Running Up That Hill

My mother named me after Nadia Comaneci, the gifted and damned Romanian gymnast who scored the first Perfect Ten in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Which is a hell of a namesake, but it was never about the perfect. My mother, a dancer, picks champions for their God-given grace, not human-given 10.0s. She named me Nadia because it means hope; because she was 40, and worried.

My chromosomes were in tact, but I came out broken in other ways. Too emotional. Too sensitive. Deeply anxious. Chronically depressed. Absolutist. Self-punishing. And since I was a baby refusing to walk until I knew I wouldn’t fall, aching for a perfect I know I’ll never reach. Because perfect can’t fail, right? Even though my namesake supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach in 1977 – perfect doesn’t die.

A Disclaimer: Writing about tennis, David Foster Wallace once observed, “For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.” Indeed, many of the tennis writers who have tried to follow in his footsteps have kept a sterile distance from anything so vulnerable as love, preferring to argue, as William Skidelsky once put it, that “it’s about the tennis, stupid.” I, however, am not a tennis writer, and this is not one of those war-coded essays. There are no statistics, no attempts to describe how a yellow ball has made it over a net. I make no attempt at impartiality. I write stories about suffering, and that’s what this is.

Content Warning: Suicidal ideation.

The Hunger

There’s a thunder in our hearts, baby.

When you cheer for a team, you cheer in a community: in uniform, at a local bar, clinking glasses with strangers turned comrades. When you cheer for an individual, the two of you are alone in the dark, raging against the dying of the light. Team sports value martial coordination, each player part of a giant Megazord. In individual sports, you are your own Megazord: your head, your body, your blood, your heart. Your team can outlive you, but you and your champion will die. You live to the drumbeat of another heart. Heartbreak is concentrated in one person’s tears. Their suffering is your suffering; their glory is yours, too. Michigan and Ohio State fans may think they know hate, but American tennis players will tell you that the hatred that divides fans of men’s tennis’ current “Big Four” is shockingly personal, apocalyptic, apoplectic. Fans of team sports are in a nation, perhaps an army – fans of individual sports are in a cult, or a crusade.

That’s because geography designates your team, but you pick your champion. It’s a choice you must own, embody, and defend. Your champion is your totem, your sigil, your Patronus charm, your warrior in a massive trial by combat. It is in your psychological interest to pick a “winner,” but your heart knows what it wants. My mother picked John McEnroe because he was fiery; she picked Andre Agassi because he was flashy. And she picked Roger Federer – her “Baryshnikov of tennis” – because he made her dancer’s blood sing. She’d breathlessly point him out to me in the early 2000s, gliding around obscure European courts in a ponytail and cockleshell necklace. My first impression was Ugh, looks like a brat, though his style of play was undeniably sexy – all dramatic acceleration, unexpected angles, graceful aggression, and a terrifying combination of weightlessness and control. I had never seen anything like it. I had never seen my mother so enraptured. “What about Andre?” I would insist. She still liked Andre; of course she still liked Andre. Then her voice would lilt. “But Roger is just so beautiful.”

Roger Federer

U.S. Open 2015: a tournament that did not end as hoped.

The fact that Roger went on to win many Grand Slams doesn’t undermine the aesthetic purity of my mother’s love. I stayed with Andre, even when it was like caring for a dying pet; gauzy, hazy, full of cortisone shots. When he retired in 2006, it was almost a relief, an end to our collective suffering. If I was more of a rebel, I’d have replaced him with mercurial heartthrob Marat Safin, but I joined Team Federer (Team Special McPerfect Blahblahfuckingblah) because I loved my mother. Because we’d already split ways on two dueling Russian figure skaters, and I hated it. Because all I ever wanted, since my four-year-old self saw her sitting in the dark watching two men hit a ball from across a net, was to be on her team. I was glad Special McPerfect won a lot, because it made my mother happy, and eventually, I was won over by Roger’s kinetic mastery – not on the court but in the locker room, where he had to jump over a wayward drink cart at the 2008 Australian Open. He was perfect; peRFect, as his sponsors put it. Everything I wanted – needed – to be. “I love Federer,” I told my mother. “I’m glad you appreciate him,” she preened. After I graduated college, I made the two of us a secret promise: I was going to take my mother to see him at the U.S. Open someday. I didn’t have any money yet, and I didn’t have faith in much, but I had faith that Roger would wait for us.

