Herb Benham

Thursday, Jul 07 2011 03:47 PM

HERB BENHAM: Nothing but love for Roger Federer

By Herb Benham

Thank goodness for Roger Federer because I am running out of reasons to follow athletes and watch pro sports. The Dodgers are catawampus, there is a pox on the house of cycling and basketball may be on the shelf because of a strike that some of us can't wrap our heads around anyway.

I want to sell you on becoming a tennis fan. The sportsmanship rivals golf, and the athleticism exceeds it. If you watched the finals of Wimbledon last week ,where the engaging Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal, you spent half your time shaking your head at some of the shots Djokovic produced and the other half wondering if this was the same game you played in high school.

For many (including my wife and I), men's tennis rises and sets with Roger Federer, the closest thing to athletic art imaginable. If you entered the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay or the Prado and inside stood a marble sculpture of Federer in tennis whites flicking a backhand, stinging an inside out forehand or leaning forward ready to serve, it would hardly seem out of place. There are few awkward moments with Federer. He looks graceful removing and unwrapping a new tennis racquet.

As the sports window shrinks, Federer remains a bright spot. He is like watching a skilled magician whose tricks one never tires of and whose sleight of hand one never solves.

Not only is Federer a joy to watch, but he is still in the hunt in every tournament. He is the Swiss watch whose gears and springs work in concert. His consistency is a source of quiet satisfaction.

Now at 29 and unable to dominate like he once did, this portion of Federer's career is equally interesting for reasons that have little to do with adding to his 16 Grand Slam titles.

How will Federer handle age, loss and the dulling of his skills? It's easy to be a good sport when you are winning, but are you equally amiable when you are not?

While those of us in the cheap seats can stomp our feet and pound the walls in private when we go from a slow walk to a crawl, most pro athletes are judged by how they handle the erosion of their skills in full glare of the cameras and spectators.

In the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Federer played and lost to the talented Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Federer was up two sets to love. Wow. Heartbreak, since one more set would have seen Federer advance to the semis.

After the match, Federer talked (part of his charm is that he can answer questions in English, French, German and Swiss) about having played as well as he could have, but said that Tsonga played better. Federer was disappointed but satisfied with his performance and allowed that the sun still might rise the next morning.

No excuses, no complaining and no parsing. Tennis is a great game, but it is a game and putting it in perspective makes it, and Federer himself, even more endearing.

Federer is not only an ambassador for tennis, but one for aging gracefully. A winner when he does not win. A champion fit to inspire those who follow.

These are the opinions of Herb Benham, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at hbenham@bakersfield.com

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