Saturday, July 2, 2011

Federer releases Let it Be

In the end, the surprise is how quickly it was all over. From the release of their first album in 1963, and then just over seven years later it was all done. From Please, Please Me to Let it Be in seven years. In between nothing much had changed, just the entire genre of popular music.

Things were different then. Two albums in a year was not unusual. Creativity was a furious endeavour. Get something on the page, get it in the studio, get it on the track, get it in the shops.

Now the time it takes to record an album, tour around the world for a couple years and then get back in the studio and record another is spread out.

Year The Beatles U2 R.E.M Radiohead Coldplay Green Day Pearl Jam
1 Please, Please Me; With the Beatles Boy Murmur Pablo Honey Parachutes 39/Smooth Ten
2 A Hard Day's Night; Beatles For Sale October Reckoning        
3 Help!; Rubber Soul   Fables of the Reconstruction The Bends A Rush of Blood to the Head Kerplunk Vs
4 Revolver War Life's Rich Pageant       Vitology
5 Sgt. Peppers The Unforgettable Fire Document OK Computer   Dookie  
6 White Album   Green   X&Y Insomniac No Code
7 Yellow Submarine; Abbey Road            
8 Let it Be The Joshua Tree   Kid A   Nimrod Yield
Total 12 5 6 4 3 5 5

Just think, in the time is took The Beatles to go through their entire discography, R.E.M in the equivalent time had not even got to Out of Mind. U2 had just finished the first period – Achtung Baby lay another three years away.  Only Radiohead seems to have kept pace in creative growth. But by the time they brought out their pinnacle of OK Computer – their third album, The Beatles had released 8 albums. It’s hard to argue that The Bends is a good swap for Revolver, Rubber Soul, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

The rise to the summit was quickly done – if you ignore the years in Liverpool, touring round England and the double stint on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. When they got good, they got amazing, and then they stayed there.

Well sort of. Sure Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band was great to the point of beyond over-rating (and yet of course it is massively over-rated – it’s not even their best album, how could it be – it has “Lovely Rita” and “When I’m 64”, two very dull and stupid songs), but that same year they released the EP Magical Mystery Tour. The most notable thing about Magical Mystery Tour was how far George Harrison and Ringo Starr in the Beatles Anthology DVD’s sought to distance themselves from the decision to do it. They laid it at the feet of McCartney and even he had to admit, yeah it was kind of naff (but film school students apparently love it he implores!).

But this decline was seen as a blip – after all look at The White Album. Yes look at it. Revolution #9, Wild Honey Pie, Birthday, Yer Blues, Yoko Ono singing on The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. Lots of dross (but yes, lots of brilliance).

Should we also ignore The Yellow Submarine, which was hardly even worth being called an album? Yes let’s.

And then Let it Be. An album so full of meh that Paul McCartney tried to resurrect it by releasing the “Naked” version, minus Phil Spector’s production. But you can’t change the past. The end was here, and all that was left was for Lennon and McCartney to have it out and go off and make “Imagine” and “Ram”. Except as all fans know, Let it Be, while it was the last album they released, it was not the last album they recorded – that prize goes to the glorious Abbey Road. Truly a high note to end on.

And what, pray tell does this have to do with Roger Federer?

Two nights ago when Federer lost in 5 sets to Jo Wilfred Tsonga, we have to realise that the end is here. The age of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper is gone. It won’t come back. Federer also had had his Magical Mystery Tour period – in 2008 he lost in the semi-final of the Aussie Open, then got beaten by Nadal in the French Open and (gasp) Wimbledon. The decline has begun they said. Vale Federer. Thanks for it all.

And then he came out with The White Album and won 4 of the next 6 Grand Slam titles, and came runner-up in the other two.

But still the decline was to come. And when you look back, you see that like The Beatles, it has all been rather brief. He won his first Grand Slam in 2003, he won his last in 2010 – the same period of time as the 1963-1970 span of The Beatles.

And sure there was another great band during the ‘60s, just as there was another great tennis player besides Federer, but Nadal is The Rolling Stones. He, like they, came second. And yeah you saw the passion perhaps more with him and them. You saw the sweat, the angst, the masculinity. But The Stones were never as big as The Beatles, and they know it. And Nadal even if he sticks around and wins as many titles as Federer will not be Federer. And I suspect he knows it.