The “quest for perfection” comes in a couple different forms. There’s the “inherited” version you find in athletes whipped into shape by an overbearing parent-coach (Jose Menendez was among many things a domineering tennis dad). Then there are those who through ego and mania decide on their own that “one should just be able to play a perfect game,” as Roger said at 15. His ambition had already outpaced his gentle parents; his therapist-coach, Peter Carter, was urging him to not waste energy punishing himself for normal errors. Self-driven perfectionism is fueled by what Emily de la Bruyere calls “an inner drive so powerful that it risks turning on itself”: what I call the hunger. The hunger manifests like Roger’s darkest catchphrase: If you’re great at only one thing, make it everything. Since you can’t blame our parents, blame it on our star sign – Leos are always flying too close to the sun. At its worst, the hunger’s absolutism is abusive, cares more about some vague concept of “winning” than the prize or the pursuit. For example: the longer you get straight A’s, the more existentially terrifying an A- becomes (Roger used to call this very specific fear of imperfect results “the monster”). Or: if you’ll eat coffee for lunch and get high on sleep deprivation to avoid failure, your bosses will take advantage. But at its best, the hunger can also keep you alive. Because at least you chose it. At least it’s yours. That’s why I kept a quote from Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” taped to my desk in college: “His fate belongs to him. His rock is [his] thing.”

My mother, like Peter Carter, laid constant grinding assault to the “unrealistic expectations of perfection” that she correctly thought were destroying my life. “I just worry that you are driving yourself too hard,” she’d say, but I was trapped by a compulsion I couldn’t control. “In many ways it is good to be driven to be as good as you can be,” she wrote to me while I was making myself sick in anticipation of getting a grade lower than an A, “but ‘perfection’ should never be an expectation or a goal.” And although the narrative around Roger swirled around peRFect – perfect play, perfect on-court conduct, perfect press conference, perfect hair, perfect marriage, perfect sets of perfect twins – my mother never expected him to never net a forehand or shank a backhand. While I berated Roger for unforced errors the way I berated myself, the way Roger silently berated himself too – “Roger is totally fucking shit up!” – my mother just wanted him to play with passion, errors be damned. “Going to have to get himself more ferocious,” she’d say after a loss. Did she know about the hunger, despite being a hippie who’d long rejected competitiveness? Maybe living with my father and I had taught her about temperamental Leos, pacing and howling in discontent, because she was convinced that “ferocity” would help get me through the ups and downs. You have to be tough, she’d say. Because the world is tough, you know.

La Manie

You don’t want to hurt me, but see how deep the bullet lies. 

We fall in love with champions who speak to parts of ourselves seen and unseen, so I would have never loved Roger the Baryshnikov as fundamentally as my mother did; it was Roger the Emotionally Vulnerable that did it for me. I was too preoccupied with my senior thesis to watch the 3:00 AM final of the 2009 Australian Open, but I was there for the horrific aftermath. Broken by the Beast: Federer reduced to tears as tough-guy Nadal defies the odds in another epic battle. After several years of dominance, Roger was going through a rough patch – a “bad year” that Andy Murray wryly noted did still include one Grand Slam won – he’d been demolished by Rafael Nadal at the 2008 French Open, then lost what many consider to be “the greatest match in Grand Slam history” to Nadal at Wimbledon, and now another five-set thriller to Nadal in Melbourne. So Roger had a breakdown on the podium, sobbing in front of 15,000 spectators, including his pregnant girlfriend, and a global television audience of millions more. One of tennis’s many cruelties is the ritual of forcing the loser of a final to not only endure a bombastic trophy ceremony but say some honorable-in-defeat bullshit to the crowd. When the microphone was thrust in his face this time, Roger could only warble, “God, it’s killing me.”

