Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.
-Dom Cobb
Sports lovers adore two kinds of stories. There's the Cinderella story, where teams or individuals outperform and exceed all expectations. Leicester City's dream run to the title in 2016 immediately comes to mind. On April 11th 2015, the Foxes were bottom of the table. 387 days later, a 2-2 draw between Chelsea & Tottenham made Leicester City only the sixth team to win the English top division in the Premier League era. Leicester City did not fit any known model of champions. Premier League title winners were either built (Arsenal) or bought (Chelsea, Manchester City, Blackburn) or both (Manchester United). Epic does not even begin to describe the Foxes' title tilt.  Not even sahadeva could have prognosticated such a set of events.

The second is the Catharsis story. κάθαρσις "is a metaphor originally used by Aristotle in the Poetics, comparing the effects of tragedy on the mind of a spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body" according to Wikipedia. Goran Ivanišević completely lost his form and was ranked 125th before the 2001 Wimbledon championships. He was not guaranteed an automatic place. Only his past record as a 3 time finalist got him a wild card entry into the main draw. He defeated a murderer's row (Moya, Safin, Roddick, Rafter) of past and future grand slam champions and very good grass court players (Henman, Rusedski) and finally won the trophy he coveted in barely believable fashion. It was Cinderella and Catharsis (Catherella?) at the same time. Even the most stone-hearted person would have found it difficult to hold back the tears on seeing the big Croat do a Cash.

One of greatest moments in tennis history

Ivanišević had a reputation of, with some justification, being mentally flaky. His most powerful (some would say only) weapon, the serve, would fail him at crucial moments. In big matches second serve aces would inexplicably turn into second faults. He was the Anti-Sampras that way. From advantageous positions, he would get the yips. He had trouble, mentally, in landing the killer blow. Having said that he had his moments. He was one of only two men to hand Sampras a defeat at SW19 from 1992 to 2000. Barring the 1994 final, his two other Wimbledon matches against Sampras went the distance. In fact, he had the second most wins (33) at Wimbledon in the said period after Sampras (58). If someone puts it this way, that ain't half-bad for a mental midget now, is it?


In probability, Expectation or Expected value is defined, intuitively, as the long-run mean value of the reiterations of an experiment. Peyton Manning was highly recruited by multiple college football powerhouses. He had the most wins as a starting quarterback in the NCAA when he finished college. He was the No. 1 draft pick in the 1998 NFL draft. In short, Peyton Manning was the anointed one.  His future NFL rival Tom Brady, on the other hand, was not recruited heavily. He was the backup quarterback for the first 2 years of his college career. One hundred and ninety eight players were selected in the 2000 NFL draft before the future Mr. Gisele Bundchen was called up by the Patriots. To summarize, Tom Brady was the "un-anointed" one.

Uncle Ben said, "With great powers must also come great responsibility" but he never told his nephew that together with great powers comes great Expectation. As powers and abilities increase the people's expectation of the talent to fulfill it increases, often exponentially. The Expected minimum output can be so high and unreasonable that it can be crippling. Many talented karnātik singers and musicians fell prey to alcohol because they could not withstand the pressures of singing in a sabhā as bitter critics, with harked ears and drawn swords (pens), scoured for the minutest of flaws. Brian Lara wanted to quit cricket in his late 20s when many batsmen are at their peak. Mardy Fish talks about suffering from panic attacks when he became the No. 1 American tennis player. Expectation can be that bad for some.

Expectation also makes people judge different people in the same situations differently. Peyton Manning was killed in the press for his inability to inspire the Colts in the post-season. A season, where he threw 49 touchdowns in the regular season, ended with a zero touchdown meltdown at Foxborough. Every failure of his was magnified and every success met with a "He's Peyton Manning" shrug. After winning 3 Super Bowls in 4 years, Patriots went into a period of lull. Brady led offense sputtered in the 2nd half of the 2007 AFC championship game and lost a 21-3 lead to Manning's Colts. After 50 touchdowns and 18-0, Brady was destroyed by the Giants' D-line. They lost to Ravens and Jets. They lost to the Giants again in the Super Bowl. Manning, as a Bronco, dumped the Patriots twice in AFC Champion games. Was Brady ever called a choker? Hardly. Even before the preternatural comeback in Super Bowl 51, his reputation as a clutch performer was rarely questioned. Peyton Manning, despite being the leader in 4th quarter comebacks and game-winning drives hardly registers notice when great comeback quarterbacks are discussed like Brady, Roger Staubach or Joe Cool do.

Roger Federer suffers from such sky high expectations. A commentator during one of Pete Sampras's great matches at Wimbledon said, "When Sampras was born, God just touched his right shoulder." after one of his patented aces under pressure. Like gāndhārī's divine vision granted duryodhana's body, bar his thighs and loins, unbreakable immunity, Federer was seemingly granted immunity from any sort weakness, but for a certain Majorcan southpaw,  by the Tennis Gods. He doesn't have Sampras's naturally powerful and swerving service but his is right up there. He may not have the silky touch of Johnny Mac but it's right up there. He may not have Edberg's volleys but it's right up there. He may not have Agassi's honed-from-childhood hitting on the rise groundstrokes from the baseline but it's right up there. All in all, Roger Federer is the Golden Mean of talent with no ostensible deficiencies.