There is popular music before The Beatles, and then after. So too with tennis and Federer. When we watch tennis being played now we view it through the lens of Federer – you must be able to serve, you must be able to return, have a whipping forehand, and you must be able to turn defence into attack. What made Federer unbeatable was his ability to keep in points even when running to the back of the court. The ability to cut a forehand that should have been past him back into his opponent’s court at such an angle and such a speed as to render the advantage to Federer’s side of the net.

Nadal was the first to also learn how to do it. Then Djokovic.

And now if you can’t do it, you don’t play.

Watch Bernard Tomic – he already has the defensive-attack shot in his armoury.

Nadal is great. But he plays tennis in the Federer era, as much as The Stones, The Animals, The Who all were within The Beatles’ shadow.

But the fade does come. Sure they were young, – in their late 20s when it happened, but time has an amazing way of cutting down rock-n-roll stars at their seeming peak. The creativity of just four or five year’s previous is dried up. Where once you had Norwegian Wood, Eleanor Rigby and Tomorrow Never Knows, now there is only Let it Be, The Long and Winding Road and Get Back. And yes Get Back is a great rocker, and the other two are not embarrassing. But they don’t change music as we know it.

So too with Federer. Yeah last month in Paris he played great tennis to beat Djokovic in the semi-final, and took it up to Nadal in the final. But no longer do you watch him play and think, we’ll never see the like again. There are others who have grown up watching him play, they know his shots, they have honed their game to be a version of him. No they may never be as good as him, and they certainly won’t change tennis, but no more can we say Roger does things no one else can do.

Tennis has become a game where you try to do things no one else can do.

Roger changed the geometry of tennis. Now we have kids playing who for the last 8 years have been studying his mathematics text-books.

And, criminal as it is, let’s reduce him to mathematics:


Think of the first period of blue bars as Federer’s Hamburg period. Those in the know knew about him – saw big things coming. But no one, just like those who saw The Beatles with Pete Best in the Kaiserkeller, knew exactly what was about to happen.

With 8 points for a tournament win, and 7 for runner-up, between Wimbledon 2005 and The Australian Open 2010, Federer had a rolling 4 tournament average of better than 7. That’s over 5 years. Imagine being that good (and not the absence of gaps – he turns up every time). How good was he? Here’s Nadal’s graph:


An amazing graph as well. As good as almost anyone. But he’s never going to have that 5 years of dominance on every surface. Because Nadal too will feel the affect of age. And his legs are already older than they should be. He has the talent to win as many tournaments as Federer, but I don’t think he has the legs.

But why is the decline now here for Federer? After all he lost in the Quarter Finals last year at Wimbledon. The difference is that last year Federer played a bad match; against Tsonga he didn’t. He played very well. He jumped Tsonga early and pick pocketed the first set like he has so many, many times before. Tsonga was still thinking about tying his shoelaces when he found that first set gone.

In the second, they went toe to toe, before the tie-breaker arrived, and Federer gave a nudge, a wink, a raised eyebrow, and like some bit part actor trying to share the screen with George Clooney, Tsonga found there was room for only one star.

But sitting at home late that night, I was worried. Tsonga looked too good. You knew he could catch fire. And worse than that, you felt if he did, Federer wouldn’t be able to stop him.

The match was high quality. Switching over to watch Djokovic-Tomic was like switching from State of Origin to a standard NRL game. But it was not Federer-Safin Aussie Open 2005. This was just very good tennis being played very well. Federer was serving solidly. In set 3, 4 and 5 he would hold every service game with something close to ease. All that is except one game each set.

And that makes all the difference.

In the past Federer excelled at turning up the juice for that one game where he would break his opponent – usually at 4-4 or 3-4. And suddenly after feeling like he was almost in the match, the opponent – some poor guy who will tell his grandkids about the day he played Federer – had lost the set. 

So it was for Federer against Tsonga in set 3, 4 and 5.

And so this match is not a Magical Mystery Tour, or Yellow Submarine. It is Let it Be. It is not a hiccup, it actually is as good as he can play. And when you look at the graph you see that from when he started winning he never went more than three tournament without a Grand Slam. It’s now been six since his last win.

Tennis fans, and especially Federer loyalists, will hope that there is time for an Abbey Road – that one last Grand Slam where the stars align and for 7 matches he comes back. It is more likely to happen than not.

But even if it does, it will not be anything other than that last moment in the sun. It won’t change the way tennis has been played. It won’t launch a thousand kids onto the tennis court to learn how to play an off-forehand (they already know it – they’ve been practising it for 8 year now).