I felt terrible for Roger, but even more horrified by the way this moment of honesty was obsessively replayed, psycho-analyzed, fetishized, and picked apart. From he couldn’t take it like a man to now everyone on the circuit knows he’s fragile, there was a schadenfreude-laden glee to seeing a player who had been singularly dominant for four years subjected to this humiliation sequence. The fact that Roger had always carelessly violated codes of the masculine order, rendering him vulnerable to every gendered insult possible (pussy, sissy, faggot, ballerina, Swiss metrosexual puppet) only made things worse. And it was a teachable moment, too! “Are you going to cowboy up, or just lay there and bleed to death?” Peter Bodo wanted to know. That was the moment when I aligned myself with Roger Federer in full. Because I had been there. I had been asked that, by rubbernecking passers-by who thought they were being helpful. I was twenty-one and I had, by then, spent half my life wanting to die, or more accurately, not wanting to live. Trampled underfoot by my emotions. Hating myself for it. Generally being a coward. So spare me your motivational posters, your never-say-die toreadors. They mean nothing to me. Give me the weak. Give me the failed. Give me the soft, stabbed underbelly.

RF AO 09

Australian Open 2009: A tournament that did not end as hoped.

When I was younger, I cried in public so much that I got a reputation as a “headcase,” as they say in tennis. I quit school. I threw fits. I was the definition of fragile, ziplining from 0 to 100. Other kids thought I was crazy; their parents thought I was toxic; my best friend, my only friend, was (unsuccessfully) separated from me for her own good. In the moment, though – with your pulse speeding and your heart punching its way out of your chest – your rep is the last thing that matters. You can barely think. You just have to get away from the pain and panic – out of your head, out of the room, out of the world. Vive La Fete calls it la manie. I call it spiraling. My therapist calls me a deeply-depressed volcano, constantly burning on the inside. To this day, my ability to plan my future is limited by my disbelief that I should have to endure the horror of continuing to exist. My eyes scan the sky for the tallest building with rooftop access, constantly looking for something to break me. It’s comforting, the thought that if things get too bad, I can quit. This was my mother’s real war, for which the battle against perfect was only a proxy. She did her best. Put me in therapy. Was endlessly patient, loving, non-judgmental, communicative. Gave me permission I didn’t take to transfer out of my suicide-cluster-prone university. She fussed over me the way she fussed over broken players, wincing through spirals she couldn’t stop and sighing that we weren’t playing like champions.

By all accounts, Roger Federer’s mental health is fine (he has a joie de vivre that I lack), but there is an emotional volatility there that is familiar. I recognize the little boy crying under the umpire’s chair, throwing rackets, screaming at himself because “I have to get my emotion out, I can’t handle it”; I recognize the self-described “emotional kid” beating his head to calm the nerves inside; I recognize the spiral from “I can’t believe how badly you’re playing” to “why are you so stupid and get upset?” to “I would just explode, I would lose it.” I recognize the parents getting so frustrated at their inability to calm their child that the father once shoved his son face-first into a snowbank; I recognize opponents lazily waiting for him to self-destruct; I recognize the eye-rolls from observers: “he’s got the talent, but he’s got no grit.” I see how a little boy struggling with “all over the place” emotions would become a grown man sobbing on a podium, the tears “just something I couldn’t control.”

And I, too, learned that the only way to survive was to nail on an iron shield like a death mask. “If I show too much, it might hurt me,” Roger explained at 21; his mother had long stressed to him that his freak-outs were a kick-me sign for his opponents. People were also starting to mock him for it, and he was afraid of being remembered like Safin, as a “crazy maniac.” Around the same age, I was shutting myself down, closing myself up, retreating into vinyl armor. Ironically, the shield only worsens the pressure to be perfect. A lot of strain goes into keeping that gush of emotion stuffed into the bottom of your sneakers so you can appear quiet and poised on the outside, but my friends don’t believe that I struggle with emotional control until I appear to momentarily go insane. My bosses can’t tell I’m flailing until I have to lock myself in a bathroom and punch the stall door. Roger’s utterly blank “game face,” what Julian Barnes calls a “lack of all that strutting male bullshit,” has fed an absurd narrative that he is so preternaturally talented that he doesn’t sweat, doesn’t need to try, perhaps doesn’t care – that he isn’t human, or as one coworker of mine put it, that he is “an android.” And we don’t want robots, do we? No, we want killers. Roger Federer makes it all look too easy! — until it all falls apart.

