SHANGHAI ~ The decline of Roger Federer has not diminished the lethargic beauty of his play, which is one of the two qualities that mark his legend. The second is what happens to the tennis ball on the other side of the court, which is where he is not what he used to be—
the other side of the court. He has, once again, lost his top rank. Are these the final days of the greatest tennis player ever? There are people who say he is “one of the” greatest because they wish to be journalistic, but caution is often a lazy form of fact. Roger Federer is the greatest that ever lived according to almost all statistical indicators, which cover the Open Era, and according to that most underrated piece of evidence—what the eye can see, which includes videos of Rod Laver. In the nineties, when men’s tennis entered its dark age with the resolute triumph of the unbearable bores over the artistes, just as literary fiction has long endured in the masquerade of art and subjectivity, it did appear that the game had changed so much in favour of brute power that it was fated to be ugly and banal, and that beauty itself was somehow a flaw. But then Roger Federer arrived, and class was once again a matter of elegance and not merely success. But how long before that sudden press conference, some tears surely, and he disappears forever?
For several years I wished to see him play from a good seat in a stadium, the kind of seat you see in the background when he prepares to serve, a place so close to the court that one would have to keep phones and infants on silent. I imagined that such an experience would be superior to watching him on television. In June, months in advance, I bought the best centre court seat an individual can buy for the entire duration of the Shanghai Masters. And in the second week of October, I flew to Shanghai to accomplish the long overdue pilgrimage that had now acquired the melancholy of tribute.
Shanghai, which is about six hours from Delhi by direct flight, is a giant city whose objective is to stun and impress at first glance. Yet, the fact is that the great city is far less glamorous or modern or affluent than it appears in photographs. In a way, Shanghai is like those people who look fabulous on Facebook but are somewhat misshapen in person. The city’s bridges and the cluster of great modern buildings in Pudong, Shanghai’s financial district, are truly astonishing, but the city has a surprisingly large number of cheap high-rises that try to mitigate their ugliness through exotic domes and roofs—it is as if Hafeez Contractor was here, too.
It is a city that appears Western at rest, but something about the movements within is Third World. People who look different from the rest go someplace important in the backseats of their chauffeur-driven sedans. At the traffic light, beggars peer inside those cars. One woman sits by the roadside and beats her head. There is smog and honking and cars running traffic lights. Restaurants are manned by too many and there is much chatter and shouting to achieve simple tasks. It is common to see men fight over the bill ledger, probably saying in Chinese, “No, I’ll pay… No, I’ll pay… No, I’ll pay.” In Shanghai’s subway system, which is extensive, the truly fashionable are rare and the apparel of commuters is mostly inexpensive. Is it one of those cities then, like Delhi and Moscow, where the elite think the metro is for losers? As in the Delhi Metro, people in Shanghai’s subways shout into their mobile phones divulging the full details of their business to half the train. On occasion, a blind man sings, led by a gloomy little girl, who shakes her bowl at the commuters; an old woman pushes a wheel chair and parades her invalid husband who holds the laminated print of his morose history; a young boy stands in the aisle and sings without talent. As soon as he starts, the commuters clap. Were they making fun of him? The boy turns coy and forgets the lines of the song, but soon resumes. But all this is too mild and the city itself, in plain sight, too aesthetic for an Indian to call home. Also, nothing about Shanghai even closely resembles Indian urban disorder.
English is almost useless in Shanghai. Even careful pronunciation of Shan- ghai’s famous landmarks, like its river promenade, The Bund, is met with amicable incomprehension by locals because everything here has a Chinese name. A foreign tourist in Shanghai has a good opportunity to go silent for days, which lends a brooding intensity to the objective of the visit.
The Qi Zhong Tennis Center is situated in a massive suburb with wide vacant roads, a place that is as ugly and dismal as Gurgaon, the district-size satellite of Delhi. The stadium is about forty kilometres, an hour’s drive, from the Ritz Carlton, which is hosting Federer.
Federer’s first match is on Centre Court, which can seat 15,000. The seats that can be bought are almost filled, but the best seats are the boxes around the court that cannot be bought by individuals. They are given free to the executives of sponsors and those who are, in China too, called VIPs, or sold to companies who can spend millions of rupees for a clutch of seats. But those seats are mostly empty tonight.
A spirited announcer is setting the atmosphere for the entry of Federer and Yen-Hsun Lu, who is Taiwanese. It is Lu who walks onto the court first and there is applause. But when Federer walks in, waving with a hint of affection, the stadium erupts in roars. Almost all the spectators are standing. But for the infectious, joyous din of the stadium, I feel I am watching a giant television screen and that Roger Federer is not a person who is part of the physical world but an image who belongs to television. Perhaps that is why people scream out his name, as they do here, “Roger… Loger”. They want him to turn and look them in the eye so that they can claim him as real.
