--

--

Abhijith Ravinutala

Writer in Austin. Fiction in Southern Review, Glimmer Train, & others. Working on a short story collection & debut novel. More at Abhijithr.com