Chokers and Champions

Is there so much hate for the ones we love? (Tell me we both matter, don’t we?)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: hard-working youth – high-energy, muscle-bound, a walking Gatorade commercial – puts in long hours in practice and fights his way to a final against the spoiled, arrogant, effeminate uber-talent who’s coasted on his natural gifts and never been challenged. The gladiator plays every point like it’s match point, revving himself up with roars and full-body fist-pumps, and curb-stomps the uber-talent – who suddenly looks flat, deflated, humiliated – 6-1 6-3 6-0 in a Grand Slam final. Total rape is how the gladiator’s fans all-too-gleefully put it. This is the story of Nadal and Federer as told by the world at large, and let me tell you, it’s a strange experience rooting for the villain in an ‘80s kids’ sports movie. You and your champion are on the wrong end of every hot take, because you’re the worst thing you can possibly be: a quitter. A coward. “There’s no quit in Kobe, but there is in Federer,” LZ Granderson wrote. “Sport is about balls and about heart,” Mats Wilander said, “[Roger] might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size.” The same coworker who called Roger an android has also said that “tennis is a moral sport,” with the key moral being “never fucking give up” – a moral that runs in our society like fluoride in water. Talent is nothing if you have no heart! Talent is nothing if you have no guts! Cowards never start! The weak never finish! “My favorite player? Rafael Nadal,” says tennis fan Donald Trump. “Talk about a guy who wants to win, who won’t allow himself to lose. I just think he is a great, great champion.”

I don’t buy this narrative. But it is deeply frustrating to root for a choker. The shame associated with being “mentally weak” is sharper than any other, because “mental weakness” is considered a character flaw. You can’t help a bad knee, but you can help a bad brain – right? A pathetic fifth-set win record (57%) and an infuriating career-long tendency to fail to seize breakpoint chances are indefensible. 6-1 6-3 6-0 is fucking indefensible for someone heralded as the most talented player to ever pick up a racket. What right does Roger have to get “rattled”? To “self-destruct”? What kind of hero says that staying positive is “just too difficult”? What kind of champion consistently loses to his main rival on the biggest courts and longest stretches, wilting under the pressure of feeling like he’s “climbing uphill all the time”? No other words for that kind of attitude than disgusting, pathetic, embarrassing. Witness one of Roger’s legendary meltdowns and even fans will bemoan that he is not a fighter, question whether he is in it to win it, conclude that he is unwilling to push himself. Even my mother, whose love for Roger knows no bounds, will bemoan that he has an apparent off-switch, between “moments of brilliance and then just an apparent lack of drive or energy or will.” Ah yes, that strange, fleeting thing, the cure to all ailments, the indicator of a true champion: the will to win. 

I see a lot of pop-psychologists talking about the will to win, about determination, about guts. It’s the sort of stuff we used to tell the mentally ill – “if you just tried harder…” “this behavior is shameful…” – and even though medically-trained caregivers now remind us to destigmatize mental illness, and we pay lip service whenever someone famous commits suicide, it’s evident in our approach to sport that we have no pity for “mental weakness.” Maybe we don’t think athletes are as breakable as we are. Maybe we get sick of underperforming stock. Maybe we want to believe that all you need to become the next Tom Brady is to pull yourself up by your metaphysical bootstraps, and anyone who can’t do so – especially when they’re talented – deserves every failure, every loss. Mardy Fish penned a heartfelt essay about this phenomenon in “The Weight” after he was forced to end his tennis career after a career high in the rankings led to excess pressure and a set of escalating panic attacks. As Fish was overcome by an “exhausting, confusing dread” that generated a full-on mental collapse at the 2012 U.S. Open, his team had to blame it on a heart condition to save face. “We’re so trained to be ‘mentally tough’,” Fish writes, “To show weakness, we’re told, in so many words, is to deserve shame.”

