Trahan: Federer greatness brings back memories of dad
I am a true tennis fan.
My late father took up the sport later in life and became quite good at it, becoming a human backboard on the old City Park courts, seemingly allergic to net charges but masterful at putting balls in play relentlessly until the opponent ultimately made an unforced error.
He encouraged me to take lessons and take up the game.
I did so initially to please him, to bond with him. I hated getting up at 4:30 in the morning after school nights at Loyola to go take lessons with Rita Krupp at City Park. Part of hating it was that at times, I had broken curfew, staying out late as young bucks are apt to do when “feeling their oats.”
Of course, dad wanted me home and in bed by no later than midnight. I often snuck into the house, quiet as a mouse, well after midnight, doing everything imaginable to not wake dad up and draw his wrath. It was intimidating, as he could be. I loved and admired him and I feared him heartily.
I would rise grudgingly, put on the warm-up suit he or mom had purchased for me and grab the Wilson racket he had purchased for me. It was something that father and son could do together. I wore the warm-up suits that he and mom had bought for me, thinking that I was “all in” like he was with the game. Truth was that I didn’t really like the game much and liked the suits even less, with one exception. I never let him know.
In an amazing transformation and progression, within a matter of a month, I no longer hated the ritual. The game had gotten to me.
While I developed a decent backhand and could get a serve in, my forehand was funky and balky at times, keeping me from mastering the game.
The son of a janitor, dad worked diligently, earning everything along the way, a true rags-to-riches story.
He enjoyed such success that he eventually built a tennis court at his dream house in Metairie. I subsequently put the court to good use, honing whatever skills I had developed. Each year, I would play anyone I could find at training camp for the New Orleans Saints in Vero Beach, FL, all the way through LaCrosse, WI.
As part of the bonding process, I began watching tennis on television all the time with dad.
He was a huge admirer of Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. He enjoyed the consistency of Stefan Edberg and the emotional, electric game of Boris Becker. He never really liked Ivan Lendl or his perpetual cold demeanor. He enjoyed the game of John McEnroe while chiding his behavior.
Ironically, the guy he loved and tried to emulate, at least in style of play, was Jimmy Connors.
Whenever Connors played, dad was there to watch in feverish, emotional fashion. He fed off of Connors’ emotion, which was one of the reasons he did not like Lendl. Of course, Connors would often be as boorish as McEnroe but dad had a blind eye and a deaf ear for that behavior as he saw himself in Connors.
While he had long since relinquished the title of No. 1 in the world, Connors was perhaps the most intense competitor ever, playing competitively against much younger players to he was 41. Connors won eight major titles and is one of the all-time greats.
Later in life, dad became a fan of Roger Federer. He passed that on to me. What is not to like?
We all gravitate even more to sports icons as they enter their final years. Staying up all night to watch Federer win the Australian Open was a no-brainer. I have not slept well over the past eight months or so since undergoing significant surgery.
Then, there was the thought and glimpse of my father. He would have watched. He would have wanted me to watch with him and witness greatness.
Early Sunday morning Central time, Federer outlasted 29-year-old Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 for the 2018 Australian Open championship.
At the age of 36, Federer is like fine win, ignoring the test of time. He has now won three of the last five majors played around the world. Federer is the second-oldest man to win a Grand Slam title in the Open era. Ken Rosewall won the Australian Open in 1972 when he was 37.
All of this has happened for Federer after he went from 2012 to the beginning of 2017 without winning a major and all observers felt his time as a champion and top player was done.
Federer continues to defy common sense and is showing signs that he will continue to do so.
While the French Open, where Federer has won just once, is not a realistic possibility for him to win another title on the slow red clay of Roland Garros (if he plays the event), Wimbledon remains a primary playground for Federer, who loves the grass (and dirt) of the hallowed halls in England, where he has won eight times, the most ever by any player at the event.
The U.S. Open is more of a question mark. It comes later in the season and Federer appeared a bit worn down in New York a year ago. Still, Federer is a main threat at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and Arthur Ashe Stadium, having won five times in New York.
The Australian Open remains a prime consideration as Federer has now won the event six times, including the last two. That ties him for the most Australian Open titles ever with Novak Djokovic and Roy Emerson. Federer is the only player in history to win two majors six or more times.
Cilic is moving up to be among the top five players in the world. He had a major title to his credit and has now reached two other major finals. He has size, a powerful serve and punishing ground strokes. He simply wasn’t as tough mentally as Federer when it mattered most on this day.
Federer is now four majors clear of his contemporary, Rafael Nadal (16). Federer is the superior player, having won multiple titles at three of four majors while Nadal counts 10 French Open titles among his 16 major victories.
Djokovic, who has 12 major titles, is the one player who could approach or threaten the mark established by Federer. Djokovic, who has battled injuries, has not regained the form that made him the best player in the world into 2016.
Federer has won his 20 majors over a 16-year span. Only Rosewall, who won eight major titles, did it over a longer time span (20 years).
In addition, Federer now has 97 singles titles, second only to Connors (109) in the Open era.
Federer is simply superb in all aspects of the game.
He is solid on the backhand and forehand sides. He has an excellent first serve and a solid second serve. Though he does not serve-and-volley, Federer is good, with excellent hands and reflexes, when he ventures to the net.
While Nadal holds a 23-15 overall match edge over Federer, it must be noted that Nadal’s edge is primarily on clay, where he has dominated Federer 13-2. Nadal is still only 31.
Djokovic holds a slim 23-22 edge over Federer overall and Djokovic is still only 30. Djokovic is a better all-surface player than Nadal, the only one who rivals Federer.
More than anything else, it is the mental aspect of the game that sets Federer apart from his contemporaries. He has nerves of steel. He manages his emotions extremely well, though you never would have known with the pool of tears he shed following the win Sunday.
Federer is easy to like. While many dislike Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, who have dominated their sports to earn “the greatest ever” title from many, Federer has few, if any detractors. He is admired by fans, opponents and those who cover tennis on a regular basis.
It is easy to declare him the best to ever play the game. That mantle and reputation are solid and secure. Let us continue to appreciate greatness while it is in our midst.
I wish dad was still in our midst. We lost him in 2010 but still feel his strong presence daily. I am sure he is smiling today at Federer’s victory and at his son breaking curfew to watch.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…