Roger Federer's career inched further toward the sunset Wednesday at Wimbledon. After winning the first two sets and looking as dominant as ever, something strange happened. For the first time in 178 matches with a two set lead in a major, Federer lost.
The unrelenting brilliance of Federer at his best gave way to something more... relenting. Federer didn't give away the match to 12-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but he allowed it to be taken. This was different than seeing Nadal and Federer fight to the death. In a duel like that, there aren't really losers, just one guy who's slightly less perfect.
On Wednesday, though, Federer was on the wrong side of an assault, and he seemed powerless to stop it. Credit the power of momentum or the power of Tsonga's forehands, but Federer just didn't have it in him. What made this so jarring is that Federer still walks, talks, and looks exactly like the same guy who torched the competition for the past decade.
He still looks like the guy who inspired this ill-timed essay over at Grantland this morning:
Federer isn't an idea, he's a 29-year-old man who, when he rushes the net, can absolutely go 1-2-1 with you in an exchange of rapid-fire, short-distance volleys, then finish you off with an over-the-shoulder backhand that you couldn't even guess how to practice.
In the opening rounds at Wimbledon, Federer still looked like that guy. So I understand why people were disturbed by his sudden collapse on Wednesday. Michael Jordan looked old and slow on the Wizards, so we could process his decline rationally. Same with Brett Favre over the past few years. The problem with Federer is that he still looks like the same guy who owned tennis for 10 years. Watching him fail feels surreal, and gives way to some of the melodramatic reactions that popped up on Twitter all day.
And... I guess I just don't get why people find this heartbreaking. Federer's great, and his reign over tennis has been a spectacle all its own, but aren't we talking about the most wooden superstar of this era? He still looks the same in 2011, yeah. But what that really means is that he still carries himself without a hint of emotion, moves mechanically, and executes ruthlessly.
The most ironic thing about the essay at Grantland wasn't the towering praise on a day when Federer lost, but that passages like this could be considered a compliment:
Federer's skill, combined with his preternaturally calm demeanor, makes him seem weirdly impersonal, as if the forehands shearing down on the corners were fired by some long-distance drone.
Yes, what a magnificent drone!
I grew up playing and loving tennis, but the reason I don't watch much tennis anymore is because, by now, criticizing the lack of personality in tennis would be like criticizing the sense of humor on an oak tree. Tennis is so far removed from having personality that it seems absurd to even ask for it. But as someone that once cared about tennis, I think of it as a game that can give birth to personalities, rather than render them irrelevant.
On that front, Federer's not part of the problem; he personifies it.
Over the years, appreciating Federer's aesthetics became a badge of sophistication among tennis fans. Part of the credit there probably goes to David Foster Wallace, and his Federer essay that might be best work of sportswriting this century. In that loving tribute to Federer, the blank canvas that is his personality recedes, and instead we marvel at the aesthetics of his game with DFW as our masterful tour guide. It's good stuff.
Likewise, as the years passed, rather than focus on what he didn't have (personality), columnists and fans began to focus on what he did better than anyone else. Whether this came with our increased familiarity or David Foster Wallace's essay is up for debate, but eventually, Federer became an icon despite himself. By the same token, anyone who couldn't appreciate his brilliance clearly needed to read the Wallace essay.
"Then you'll understand," said the condescending converts.
And his game was pretty much perfect, sure. But watching his star fade to the twilight on Wednesday, and listening to people get sentimental over the most unsentimental superstar of this generation, it didn't make me miss Roger Federer. If anything, it made me miss Wallace, the writer who could breathe life into an oak tree and make us misty watching it fall.
...But as far as Federer and tennis are concerned, aren't we still talking about an oak tree?
With that, let's get into a quick edition of Talking Points...
Reliving The Best Baseball Movie Of All TIme. Fine, some may prefer Field of Dreams, to which I can only counter with Willie Mays Hayes, Roger Dorn, Lou Brown, Harry Doyle, Pedro Cerrano and Rick Vaughn. With all due respect to Moonlight Graham, those are some of the best sports movie characters of all time. So really, there's never enough opportunities to relive that movie, with Sports Illustrated's latest offering giving us as good an excuse as any.
As a bonus, here's an old school trailer:
Probably The Best Headline Of The Week. Here.
The Planking Craze Just Got More Ballin... If you're not familiar with planking, that's probably for the best. In any case, you could never top Dwight Howard here (mostly because you're poor).
Yeah, planking across your matching Bentleys and tweeting it to your millions of followers is either really cool, or really, really obnoxious. But hey, all bets are off when you're in the middle of a plank war.
Bruce Springsteen's Eulogy To Clarence Clemons. This gave me chills.
...We were united, we were strong, we were righteous, we were unmovable, we were funny, we were corny as hell and as serious as death itself. And we were coming to your town to shake you and to wake you up. Together, we told an older, richer story about the possibilities of friendship that transcended those I'd written in my songs and in my music. Clarence carried it in his heart. It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man not only busted the city in half, but we kicked ass and remade the city, shaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly. And that... that's what I'm gonna miss.
And it's been told a million times, but the way they met is just about the coolest story ever.
They landed in Sin City Thursday and headed straight to a shooting range to blow off steam before moving to N9NE Steak house. Friday included dinner at Lavo before Criss Angel's show, "Believe." Angel pulled Bosh onstage to make him part of the act, and later levitated before theplayer's crew backstage.
Aside from the obvious jokes about Chris Bosh and/or Criss Angel, it's a good excuse to relive the story of LeBron's partying in Las Vegas last summer. The one ESPN spiked an hour after it published:
Five security guards are stationed around him ... Anyone who takes two steps toward James is stopped and must have James' approval to come closer. The waiter bringing him his cup of green tea with a spoonful of honey and a dash of lemon juice makes the cut, as does the scantily clad brunette with a tattoo of a heart on her right shoulder.
She wants to take a picture with him. "I can't right now," says James. "Maybe later, upstairs, I'll remember you're the one with the tattoo."
Finally, We End With Redneck Rankings. Sorta wish Spencer had expanded this piece into a 20,000 word guide to SEC redneck-dom, but in fairness, this video's worth at least 100,000 words by itself.