US Open 2013, Men’s Fourth Round
 Tommy Robredo def  Roger Federer 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-4
 Rafael Nadal def  Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-1
This morning, as the sun broke open over Northern California, I woke with Federer and Nadal on my mind (a little bit of Kohlschreiber, Robredo, Gasquet, and Ferrer, too, but mostly Roger and Rafa). And there they stayed. As the September sunshine warmed my shoulders, I made my way to my favorite cooperative bakery for a croissant (typical behavior for a Northern Californian on a Tuesday morning) and wondered if you, my readers, would forgive me for recycling a sentence I stole, stripped, and re-purposed for tennis once already.
A year and a week ago I quoted Jorge Luis Borges in a post about the 2012 US Open draw. In his essay The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader, Borges wrote, “the perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all.” As I took my place in the bakery line—eying the cheese Danish with affection—I couldn’t help but think Borges’s well-crafted sentence was the perfect way to describe my experience of watching Roger Federer lose in straight sets to Tommy Robredo in Louis Armstrong Stadium last night.
As it happened, the young woman ahead of me in line wasn’t in the market for baked goods so much as she was wanting employment baking goods. And she was mucking it up royally. All she needed to do was turn in her application and cover letter and walk out of the shop, but she could not stop talking. She asked what her chances were; she explained how willing she’d be to work early in the morning; and to stay in the position at least a year; and how fond she was of bread; and cookies, too; and when, she wondered, might she find out if she would be called for an interview? She spoke quickly and bounced on her heels as she talked, and reminded me of nothing so much as the cringe-inducing answering machine scene from Swingers.
No sooner did she—finally—turn to leave the counter than did she turn back, “I hope my cover letter is OK!” She bounced. I stared, openly eavesdropping at this point. Ohmygod, please stop, I thought. Just go! Quit while you’re ahead, or at least before you make it worse!
She continued, “I worked a long time on it, but I’m still not sure if it’s good. But there’s a lot in it! I hope it’s OK. It’s like a list.”
The Amish-bearded baker behind the counter paused before answering. He spoke in a soothing voice, “Remember what Borges said: ‘Every list abounds with meaning.’”
The young woman was quiet for at least a second, maybe even two. “What? Who?”
“Borges, he was a writer. From Argentina. He said: ‘Every list abounds with meaning.’” The baker paused again, touching his fingertips to his beard, “So, it’s important you wrote the letter. It’s meaningful.”
“Oh.” She bounced again. “That’s great! And it’s so true, too, isn’t it? Wait, what was it again??”
“Every list abounds with meaning.”
“Right! That’s great. Who said it?”
“Oh, right. Well, thank you! When will I find out about the interview again?”
When it came to be my turn at the counter I refrained from sharing my tennis thoughts with the bearded baker-sage. He’d listened enough for one morning. But I did tell him that I’d been thinking about a line from Borges on my way over, and we marveled together at the coincidence of so much Jorge Luis on a Tuesday morning. He recommended that I listen to Borges’s Harvard lectures, “This Craft of Verse,” which the author delivered from memory in the 1960′s when he was nearly blind. I said I would, and then I bought breakfast.
On my way home, happily chewing on my croissant, I also chewed over thoughts about lists and meanings. It seemed to me that the baker was trying to reassure the young woman that her act of writing the cover letter—the declaration of personal intent—could never be time wasted, whether or not the finished product was anything like perfection. This led me back to thoughts about Roger Federer …
Thousands of fans on Armstrong, who’d all waited out a rain delay to see Federer play for a spot opposite Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, must have felt their time had been wasted, or worse. If it hurt to watch on television, it had to have been more difficult in person, where the lack of sting off the Swiss’ miniature racquet would have been even more apparent.
From where I sat, Tommy Robredo looked to be Roger’s pink elephant. Federer could not seem to help hitting directly to him. Volleys, approach shots, passing shorts, rally balls — all went toward Robredo’s racquet, and often to his forehand. And when Federer’s shots didn’t find the nineteenth seed, neither did they find the tennis court. And the break points —only 2 of 16 for Federer— those were the most painful points of all. I imagine many spectators were having thoughts like mine in the bakery this morning: Ohmygod, please stop. Just go! Quit while you’re ahead, or at least before you make it worse!
Robredo’s tennis was more than competent— and he was psychologically rock-solid— but his performance wasn’t half as special as it should have needed to be to beat the five-time US Open champion. Many tennis fans, including a few with the last name of Nadal, think that Roger Federer’s best level is as close to perfection as mere mortals can get. In fact, there are many who believe The Mighty Fed’s mortal guise is merely that: a way to dress down his divinity. (Another way is to wear royal blue shorts that don’t quite match one’s polo shirt.) But dressed-down is one thing; diminished is another. Divine beings are not supposed to perish, especially not in straight sets in the fourth round after a near-immaculate performance in the third. In his essay, Borges goes on to say that perfection “consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away.” Last night Federer was without his fringes, a king without his miniver collar.
ESPN aired Roger Federer’s press conference side-by-side with Rafael Nadal’s highly entertaining four-set win over Philipp Kohlschreiber. There was an especially poignant moment when Federer confessed he’d been looking forward to the intimacy of playing on Armstrong, and to the experience of the crowd being enthusiastically with him. As he spoke on the right-hand side of my TV screen, Rafael Nadal was in the process of gaining a stranglehold on the entire Arthur Ashe Stadium on the left. Roger looked ready to cry; Rafa looked ready to shred concrete with his teeth.
Like Federer, Nadal lost the first set of his fourth-round match in a tiebreaker. As did his longtime rival, Nadal also struggled to convert break points (5 of 21 overall). But there the resemblance ended. Kohlschreiber played beautifully from first point to the third-to-last —excepting that disastrous overhead in the fourth set— but all his intricacy and angles weren’t nearly enough to overcome Nadal, whose brutality was especially evident on his drop shots and backhand-passing winners. The Spaniard has only faced six break points in the tournament, and has yet to lose a single one.
If you’re like me, a Rafa-fan with a healthy appreciation for Kohlschreiber’s shot-making, you will have found it a delightful match. Nadal got better all the way through, while the German hardly got worse. In my opinion, Sloane Stephens and Kohlschreiber are now tied for the most entertaining breadstick-set losses of the tournament.
If you’re a Federer fan, watching the commanding victory of his rival might not have done much to ease the ache of the evening. Maybe there was comfort to be had in Ferrer’s grinding triumph over Tipsarevic, or, more likely, in the eventual victory of Gasquet’s one-handed backhand over his own history at Majors. There’s no doubt Federer finds himself in a precarious position. How meaningful was this latest loss? There’s also no telling, with any degree of certainty, what the future will bring for the player whose game is so often called poetry-in-motion.
In another essay, this one titled “History of Angels,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote:
…No poetry, however modern, is unhappy to be a nest of angels and to shine brightly with them. I always imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot, in that long, quiet moment when things are gradually left alone, with their backs to the sunset, and when colors are like memories or premonitions of other colors. We must not be too prodigal with our angels; they are the last divinities we harbor, and they might fly away.
In other words, it’s a bummer Fed lost. Let’s hope he’s not ready to fly away.