A Roger Federer backhand down the line is a thing of indescribable pulchritude.

This causes fans to judge him differently than others. In his own words:
For me, it's always a fine line between winning and losing and trying and not trying. Because I don't sweat as much as others, or grunt as much as others, or make faces when I hit the ball, and it's easier on the eye, it's harder for people to see that I’m actually really trying. Australia gave me a chance to show my fighting spirit.
When Federer wins it's the talent that did it. Every. Single. Time. Two sets to love down against Tommy Haas. Talent. Withstanding a barrage of bazookas and howitzers from Del Po. Talent. Coming back from two sets to love down against Benneteau, with a bad back no less. Talent. Saving four set points in the second set tiebreaker and later on holding serve 15 times in a row in the deciding set against Roddick. Talent. Defeating Agassi, one of the great wind players, on one of the windiest days at Ashe. Talent. It is always the talent that did it in each case. It's never the fighting spirit or the never say die attitude. That is, for Federer, the Expectation.

When he loses it's always because he gave up. He's mentally weak. He's a quitter. His balls shrink when facing Nadal. He's not a fighter. He self-destructs unlike Djokovic, Nadal or Sampras. From a six set losing streak against Nadal in his best ever career form, he clearly quit after saving match points to lose 7-9 in the 5th set. 33 year old Federer gave up and found an inexistent gear to win 5 games in row to take the game into another deciding set. After being pulverized 6-1 6-2 in the first two sets, Quitterer very nearly pushed the 2016 Australian open semifinal into a 5th set. Of his 10 losses in slam finals, 4 were in 5 sets and 5 were in 4 sets. All signs point to - choker, quitter, ball-shrinker, giver-upper. Expectation.

The biggest criticism bandied around is that Nadal solved Federer on grass but Federer never solved Nadal on clay. This is justified but only to a certain extent. Nadal strengthened his confidence by repeatedly defeating Federer on clay. Federer never could face Nadal on the relatively fast courts of Cincinnati & Flushing Meadows circa 2004-2007. Nadal's level was competitive to very good enough on hard courts in this period. A time in which he won 3 hard court Masters titles, one of them even indoors. In fact, until 2017 Federer and Nadal had never met three times in a row on any surface other than clay. Add the 5 year age difference to all this, it is, at the very least, understandable that Federer's inability to solve Nadal on clay is not that unreasonable. It took Djokovic, conquerer of Nadal 7 times in a row in his physical prime, four attempts to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros. Yet, Federer, despite turning 30, should have somehow "solved" the yama kiṅkara of clay. Expectation.

Federer made the French Open final when he was nearly 30. He won a (blue clay) Madrid Masters 4 months from his 31st birthday. He made Monte Carlo and Roma finals when he was running 33 and 34 respectively. All this when his natural game is unsuited for clay. Who else can can go from losing their first 11 matches on clay to making 5 French Open finals and winning it once? And what is the reward for all this? Criticism that he skipped clay in 2017. He should have taken on Nadal in debilitating clay. Nadal's only grass final after the 2011 Wimbledon final was Stuttgart 2015. From ages 26 to 31, Nadal has made one final on grass. He has gone 2nd round, 1st round, 4th round, 2nd round, absent, 4th round. Four of those losses were to players ranked 100 or worse. He gets a free pass for it because he's not a natural grass courter but unnatural clay courter Federer is expected, at nearly 36, to play energy sapping clay and win Wimbledon three weeks later. Would one require anybody else to win a channel slam at 36? "'s Federer!". Expectation.

Table I: Record In Grand Slam Finals

After 10 Finals After 15 Finals After 20 Finals After 21 Finals After 23 Finals 5 Set Finals After Winning 1st set After Losing 1st set
Federer 9-1 12-3 15-5 15-6 16-7 3-4 15-3 4-7
Nadal 8-2 10-5 14-6 14-7 16-7 2-3 13-1 3-6
Djokovic 6-4 8-7 12-8 12-9 N/A 2-1 7-3 5-6

In the biggest matches of the biggest tournaments, mental midget Federer seems to be doing quite OK compared to the toughest never-giver-uppers Nadal and Djokovic. Detractors will immediately point to the competition. That has been quite sufficiently dealt with here. If that is still unconvincing, here's another set of arguments: It's not Federer's fault that he never lost slam finals to the Murrays and Wawrinkas of his era. It's not Federer's fault that Nadal missed an easy backhand put away pass to make it 40-15 and failed to consolidate the break in the fifth set. It's not Federer's fault that Nadal didn't serve the match out in the 4th set and promptly got broken. It's not Federer's fault that Djokovic touched the net and lost the plot from up a break in the fifth set. It's not Federer's fault that Nadal couldn't withstand the assault of a 35 year old and surrendered 5 games in a row. When it comes to Nadal or Djokovic, somehow these don't count as chokes but Federer crying after the Australian Open final or losing the US Open final after arguing with the chair amounts to the greatest ever mental fragility. Expectation.