RF USO 13

U.S. Open 2013: A tournament that did not end as hoped.

Of all of Roger’s chokes, my “favorite” is the one against Lleyton Hewitt in the 2003 Davis Cup. Roger is 22, the new Wimbledon champion, playing in front of a hostile Australian crowd – hostile except for the parents of his Australian therapist-coach Peter Carter, who died the previous year in a freak accident. Carter was meant to be coaching this Swiss Davis Cup team. Instead, Switzerland and Australia are playing for the inaugural Peter Carter memorial trophy, and it’s up to Roger to keep Switzerland’s hopes alive. Roger has been trying to bottle his emotions, but he is drowning in them, insisting, “We must win this for Peter, we must!” He wins Set 1. He wins Set 2. He serves for the match in Set 3… and gets broken. Loses Set 3. If this was a Hollywood movie, the grieving boy would find a way – a will – to win in memory of the coach who tried to teach him how to lift himself out of mental spirals. In the Hollywood version, he digs deep and shows Carter’s spirit – watching from the heavens – that he has internalized those lessons after all. But life is not Hollywood, and Roger loses Sets 4 and 5 to a player that Carter always worried had more grit down the stretch. As Hewitt is winding up the crowd, Roger is fading; playing scared; “playing to lose.” After the match he bolts to the locker room to cry, where the Carters – who barely know him – find him and take him aside. “Roger, just do the best you can, mate,” Mr. Carter says, “Peter always thought the world of you.”

People ask me, sometimes, why I write horror. The truth is I can’t imagine writing anything else. Horror is where things go wrong, and stay wrong. Horror is where people make bad decisions, and pay for them. Horror is screaming and crying and punching and running. Horror is visceral. Horror is felt. Horror is the blood in the cut. Horror doesn’t have that upward swing at the end. Your heart of a champion doesn’t save you, in horror. Your positive attitude means nothing, in horror. “Guts have not been enough,” in horror. Your Gatorade-drenched, muscular will won’t overcome, in horror. Horror’s an unstoppable downward spiral, Uzumaki-style. There’s a reason I named my short story collection She Said Destroy. There’s a reason I write about difficult, fragile, self-destructive people. Because the first character I could relate to was Esther Greenwood, in The Bell Jar, followed by Eleanor Vance, in The Haunting of Hill House. These are not girls with champion’s hearts. They are, one might even say, mentally weak. But I remember how not-alone it made me feel to read them, like finally, someone understood, even if it all ended in tears. And one of my cardinal truths as a writer is to support the free exercise of empathy: the radical notion that everyone has worth, mentally weak or no.

Accepting the side of myself that isn’t strong – accepting that it doesn’t mean I’m disgusting, pathetic, embarrassing – is an ongoing struggle. My shame and my shield have kept me in damaging schools, bad relationships, toxic jobs, circling the drain of self-harm. When “sorrow finds you when you are young,” to paraphrase The National, “all you learn is to suffer,” to paraphrase Justin Vernon. It is literally how your brain learns to wire itself. When I “choke” – when I spiral – it’s got nothing to do with laziness or entitlement or apathy. It’s certainly got jack-shit to do with not wanting it enough; if anything, “choking” is a result of wanting it too much. So yes, I am trying, even if I don’t look like it. If I only could, I’d be running up that hill with no problem. But I am also locked in a Sisyphean struggle against myself. And that now decades-long-war to hold myself together has left me battered and busted up. So the question is whether you believe me. Do you believe Marat Safin when he says “Sorry, I couldn’t (have won more majors)” because “I have this head, and I have to deal with that”? Do you believe Roger, constantly asked why he doesn’t apply his talent and just try harder, that “honestly, I tried everything that I possibly could”? Do you believe that the head can be just as limiting as the body? Do you believe me when I say that mental weakness is not a sin, nor a choice?

