Roger Federer takes the history of his sport seriously, so seriously that this Wimbledon he dressed himself to look like a quotation from its past. Last year, Federer had treated us to an off-white or cream blazer with a gold crest; this time he turned up in something that looked suspiciously like a white suit till you looked closer and saw that the jacket was a blazer because it had piping sewn in along its edges, as well as a monogrammed crest: his initials intertwined in gold. Gold was something of a motif: there were deep gold stripes at the join of the sleeves, a gold Nike Swoosh embroidered on his headband, even gold accents just above the heels of his shoes where the uppers began.
So a blazer and a contemporary take on cream flannels coordinated with a discreet V-necked cricket pullover made up Federer’s opening sartorial statement on court. Opening statement because the blazer, the trousers and the pullover were for show. Federer took them off before he began playing. They were the props for his little magic trick: when he took them off he shape-shifted: from the gentlemanly amateur he turned into the professional athlete.
When Nadal and Federer walked on to Centre Court on the day of the final, Nadal led the way, in his three-quarter-length shorts and sleeveless T-shirts, running ahead of Federer, swinging his racket and weaving from side to side like a boxer. Federer strolled in behind his co-star, wearing his period outfit, looking like the human lead in that summer blockbuster, Gatsby vs Godzilla. The history Federer was gesturing at in his costume was tennis’s country-house past. He could have been a character out of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, a weekend guest at a stately home, tripping into the breakfast room asking “Tennis, anyone'” expecting some languid lounger to answer his cue and getting Rafa instead. A friend (a fan of Federer’s style who hates everything about Nadal’s muscular game) muttered that all that was needed to complete the scene was a leash.
I think my friend is jaundiced and rude and wrong. The animal slur is both wicked and inaccurate. True, a Martian umpiring this match might have ruled it a no-contest on the strength of the physical evidence: Federer’s forearms looked like match-sticks, Nadal’s forearms looked like someone’s thighs. But Rafael Nadal doesn’t look like an animal — he looks like a cartoon. A glance at his arms and I even knew which one: Popeye.
My wife and I trembled for Federer, my children rooted for Nadal. We couldn’t understand why anyone (apart from a Spaniard) would want Nadal to win, till I made the Popeye connection. They loved Nadal because he looked and dressed and played like some cartoon character. He moved like a superhero, made unlikely drawn-out sounds and had muscles that only a cartoonist would dare draw. It wasn’t hard to imagine him inhaling spinach at the change-overs and bounding out, re-charged. He even did odd things that my children fondly call ‘gross’, like picking the seat of his shorts out of his... person, as a preliminary to serving. When I made disgusted sounds the third or fourth time he did this, they were impatient. “It’s just a wedgie! Everyone has them.” Now I had a name for his condition, but it didn’t change my mind. If I had been Federer, I’d have asked for a change of balls every game.
Through the long, five-set match, the cameras kept returning to Bjorn Borg in the Royal Box because it was only his second time at Wimbledon since he walked away from tennis more than a quarter of a century ago. He was there to watch Federer equal his record of five Wimbledon titles in a row. The Swiss was born shortly after the Swede retired and tennis pundits have been keen to cast Federer as Borg’s heir. One of them thought the two had impassivity in common.
He (and everyone else who sees a likeness) was confusing expressionlessness with composure. Borg was expressionless, Federer is composed...till he loses his composure, as he did when HawkEye endorsed Nadal’s challenges. With his head-banded blond hair, his thin unshaven face and his recessed eyes that seemed to be searching his own innards, Borg looked like a Nordic Spock, a remote, shuttered alien with a pulse rate under forty, who turned up every year to play demi-god amongst the mortals. Once a tournament, after winning championship point, he allowed himself a public display of feeling: he dropped to his knees the better to give thanks to Himself. Then he shook hands with the nominated loser, collected his trophy and left.
Federer weeps. This time, by his own admission, he was leaking tears of relieved triumph at 5-2 in the fifth set, one game before he actually won. He endeared himself to everyone with his acceptance speech when he was given the trophy. Federer does lovely interviews afterwards in three languages. He made a charming little speech to Borg on camera when he came to congratulate Federer upon his victory. Federer declared that he had given Borg a Swedish hug, though it wasn’t clear that the Swede knew what that was. For the photo-op Federer was all animated charm; Borg worked up a small, quirky smile.
They’re different. Borg, being a god, was content to be worshipped. Federer, being mortal, merely wants to be king and needs to be loved by his people. So Borg dressed to please himself: striped shirts, small shorts and stubble. Roger dresses to wow his subjects. He has the manner of a later Roman emperor, gifted enough and ambitious enough to measure himself against the great Caesars. Like the Romans, he is endearingly grand and not a little vulgar. The little perforated lace-like details in his shirts, the weakness for gold, the gold notches on his off-white kitbag that mark his Wimbledon conquests, are the modern equivalents of the gilt-edged toga.
Next year, when he wins (as I hope he will), he’ll pull on his trousers, pull off his head-band, pull out a laurel wreath and fix it on his head before taking his trophy from the Duke. One with gilded leaves, naturally. To match.