Nadal and Djokovic have the biggest advantage that Federer never had: A lack of, you guessed it, Expectation. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Federer, still two matches away from just his 4th ever slam final, was the purported GOAT. It was reiterated again a year later after his 6th grand slam title. Nadal and Djokovic have never dealt with that sort of pressure. Every time they got anywhere near the production level of Federer from 2004 to 2007, they have invariably broken down. Nadal has never had two seasons in a row when he won multiple slams. Every great season of Nadal bar 2010 resulted in injury layoff(s) the following year. Every time he earned the number 1 ranking he has given it up the following year. Djokovic, briefly, in 2012 lost his number 1 ranking to a 31 year old Federer! The Serb was so mentally spent after completing his career grand slam that he sleepwalked through the ATP circuit for more than year and shutdown his season before the 2017 US Open. Win or lose, Iron Man Federer never took an extended break like the others until his 19th season on tour. Does that not take great reserves of strength to continually push one's physical and mental self to cope with the younger men who are in their physical prime? Or do we chalk this to talent again?

ΚΆΘΑΡΣΙΣ (Catharsis)
The stronger the issues, the more powerful the catharsis.
-Dom Cobb
Roger Federer's 2014, 2015 & 2016 seasons had been very frustrating for his fans. He had been knocking on the door for his record extending 18th Slam but it never opened. Fans had been running the #BEL18VE hashtag for this entire time. Either Djokovic stopped him or a 90s style In-The-Zone player did. The #BEL18F was slowly fading. After Djokovic put that beat down of a lifetime, it almost ended. Djokovic's early exit in Wimbledon caused it to start shining again and then came the slip. He took the rest of the year off, preferring to avoid further risk to his career. Federer has always played the long game better than anyone. He went on hikes and recharged his batteries after nearly 2 decades of the non-stop grind that is the ATP tour.

Federer played himself into form in Melbourne in the first two rounds. Denis Istomin defeated Djokovic in 5 sets. It felt like a sign. His first test was the big Czech, Tomáš Berdych and he aced it in spectacular fashion. Mischa Zverev, channelling his inner Johnny Mac, dumped the latest World No. 1 and newly knighted Sir Andrew Barron Murray. This was followed by the old man outlasting Nishikori in 5 sets. It felt like the stars were beginning to align. After a light workout against the elder Zverev brother, Federer was through to his 13th semifinal in 14 years at Melbourne Park. He withstood the barrage of his compatriot and friend Stanimal to enter his 6th final in Australia and the 1st for 7 years. On the opposite side of the net, stood his long time nemesis. The man who had defeated Federer three times in Australia, each defeat getting progressively worse for the once mighty South Afro-Swiss.

The Ultimate "Un-Warrior-Like" Warrior

Three hours and thirty eight minutes after Nadal served to begin FEDAL XXXV, a Hawkeye line call put #BEL18VE to pasture and it was time for #BEL19VE. Federer slew multiple demons in the match. It was his first slam win over Nadal or Djokovic in nearly 5 years. He defeated Nadal in slam for the first time in nearly 10 years. He showed terrific mental strength, balls, guts and spirit talent to comeback from a break down in the 5th set to win his first slam in nearly 5 years. It would not be an exaggeration to call this the sweetest victory given the circumstances of his return and the mental edge Nadal had built up over the years. The victory gave him the belief to defeat Nadal 3 further times, two of them utter thrashings, twice in finals, twice on slow, high bouncing outdoor courts which, at least in theory, favour Nadal. κάθαρσις at its purest, most unadulterated form.

After putting his fans through the wringer for almost three years, Federer delivered a season for the ages. Two slams, three masters, seven titles in all, at the age of thirty six. It is so outrageous that it is mythical. Even fantasy writers wouldn't dream of such ineffable fairy tales. Yet it leaves Fednatics slightly disappointed. In India, we have a practice of placing a small dot, usually from an eyeliner, on the cheek of a newborn to avoid dṛṣṭi (literally eyesight). It is supposed to draw attention away from the child to ward off the evil eye. Federer fans are similar. Instead of looking at the child (18 & 19), we look at the dot (US Open & Tour Finals). Thirty six, throwing his back out in Montreal, fatigue despite skipping clay, these matter not to the mad Fednatic. In their our minds it registers only as another opportunity missed. It only confirmed that the greed of the Federer fan is as legendary as the great man's career. Like a true artist, Federer left the stage leaving his fans wanting more. That is the level of, one last time, Expectation.



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