When an athlete grows old, when she slips and starts making errors, you say that her body betrays her. What you mean is that she betrays you. A superhuman should not age. So you punish her with your attention, with your nostalgia and condescension, and also with your neglect. You turn your gaze to the young.
For the first two weeks of this year’s French Open, that’s what happened. Sure, younger players had earned the spotlight. Novak Djokovic was in the middle of one of the longest win streaks in the history of tennis. If he made the French Open final, he would become number one. For his part, Rafa Nadal was looking to equal Björn Borg’s record of six French Open titles. No one expected much of Roger Federer. Even Anna Wintour, who sat in Federer’s box in Paris, had more or less conceded Djokovic’s dominance, featuring the Serb in tiny swimming briefs in the pages of Vogue, where once Roger had been king. Federer is twenty-nine years old.
On the women’s side, the favorite was a beautiful blonde Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, twenty years old. She had never won a major, but never mind. The defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, who has hollow cheeks and a habit of kissing the dirt, wasn’t given a chance. Some thought her win last year—she had been seeded seventeenth—was a fluke, and besides she is ancient, nearly thirty-one. But Wozniacki lost in the third round, and when the finals arrived Schiavone was there again, and this time playing the twenty-nine-year-old Li Na, best known for being Asian and having a tattoo.
“With a combined age of sixty years seventy-nine days, Li and Schiavone make up the oldest French Open final pairing since 1986,” said The New York Times. Li and Schiavone were pressed to explain their advanced ages. “Is like the wine,” Schiavone said. “Stay in the bottle more is much, much better.”
“I’m not old,” Li Na insisted. “Why do you think I’m old?”
In the final, the talk of age mixed with talk of what it might mean if Li won. John McEnroe mentioned that he thought there were a billion people in China. On the court, the women were warriors—quick and strong, with touch and spin, their shots kicking up clay. They pumped their fists and screamed, until finally Li fell to the ground, the winner. Everyone agreed this was good for the women’s game, what with those billion people in China. And it was good, too, that two veterans had shown that generation of one-dimension power hitters that it took poise, flair, and a good lob to win. This was said with a certain smugness. You don’t want a hero to be mortal—but it is very nice when a mortal is a hero. Perhaps it bodes well for you.
Roger Federer is a different story. He is always a different story, a man apart. He moves with grace, with transcendent effortlessness. It used to be that you rooted for him because he was capable of producing ecstasy. Now that he is old, you root for him because he is old, and you won’t have many more chances. You also root for him because you would like him to prove you wrong, to show that he is, in fact, a kind of god. When the aging athlete wins your allegiance back, his glory is even greater. You would forgive him even his death.
Federer played one of the greatest matches of his life against Djokovic in the semifinals. He wrong-footed Djokovic; he lashed the alley; he nipped the edge of the line. He played like you imagine he should play, which is to say, unimaginably well. Amazed, the commentators kept calling him “the old man.” The old man’s got something left! When he faced Nadal in the French Open final, it almost had the air of an afterthought. Partly this was because of Federer’s remarkable win on Friday, and partly because few expected Federer to win. Still, any Federer-Nadal match is special, and this one all the more so because of that bitch, time. So many—even so many Nadal fans—were hoping the old man could prove them wrong.
For much of the match Federer played about as well as any man can play on clay, any man except Rafa Nadal. But Federer was playing Rafa Nadal, and so Nadal won. Federer had chances—he jumped to an early lead in the first set, pushed a tiebreak in the second, and won the third—but whenever he seemed about to do the impossible, Nadal would do the impossible. Nadal reached unreachable shots, leaving skid marks in the red clay that were longer than a man. He would attack Federer’s backhand—this is what he has always done—and he has this way of grabbing a ball that seems already behind him and flinging it back with even more force, his racket flung over his head. Federer has a reputation of being always calm under pressure because he doesn’t show his stress, but he’s always been a somewhat streaky player. The match featured shifts in momentum that kept my heart clenched. It was like they were playing to the death.
After Nadal’s win, the commentators turned to the old and inevitable subject of which one was the best player ever—a label usually reserved for Federer, but of course it’s a little strange if there’s another player that usually beats the best player ever. This debate is funny, and not just because it’s impossible to compare players across generations. It’s an attempt to make the present eternal, to make the is into ever.
Tennis is a game that’s played outside reality. It’s not limited by time. A match can last forever (ask John Isner!). But players don’t. A new great will come along. Now, there is Djokovic. Next perhaps there will be Caroline Garcia, the French seventeen-year-old who pushed Sharapova—herself once a teenage phenom—to the brink. Soon, someone else. There is always someone else.
Louisa Thomas writes about sports for the Daily. She is the author of Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I.