Is it sad? Inevitably, yes. Unlike music you don’t really get out the tapes of old matches that often, if at all. Sport is live, even watching replays of Grand Finals won by beloved teams are no more than enjoyable moments of nostalgia. But you can listen to Revolver and still want to crank it up just like you did when you first heard it.

But we were here. We saw it. We knew it was special. And so we should not be too sad. Be glad you were present when it happened – because you will bore your grandkids about how no one is as good as he was. They probably won’t get it, just as kids today may appreciate The Beatles, but they laugh to themselves to think people went insane when they came to town.

For some things it is enough to have been there, because even when it was happening you knew it wouldn’t last forever.

The record always comes to an end, and the net always gets taken down.


Anonymous said...

very clever

tredlgt said...

Christ you write a good story , that was very enjoyable, thank you.

Michael said...

Great post.

(But it only takes seven matches to win a Slam)

Pini said...

Great work Grog. It got me thinking, have you considered the feats of Kelly Slater? 10x world surfing champ and currently sitting at number 3 at the age of 39. Surely he is the most dominant sportsperson of the modern era.

Greg Jericho said...

Ahh thanks Michael, I gave 1 point for going out in the first round, which is why wining it gets you 8 points and why my head was thinking 8 when it was rightly 7 matches you need to win).


Greg Jericho said...

Pini, Slater is an absolute freak. The problem I have with surfing is the size and scope of the fields - look at the breakdown of nationalities of tennis players, or football players, or cyclists, or track and field - surfing is still pretty niche by comparison. It's kind of like being a dominant squash player.

And also surfing is a sport which requires judging. I have no doubt that Slater is the best, but I can never fully give myself over to a sport where the result is decided by someone's opinion.

But Slater certainly is the most dominant in his own field. 10 x World Champion is beyond amazing. But I just think dominating surfing for a decade is not as tough as say dominating cycling, tennis, athletics or football for a decade (but we're talking marginal things here)

@vanaalst said...

Magic read - thanks Greg. Keep up the good work. You really should be getting paid for this as a day job. You're too good a writer to be wasted in the APS.

MartinM said...

Such an excellent post Grog. So true. And there are some things in life where you really don't have to know all the rules of the game or the just KNOW you're sharing a privilege.

Alistair Baillieu-McEwan said...

I'm a huge fan of Federer (and also a lot of the Beatles output) but Roger ought to have bowed out about two years ago when on top.
He has given so much excitement to the game of tennis, his courteous manner on court an example for younger players.
It is sad if he is just going to fade out. It seems to me that his continuing is not so much about the money but that he loves the game so much.

Anonymous said...

REM - out of mind...? Heh, apparently ' losing my religion' is southern slang for going crazy,or losing one's mind, but the album was actually called out of time.

Cheers, z.

Anonymous said...

I think Blackbird says he's got another one in him.

timbog74 said...

Nice analogy! I'm no great follower of tennis, but it seems the writing has been on the wall for Federer for a little while now. The intersection in the career graphs of Nadal and Federer has been passed, and Roger's is now in decline. But he's been a hell of a champion.

And on another note (terrible pun intended), it's scarcely believable that the Beatles lasted only 7 years, when you consider how much and how quickly their music developed.

@simongarlick said...

Fantastic article Greg.

Federer and his wife became parents (twins, jesus) in mid-2009.

Pro sports is a young single man's game. Priorities change.

rf said...

Tiger Woods. I'd have said he jumped the shark but now I'm thinking he's like REM post 1996. Does anyone care what he does now all that much?
That was inconceivable just a couple of years ago!

little_stranger said...

Brilliant post, Greg, and wonderful parallels drawn. Even if Nadal wins more Grand Slams than Federer, although it is hard on Nadal (who is great sport too), I would take watching Federer any day.

Anonymous said...

Loved this piece as much as the one on who would have benefited most from Feds absence. Poor A-Rod. The fed can still win some more GS. Tsonga played out of his skin, like he can - any match it's russian roulette - sometimes theres a bullet in there and no matter how good the oponent, he is going down. Tsonga doesn't have 7 straight games in him - yet? Fed will probably need a couple of easy matches, but not all GS are against 7 match consistent players. Nadal won't win too many more, his game is more physical and he's a big guy. He seemed to only have one game against Djok. Tomic had the change-up game to throw him off - look for more players like him. Fingers crossed the days of baseline slugfests are comming to an end and chess is returning to the court.