Federer, Unlike Ulysses, a Family Man Hero

Roger and Mirka Federer and daughters

Thursday

I’ve applied Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to Roger Federer in the past and it’s time to do so again. The 36-year-old, after all, is once again sailing beyond the sunset while the younger members of “the Big Four” fall by the wayside with injury and fatigue.

And while I’m praising Roger, let me do the same for Venus Williams, also doing the impossible at age 37. Both are in the Wimbledon semi-finals.

Roger is different than Tennyson’s Ulysses, however, because he sees family as a boost, not as an impediment.

Ulysses complains about being an idle king with “an aged wife.” He want to taste adventure again and all but claims that those who want to live differently (i.e., Telemachus) are unimaginative bureaucrats. He has better things to do with his time and is prepared to sacrifice his fellow mariners for one last adventure:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. 

Federer, by contrast, has figured out a way to take both his wife and his kids on his adventure with him. In fact, many are attributing Federer’s continuing gusto for the game to the fact that he turns his tournaments into family outings. To be sure, it’s easier to do so when you have his money, his private jets, his ability to hire nannies, etc. Still, he’s not battling his family as Ulysses is:

        This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. 

Roger says he’ll quit when Mirka asks him to and I believe him for the simple fact that they seem to have the same goals at heart and will make their decisions together. Notice how, in one interview, he talks about “our” dream. And then, as proof that the “our” is sincere, he looks at the tennis through Mirka’s perspective, acknowledging that she doesn’t see the sport exactly as he does, given her disappointment at having to retire from professional tennis following a foot injury:

If she said, you know, I don’t want to travel no more, I’ll say, Okay, my career is over. It’s as simple as that.

So she’s the key to a lot of this. But she’s happy to be doing it, not on a weekly basis just because the traveling gets too much with the four. But, you know, I went to Stuttgart and Halle on my own. Now here we’re together. We’re having a great time.

So she’s been amazing support for me. She’s the best.

I’m happy she allows me to chase our dreams really, because she’s in it as much as I am, even though she’s more on a different side right now. She’s not as invested in the whole tennis bit like she used to be.’

I’ve criticized Ulysses in the past for being self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. Federer is certainly driven—one has to be to accomplish all he has—but he has a collective perspective. His victories aren’t only about himself, and he’s probably not going to sacrifice others in some doomed adventure.

Besides which, so far at least, he doesn’t seem to have been made weak by time and fate. Maybe things will change in the near future and I’ll have to revisit this post. At the moment, however, he seems to be playing as well as he ever has. Better in fact.

True, he is weak in comparison with the remaining men in the draw. He will have to be as crafty as Ulysses to prevail. As he notes,

They (Thomas Berdych, Sam Querrey, and Marin Cilic) will have their word to say of the outcome of the matches. They’ve got big serves, big forehands — big hitters, really. All three guys are taller and stronger than I am. I’ve got to figure out a different way — carve my way through the draw somehow with my slice, my spins, my consistency, maybe. I’m looking forward to doing that.

But there’s not the desperation in his words that there’s is in Ulysses’s. He’s far less dramatic—family men usually are—but that makes him no less the hero.

Here the poem in its entirety:

It little profits that an idle king, 
By this still hearth, among these barren crags, 
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole 
Unequal laws unto a savage race, 
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. 
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink 
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d 
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when 
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades 
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name; 
For always roaming with a hungry heart 
Much have I seen and known; cities of men 
And manners, climates, councils, governments, 
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all; 
And drunk delight of battle with my peers, 
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. 
I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move. 
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life 
Were all too little, and of one to me 
Little remains: but every hour is saved 
From that eternal silence, something more, 
A bringer of new things; and vile it were 
For some three suns to store and hoard myself, 
And this gray spirit yearning in desire 
To follow knowledge like a sinking star, 
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. 

         This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. 

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: 
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, 
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me— 
That ever with a frolic welcome took 
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed 
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old; 
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; 
Death closes all: but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done, 
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. 
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: 
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. 
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: 
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Another literary parallel: James Gray of The Express has another literary parallel I wish I’d thought of. Declaring (prematurely?) that Federer will win Wimbledon, Gray writes,

His lifting the trophy will mark the complete regeneration of the legendary Swiss – like Gandalf the Grey he has returned as Federer the White, more powerful and more wise than ever before.

The wisdom, Gray say, lies in his decision to dial back his tournaments, and he suggests that Murray and Djokovic should listen:

Federer the White has returned and he brings with him sage advice. Those who should listen closest will only be able to watch as he lifts the trophy on Sunday.

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