Sunday, February 01, 2009

Life and Death and the Australian Open

The Australian Open tennis tournament was the scene of the Changing of the Guard today. The huge, familiar champion, Roger Federer, lost. He was by far the best tennis player of his era for years. He won the four big national tournaments - the Australian, the French, Wimbledon, and the US Open, 13 times, the second most anyone has won ever. Mind you, each tournament starts with 128 contenders, of whom only one gets his name on the trophy. He was the one of the 128 who did that -- 13 times. All 128 are so good at tennis that they get paid to do it. He was consistently better than any of them.

Except occasionally. When he played the Spanish teenager Rafael Nadal, for instance. Nadal, the Majorcan Strongboy, consistently beat Federer on slow clay courts, common in Spain and France, but in not too many other places. But that was a sort of anomaly. Nadal was a clay court specialist. And besides, Federer could beat everyone except Nadal even on clay.

Last year Nadal beat Federer in the Wimbledon final, on a fast grass court. But Federer had mononucleosis so that couldn't be taken seriously. Even so, he beat everybody else but Nadal at Wimbledon, so it would be the Age of Federer again as soon as he got well.

Today at Melbourne, the court was hard court and Federer did not have mononucleosis. But Nadal won anyway. Given that Federer served abominably it was remarkable that he could stay with Nadal until the end of the fifth set. Even so, I served abominably when I played, and that didn't mean I was a better player on account of it.

So, at least for now, the Age of Federer is over, and the Age of Nadal has begun.

Why is sports news worth noting in a blog entry?

Because Federer is done -- at 27. Nadal is 22. Part of the reason Nadal has surpassed Federer is that he is still getting better. Federer is at his peak and will never get any better than he is now.

The stadium in which all this took place was the Rod Laver Arena. Rod Laver was the greatest tennis player of his era, arguably of all time. I remember seeing him play on black-and-white television in the great era of Australian dominance in tennis. He had a devastating forehand, which earned him the nickname 'Rocket Rod'. He was in the stands for the Federer-Nadal match, a man in his 70's.

Laver's era has been over for 40 years. Federer's has been over for a day. For the rest of us there are no obvious markers like losing a tennis tournament to tell that our day is done and the rest is just a long goodbye.

But what does it mean to be over with? Laver and Federer were each the greatest tennis players of their eras. That feature of their lives is what defined them to other people, and doubtless to themselves. Australia named a tennis stadium after Laver, not an art gallery or a courthouse, because that is how it defined him.

Most of us are not defined by our public lives like famous athletes because we don't have public lives. But even for the many who have only private lives we are still defined by externalities to others and generally to ourselves. Strangers we meet always inquire after our occupations. Strangers look for wedding rings or the lack of them to size us up. Many men are prouder of being daddies than of anything else in their lives. But it is a doomed relationship. Success means that the twerps will ripen into independent adults. Then one is only sentimentally a daddy.

Even good values lead us into self-definitions that melt in our hands. Shallower values melt even faster.

Everything that we are changes, decays, and ends. So, in the self-help phrase, we have to continually re-invent ourselves, to find new ways to define who we are. Like Roger Federer will have to, like you and I will have to.

Maybe that is what is meant in the blather phrase that one has to keep growing to stay alive. Maybe the phrase is merely inarticulate. Maybe what is meant that one has to be constantly defining oneself anew just to stay afloat.


  1. Anonymous2:56 PM

    Bravo, Jack! Love your train of thought.

    It's a bad premise to allow yourself at *any* stage of life to be defined by others. One of the hardest tasks I faced growing up (and I was past 30 before that happened)was to get comfortable with the idea that not everyone's going to like me. And, learn to be okay with that!

    If there's any value in being liked by others, it begins with being liked by yourself. That's a *tough* lesson.