Faith and Roger Federer
If you are familiar with David Foster Wallace’s lovely and iconic essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” then the title above may look familiar.
But the “faith” that I’m talking about is not very akin to DFW’s “religious experience.” Wallace, after all, was writing in 2006—the Golden Age of Federer. His description of Federer’s “beauty,” the “aesthetic stuff” of his game, is confidently glorious:
Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play.
Wallace’s words are written with the excitement and buoyancy of a fan witnessing Roger, one of the greatest athletes of all time, at the impossibly high peak of his game. Today’s Federer is a different story. Though he still floats, we no longer see him as Wallace’s “alien”—the “rare, preternatural” talent who is “exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” His uncommonly lithe body, though still the most graceful on the court, has nevertheless aged. His weaknesses have been exposed and exploited by his opponents. He has lost matches he would once have won; he has struggled where he would once have left without breaking a sweat.
So when I say “faith,” I am talking about the tough parts of religious experience. Not the uplift and the hallelujah and the angels in white and the euphoric conversions. Not the lilies and the blessings and the miracles. No: I’m talking about the times when it doesn’t look so good for your chosen god, your savior, your system of beliefs. I am sure there is a quote about this somewhere that I am butchering, but we’ve all heard something to this effect before: It’s easy to believe when everything’s going right, especially if it’s going even more right than you thought possible. It’s a different story altogether when things are tough. When you have watched your surefire bets go bad. And that’s exactly when “faith” comes into question: when you can’t just sit back and believe. When you have to emotionally invest in something you know could fail.
It’s this condition of danger, of real risk, that puts faith mostly in the purview of people above, say, the age of 21. When you’re a kid, especially if you’re dealt an upper- or middle-class hand, you find things handed to you. The darker sides of people and experiences are (often) hidden from you. You wake up without back pain, without true responsibility to anyone other than yourself, without a dwindling bank account, without the feeling that certain chances are slipping away. As you grow older, belief gets more complicated. You’ve see the way the world works: chaotically and creakingly, not swayed by rules or ruled by heavenly spheres. You’ve experienced failures despite believing you were morally or emotionally correct in certain situations. You’ve even felt your own body rebelling against you, not wanting to move in the ways it used to. Not as elastic. Not as reliable.
For Federer fans, this is certainly a time for faith.
As a Federer fan who is only one year younger than the athlete, I have aged along with him. I have watched him do what he does best when I, too, felt myself to be at the top of my physical game. I have watched him breeze across the court while I breezed over my own obstacles. And now I watch him falter, watch him struggle, even as I feel my own life becoming more unwieldy.
This feeling of unwieldiness is inevitable as you age. You accumulate responsibilities, liabilities, disabilities. Your daily life becomes heavy with acts of faith. Many of us, in this day and age, are carrying around burdens: careers we’re told are dead-ends, loans we can’t pay off, relationships that are threatened by the inescapable daily grind. The strain of just being here, just showing up to life.
So, for me, there is a weight to watching Federer play today that wasn’t there before. To turn on a Federer match is an act of faith—it is to trust, despite it all, that he still has a chance. Despite the disappointing loss to Tsonga during last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal, the losses to Djokovic in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, the epic loss to Nadal at that iconic 2008 Wimbledon. To have faith in Federer is also to have faith that time is not running out for us. That there are still victories to be had. And I would venture to say that the knowledge that loss is possible—the weight of defeat always hovering now around the tennis court when Roger’s out there—makes watching him an even more beautiful and important experience. One could believe in Roger six years ago. One cannot exactly believe in him now. Yet we show up. We take deep breaths. We make the choice to trust him.
I know at some point soon—perhaps after Sunday, should Murray take home the trophy—I will have to modulate my faith in Federer. Athletes, after all, are not forever. But there’s no denying that the Wimbledon final will be imbued with something supernatural for me. And that when I set the DVR for it before I go to sleep tomorrow, I will be rooting not only for Roger’s forehand and first serve percentage, but also for possibility itself. For the relevance of something as seemingly outdated and irrelevant as faith.