By Palash Kulkarni Sep. 21, 2022
For two decades, significant moments in my life have seemed to intersect with those in Federer’s. Even his retirement comes at a time of definite change for me. We were in a sense, meant to grow older together.
Iam 15, the year is 2008. I recently started my JEE prep. Today, I learned about Sridharacharya’s formula for solving quadratic equations. Now I have a ton of sums to solve from the thick, white Brilliant Tutorials textbook before tomorrow. But my mind is elsewhere. Federer is playing Nadal in the Wimbledon final later today. This is their third consecutive Wimbledon final. Evening comes around and the match begins. I take my seat in the drawing room with the textbook in front of me. I am going to solve quadratic equations while I watch the match. Of course that doesn’t happen. Federer drops the first two sets. I am overcome with anxiety, I can’t focus on anything else, let alone remember ‘minus b plus/minus square root of…’.
It’s been raining in London. The match drags out to late night. My father who was watching the match with me has gone off to sleep, having written off Federer. But Federer pulls back, winning the next two sets in tie-breaks. I am thrilled. He’s going to win his 6th Wimbledon final in a row. It starts to rain again in London. I can’t cope with these rain delays anymore. The anxiety is crippling. I’m pacing up and down the drawing room in front of the TV. It’s past midnight now. I haven’t solved a single quadratic equation. The fifth set begins. Federer looks shaky from the beginning but I know he will pull through in the end.
The battle drags on beyond 6-6 in the fifth. It’s now the longest Wimbledon final in the history of the tournament. At 7-7, Nadal breaks, and quickly starts serving for the Championship. My heart starts to sink but I still have some hope. I haven’t stopped pacing up and down restlessly. Championship point to Nadal. Federer mistimes a forehand; the ball crashes into the net. It’s over. I let myself fall to the floor on my back. I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. There I lay, heartbroken, staring at the drawing room ceiling, listlessly, at 2 in the morning, not a single quadratic equation solved. Since then, to this day, my idea of a quadratic equation is inextricably linked to the memory of a mistimed Federer forehand.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Federer on TV, nor do I remember why I started following him. I think it had more to do with me than with him. Following Tennis, and Federer was ‘cool’ for the adolescent Palash living in a small town. It bought me some social capital among friends. But as I grew older, and the social function lost its value, I found myself deeply sucked into his world. My teenage naiveté led me to believe that there was some cosmic connection linking the two of us.
But as I grew older, and the social function lost its value, I found myself deeply sucked into Federer’s world.
Such was my obsession with Federer that in my first year of IIT, I decided to take up Tennis without having even touched a tennis racquet before in my life. I was confident that I would pass the trials. After all, I had watched tennis all my teenage life. Of course I failed but so had others who were eventually cleared for the next round. I waited to see the coach’s reaction. The coach signalled me to hand the racquet to the next candidate. ‘You can go’, he said. I dropped my gaze and walked off the court. A naïve, teenage dream came crashing down. I think I cried.
In December 2014, Federer visited Delhi for an exhibition match. But there was a problem. The match was on 6th December, right in the middle of my placement cycle. But I booked my tickets. At Rs 12000 a seat, plus the flight and the hotel fares, they were expensive. But in that moment, it felt worth the risk and the cost. This was literally, a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Fortunately, I did get placed early on in the process. You can guess the first thing that came to my mind as I walked out of the interview room with an offer, even before the joy of getting placed sank in.
Watching Federer live, Delhi, December 2014. Photo courtesy: Dharmik Patel
Watching Federer live, Delhi, December 2014.
Photo courtesy: Dharmik Patel
As I stepped into my professional career, and life started to seem more and more bereft of purpose, Federer continued to be a constant source of meaning in my life. As luck would have it, I became flatmates with a lifelong Nadal fanatic. He had lived the same, exact experience as I had. We became best friends and continue to be, to this day. We live in different countries now, but Tennis talk has remained an unbroken feature between us. Our WhatsApp chats are strings of live tennis commentary and scores, separated by life’s happenings and updates.
In July, 2019, after my grandmother passed away, we sat in the drawing room, my entire family grieving together. It was the 8th day of grieving, also the semi-final day at Wimbledon – Federer vs Nadal, 11 years after that fateful night of quadratic equations. I dared to turn the TV on. The entire family joined in and watched the match. Federer produced a near-perfect performance, crushing Nadal in 4 sets. It felt eerie to experience this bittersweet feeling in the same room where I had hugged the floor, decades ago, dejected. Today, in victory, Federer had healed us all out of crippling grief.
As I stepped into my professional career, and life started to seem more and more bereft of purpose, Federer continued to be a constant source of meaning in my life.
If Federer has stood for meaning in my life, he has also symbolised the exact opposite – the meaninglessness and the randomness of it all. Throughout his career, he gave away important matches to worthy opponents. Like the 2019 Wimbledon final, a match of great historical significance, where he was up 40-15 against Djokovic, with two match points on his serve, but happened to lose nonetheless. As it turned out, it was the last of such frustrating experiences. Had I known it, I would have wallowed in my sadness a bit more, and would have hung onto that feeling. Do you long for deep, meaningful and cathartic sadness sometimes?
As his body grew older, and losses became commonplace, I began to take them in my stride. I reminded myself that the story in my head is no more than a story in my head. There is no point pursuing the story. Instead, just enjoy while it lasts. Even in his final matches, he would hit sublime backhand winners, set up juicy volleys and serve up line-kissing aces. I reminded myself to be thankful to him, for just making the effort, and playing till the ripe old age of 40 and giving his all against the wishes of his aging body. I guess, that’s what you call growing up: the acceptance that I am not at the centre of the universe, and that there’s no intrinsic reason why this or that happens, everyone’s just gotta live, find their own Federers, and love them while they are still around.
I guess, that’s what you call growing up: the acceptance that I am not at the centre of the universe, and that there’s no intrinsic reason why this or that happens, everyone’s just gotta live, find their own Federers, and love them while they are still around.
As I turn 30, I stand at a very important crossroad in my life. I am starting my own business. Just a week back, my parents moved into a new house, leaving behind that fateful drawing room of my childhood and adolescence. With Federer ending his professional career, it seems like my life has turned an important chapter, a chapter that began almost two decades back. Once again, for the last time, I can’t help but think Federer’s life is linked to mine. His end came at a very defining time in my life. He has given me the closure that I needed before I begin a new, important journey. It doesn’t matter how the journey goes, or how it ends. What matters is how it’s begun. With Love, just like a tennis match.