The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
- David Foster Wallace on the power of watching Roger Federer, New York Times, 2006.
I've taken Roger Federer for granted, really. Growing up I always thought I'd get the chance to see the great Swiss play in person; to bask in the fading light of Centre Court as that serve, metronomic and taut as an archer's bow, was lifted upwards into the Wimbledon Pantheon. I thought I'd hear the crack of the backhand, watch the ball singe the white chalk off that hallowed inside tramline... I thought I'd see him, touch the numinous. But I didn't. I put it off.
To understand the creeping mortality and subsequent evolution of the greatest tennis player of all time, you've got to head back to 2013. Back to the second round of Wimbledon and an ignominious defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky; a totally forgettable journeyman, ranked 116th in the world at the time. The Ukrainian stalked into the royal palace and strangled the king. The 31-year-old, seven-time champion and perennial favourite, felled in broad daylight.
Federer was sanguine in defeat, saying: "It's normal that after all of a sudden losing early, having been in Grand Slam quarter-finals 36 [straight] times, people feel it's different. But I still have plans to play for many more years to come."
It was different, though. It was the moment when every tennis fan realised that Roger Federer was getting old.
From there things changed, by Federer standards, anyway. A final here, a semi there, but in a sport where grand slams and legacies are won and lost by infinitesimal margins and the pack grows hungrier by the passing of each month, it was significant. We were to see a new kind of Federer, the contender rather than the king, and it took some getting used to, like Bolt coming in second or Lionel Messi losing control of the ball. Not broken, but no longer immortal.
Fast forward to the present day, however and you might have noticed that, at age 35, Federer is in the midst of something like a fortnight-long renaissance. A run deep into the first major tournament of the year, the Australian Open, where he has shown glimpses of the player who captured a record 17 grand slams. The composure, the conflation of anatomy, graphite and blessed timing that once defined him all falling back into place as he heads for the final.
You get the sense watching the 2017 version of Federer that he is playing with and for an undiluted love of the game, old glories just that. The brief glimpses into that perfect window of the past, as we are seeing now, are enough for us to view him as a legend still at work, rather than a relic clinging on. Whether he wins or loses, the tinge of sadness that marked the beginning of his athletic decay has been temporarily lifted.
It is not, of course, the same as that moment nearly 14 years ago, when in an affluent corner of south west London, a 21-year-old Roger Federer sank victoriously to his knees as day passed to dusk, having sealed match point in his first Wimbledon final.
But there's something special and almost unbearably potent about what we are witnessing now: Federer raging against the dying of the light; those tired legs, with little to lose and nothing much to gain, skipping across the asphalt on the biggest stage for what may be the last time, his brilliance fading and therefore more precious than ever.