Federer hangs his towel carefully on the back of his seat, takes his time to sit, shakes his legs, arranges his things. Behind him, facing a section of the audience, stand two men in smart black suits and black sunglasses. There is no such security for the other player. Days before Federer had arrived, someone had threatened to kill him in Shanghai. The threat, which was posted online, was accompanied by the image of a beheaded Federer kneeling on the tennis court.
In the inner circle of a stadium where all the best seats are, there are two distinct experiences. The more prized of the two, by general opinion, is watching the game from behind the baseline. Such a position offers the best and complete view of the court. But television coverage of tennis, which is predominantly from this angle, is so good these days that the baseline view in a stadium is merely an enhancement of the TV experience. It is the other experience—watching the game from behind the sideline—that is extraordinary as it shows how fast the game is in reality and how unattainable this level of tennis is.
Lu is impressive but he is no match for Federer, who is cruising towards victory. Federer is inescapably beautiful, but most of the time he does nothing extraordinary. Then there is a shot that makes people let out sounds and imitate, with imaginary rackets, what they just saw. In a way, Federer is like a good novel—it does not try to achieve genius in every line, that would be amateurish; it is unafraid of the lull, accepts the importance of the ordinary, and then there is a sudden moment of greatness.
He is graceful even when he is not in the flow of the game. He almost never screams or grunts. He does not fling his racket, does not make a show of talking to himself, never pulls out his shorts from his crack. When he falls down, which is very rare, he is extremely embarrassed. The only time his face loses its poise is when he weeps or tries not to in the face of defeat or a Grand Slam triumph, which is endearing because it reminds all that what he does for a living is also something very dear to him.
It is natural that the ways of a predominant artist would inspire imitation. His peers are too set in their ways to be in a position to adopt elements of his style, but he is widely imitated by young tennis players and amateurs, especially. In sheer influence, his one-handed backhand is on par with the famed opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ More writers than is evident are infected by the line. For instance, a closer look at the opening sentence of Salman Rushdie’s memoir reveals the source—‘Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him…he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter…’
As the match is drawing to a predictable end, fans with autograph books and giant tennis balls gather in a holding area near the players’ exit. After the win, Federer makes a short speech in which he praises Lu. When he finally leaves the court, he approaches the fans. There is commotion and it appears that they are going to fall through the barricades. He reprimands them for their own safety with a single stern word, “Wait”. He then signs, largely without meeting eyes. Like most male sportstars, he ignores the loud affections of pretty girls in the assembly of fans, and gives priority to children.
For another iconic athlete, it was a day of final irreversible disgrace. The US Anti-Doping Agency announced, after years of collecting evidence against the controversial cyclist Lance Armstrong, that he was a part of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
Should writers, too, be disqualified for doping? Is it laughable? It is, but why? Because literature is not a contest? That, too, is laughable.
The French concession of Shanghai, according to Shanghai, is the city’s most elegant residential area. The former French settlement is not just a hillock or a street, it is a sprawling town in itself that appears ancient and European with gracious old homes, some cobbled ways, cafes that spill into the sidewalks, and cheerful restaurants where there are more White expatriates than there are locals. In the nights the lanes turn quiet and desolate. But there is a section on Hengshan Road, where there is a line of throbbing pubs that constantly spit out delirious drunken youth into the happy commotion outside. There are hordes of amiable men, and some women too, who approach solitary male tourists and say, “Want lady massage?” Here, it would appear, any man can be a pimp. One moment he is standing on the roadside with his family, including children, all eating burnt corn, and the next moment he has locked a steady gaze on you and is now approaching you. “Want lady massage?” The pimps are numerous and persistent, they even walk half a mile with the prospect, honestly unable to comprehend why a tourist who is walking alone would not want to consider a lady massage. But one night I carry something in my hands that repels the pimps. It is magical. I walk like Moses parting a sea of pimps. I am suddenly not a prospect. What I carry in a plastic bag are four bottles of water and half a dozen bananas. A man who is carrying water and bananas is somehow not in need of lady massage.
The soliciting persists in daylight too. Even at ten in the morning they shadow the prospect, repeating without tiring, “lady massage”. Outside a Starbucks café: “Want lady massage?” An old woman tears herself from a conference of old women on the pavement and begins to follow me. She has a brochure of lady’s handbags. “Lady’s handbags,” she says several times, which is somehow a relief. But then, she says, “Want lady?” As if leaving the handbag out of the ‘lady’s handbag’ is a reasonable discount. How did she make the switch between ‘handbag’ and ‘lady’—the two ends of the spectrum of what a man truly needs.
There are several hours to go before his prime time match, and on centre court Roger Federer is training. His hitting partner on the other side of the court is a mysterious fat man with loose breasts and a paunch. To be the hitting partner of a professional tennis player one has to be a very good player himself and the fat man is evidently very skillful. Fat men who play a sport well usually have brisk strides and quick movements, and an exaggerated serious poise as opposed to fat men who dance well, who suspect they are very cute. The mysterious fat man is intense, and somehow very agile and stationary at the same time. He does not run or reach out to meet the ball, instead he stands in his place and turns swiftly at the passing ball and lets his gaze follow it as if that is his way of completing the shot. Now, another mysterious fat man appears, who is much larger than the first fat man, and they train with Roger Federer, who suddenly looks slight and imperfect. A moment in time—Federer versus two fat men.
