With Roger Federer’s return to number one after a stunningly unexpected, record-breaking Wimbledon title, tennis has outperformed even the outsize expectations of an age already its greatest. Wimbledon accomplished what no one thought possible: a setback for the risen stars and title favourites, a resurgence of ageing and written-off superstars, and the acceptance of the once most-maligned member of its “big four”. With Mr Federer back, seemingly crowned as the greatest of all time, possibly across sports, and with Andy Murray showing his grit, courage and class, even a waning of interest in this golden age’s great rivalries, or any fears that match-ups were getting repetitive, has been allayed. Each of the three grand slams this year has had a different champion, and there is a good chance that the US Open will spring a surprise as well.
If anything, women’s tennis is even more intriguing than men’s tennis. Here, too, a resurgent Serena Williams has re-emerged at the top of the rankings with her 14th grand slam title. Along with Victoria Azarenka’s maiden grand slam title at the Australian Open, and Maria Sharapova’s career grand slam at the French, women’s tennis exemplifies the increasingly global nature of the sport. Ms Williams’ victory makes her the seventh distinct champion in seven consecutive grand slams. And look at the national and stylistic diversity of the champions: Kim Clijsters (Belgium); Li Na (China); Petra Kvitova (Czech); Sam Stosur (Australia); Victoria Azarenka (Belarus); Maria Sharapova (Russia); and now Serena Williams (America). Incidentally, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are also the most lucrative names in women’s sports; both players are worth multiple millions annually to the brands they endorse, and they transcend cultural barriers due to the relative ease with which they are accepted as wholesome brand ambassadors for fans of all ages.
When it comes to creating iconic folk heroes and heroines, tennis seems to have found the perfect blueprint — some magic dust that continuously produces champions with unique characteristics and qualities. But if ever there has been an individual who embodies all the virtues that make him a Titan among celebrity brands, it’s Roger Federer. Mr Federer’s understated class and grace translate into a global brand of epic proportions. And now, with a thumping and triumphant statement of authority, his already thriving image will see an unprecedented boost, of the kind rarely seen in sports before: because he is someone who has risen from the ashes of irrelevance, as a mere footnote to Djokovic and Nadal triumphs, to once again play the lead in the reignited rivalries. And, unlike Tiger Woods, LeBron James, or even Andre Agassi, his balanced personal life continues to be unruffled by off-court injuries or allegations, untainted by scandals — and now, unencumbered by any also-ran projections.
Once mocked for crying after a loss and for the body blows to his confidence that Rafael Nadal delivered with ease, Mr Federer watched with empathy and sensitivity as Mr Murray, this time, succumbed to his disappointment as he broke down on Centre Court. It may not be cool to cry after a loss; but the measure of an athlete’s soul is the effort he puts in on the court, and in the love for the game and for competition that keeps him hungry for his 15 years as a professional. Not quite a politician, he is nevertheless a diplomat — something the younger generation of tennis stars seems to be learning from him. He has stuck to the task, is gracious when he loses, makes no excuses even when he isn’t at the top of his game, and remains focused on what is important for the success of the individual, the nation and the sport. A very refreshing cultural icon, indeed.
Sadly, to balance every titan, there is a Titanic. And, despite the global aura that tennis now has, its ambassadors in India are sinking a once-sailing ship. At a time when they should help it to build domestically on its unprecedentedly high profile globally, they seem to be helping to kill its cultural relevance. Surely Mr Federer shows how to be both gracious and competitive?
The author is a sports attorney at J Sagar Associates.
These views are personal.
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