Hours later, as the match between Federer and fellow Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, progresses the stadium grows tense. All matches at the Masters are best-of-three-sets. Federer has lost the first and the second set has gone into a tie-breaker. It now appears that he may lose the match. Wawrinka, who too has a one-handed backhand, which is rare in modern tennis, does not look like a side cast.
A persistent quality of Federer on the court is that he either dominates the match completely or quickly sinks into a precarious position. There is a touch of literary exaggeration and deceit in the ascribing of remarkable extremes to a person, but Federer truly does exhibit the phenomenon. Some of his matches have been famously close, but they are very few. Usually, the outcome is evident from the very start.
He is most interesting when he begins to lose a match. Nothing about his composure reveals how a match is balanced, but when he begins to sink, what is widely known as his style suddenly appears to be his flaw. On a bad day, it appears, his very beauty is his weakness. Through him style reveals itself in its true form. That it is not a weapon, not a utility. Instead, it is a risk. Like humour. A gambit has exceptional rewards, but it may lead to heartbreaks too.
Federer wins the second set tie-breaker and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. People shuffle out to go eat or drink or relieve themselves before the decisive third set begins. The toilets of the stadium are filled with smoke. It is illegal to smoke in the toilets here but Shanghai is somewhat relaxed about smoking. People, chiefly men, smoke inside restaurants and bars and in hotel lobbies.
When the spectators return from the stalls they are baffled to learn that the match is almost over. Federer eventually wins the third set 6-0.
After the main draws of the evening are over, there is chaos outside the stadium with thousands of people trying to leave at the same time. It is hard to find a taxi, especially if one has to shove the hotel’s Chinese address card through the window as a way of telling the driver where one wants to go, which is the only way a foreigner can get anywhere in a taxi. Attempting to pronounce Chinese words will most probably take you someplace else. I see a short stocky man, probably a local, walking down the road with a tall White woman who has golden hair. So I presume he speaks at least a bit of English. I ask him if he knows where the tournament’s shuttle bus service departs from. He offers to drop me in his car at the nearest subway station. His English is broken but very efficient. “Searching for my car,” he says. We enter a wide, dark road where there are lines of parked cars. We walk in silence searching for his car as he has forgotten where exactly he had parked it. The woman with the golden hair has a soft mature smile. She is a beautiful woman, in a tight white top and jeans. The short stocky man asks me where I am from. When I say I am from India he makes some sounds, which is probably in appreciation, and he says he has never met an Indian before. “Lot of rich people in India,” he says. He has heard of Mukesh Ambani’s home in Mumbai. “I want to go to India,” he says, “Too many people in China.” That makes the woman laugh.
The man has lived in Shanghai for several years. I ask him what he does for a living, which makes the golden hair smile somewhat mysteriously, but it is a question that requires several versions for him to understand. And when he does, he says, “Guess what I do.” I say, “Business.” He laughs hard. The woman laughs, too. He is a psychologist, he says. A thriving psychologist in a new city that needs people like him. “Guess what she does,” he says. I say I can’t guess, and he laughs hard. She looks away, but is probably not offended. He says, “She is from Russia,” and he tells her, “Why don’t you tell him what you do?” She does not react. We walk in silence again—a journalist, a Chinese shrink and a Russian blonde. We had to just enter a pub to become the opening of a joke.
Next day, Federer has an easy quarter-final match against Marin Cilic, which he wins in two sets. But the big match was always going to be the semi-final—against Andy Murray. This was the match the crowds were waiting for. But, from the very start, Federer is uncomfortable. It is a tragic match, inexplicably one-sided. There is a passage of play when Federer makes three successive double-faults, which he has probably never done in his professional career.
There is now a bit of a drizzle and Federer goes to the umpire to claim the court is slippery and that the game must stop for the court to dry and the moveable roof to come on. Murray is in no mood to leave but Federer clearly wants some respite. The roof eventually comes on but Federer does not regain his touch. There are moments when the crowds laugh at his failures. Federer, suddenly, a clown?
He loses the match in straight sets. And he leaves, looking morose. Novak Djokovic is already in the final and if he beats Murray, Djokovic will end the year as world number one, which is what eventually happens.
If Federer were a novelist, what would be his fate? As literature, allegedly, is not a contest, he would never lose? And he would be granted his place as the predominant artist of his time, unchallenged by the merely efficient and the prosaic? Or will the charade of subjectivity be used against him by the literary referees? Will the fellowship of bores, who have contempt for what is interesting and beautiful, and who attach artistic merit to what is, in their own words, “inaccessible”, meaning unreadable, deem him too enjoyable to be taken seriously?