Love Is Watching Someone Die

If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and get him to swap our places.

My mother was always the strongest pillar of our little family, and when my father was incapacitated by two massive strokes, she spent two months in the ICU, talking to life support machines. But she never expected this stoicism from me. I only went to the ICU once; “I don’t want you to remember him like that,” my mother said. She was with him when he passed, and when she woke me up to tell me, I hid under the covers so I wouldn’t have to hear what I already felt was coming. And though she tried to teach me toughness, she made her peace with the fact that I would never be as strong as her in any respect. In 2009, I ran out of the house during a U.S. Open final while Roger uncharacteristically ranted at God the umpire – his mental tailspins tend to trigger my own – while my mother stayed with him to the bitter end, telling me when I returned, “I’m sorry, Roger lost.” I didn’t understand how she could endure it. “I know you always leave when Roger loses,” she said. “It’s too hard for me,” I replied, then sheepishly added, “I don’t have enough love of the game,” because there is shame in being that kind of a fan that loves a mortal player more than the eternal game. “Just love of Roger,” my mother quipped. But I knew she loved him too; love was exactly why she stayed.

For the past few years, I’ve had to run from tennis altogether, and in so doing, also did some running from my mother. 2013 felt like a conclusion: I finished graduate school and stayed in my new city instead of coming “home,” my mother edged toward retirement, our cat died, an injured Roger was going down in ever-earlier rounds. Mom and I never considered switching our allegiance – how do you replace the Greatest Of All Time? – but the exuberant emails during Grand Slams, our happy summers, stopped. Every time hope started to grow it got beaten down, followed closely by a sad email from my mother: “Roger lost. Sigh.” I’d write back: “I know.” Calls for retirement grew louder, because who wants to see Special McPerfect struggling? – but really it was because the crowd has only ever wanted one thing from Roger, and that is to be peRFect. There has never been any room for him to be human, and if he was going to insist on failing, then it was time to quit. The message was clear: Better die than not be perfect. Perfect is all you have to give. As seasons crept by, Roger’s insistence that he was still mentally and physically capable of winning an 18th Grand Slam looked just as delusional as my now-suppressed dream of taking my mother to the U.S. Open to see him. But that’s one thing you can count on with a Leo: the stubbornness of our pride. Keeps us running up that hill beyond all reason. Like the prolonged clubbing of a baby seal that just. Won’t. Quite. Die.

It was no coincidence that without Roger’s tether, Mom and I started drifting apart. He had always been the one thing we had in common – after we could no longer talk about political science or writing or boys, my mother could always open a long-distance chat with “Got the tennis on?” But it wasn’t just that; she was also talking in circles, couldn’t follow conversation, suddenly depleted and confused and making strange, erratic decisions – a dizzy shell of the strong single mother she’d been, the woman who’d tried to dismantle the pep club she led, who once decided to live without time for the hell of it. Was it depression? Anxiety? A long-delayed nervous breakdown after years of unresolved grief? I knew it was my fault she never went to therapy, that she carried a hidden world of hurt that I only saw when she cried over an ESPN human interest story or a So You Think You Can Dance routine. But now her fragility was suddenly exposed, overbearing, a bundle of badly wired nerves. She’d get agitated watching Roger play safe second-round matches; suddenly she was the one who had to walk away. “I’m not trying to be negative,” she’d explain, “but we never know what will happen.”

I struggled to be there for her. My high-pressure corporate job – the one paying me enough money to take us to the U.S. Open, if only I still had faith in Roger, or my mother – had put my shield under greater strain than ever before, and I had nothing left to give. And I was scared. Scared of seeing my mother like that; scared of what it might mean. My best friend of eighteen years, the one who never walked away even while I gave her every reason to, called me on it, saying, “You’re acting like a spoiled brat.” I reacted as if we were 12 again and screaming at each other in the linoleum halls of our middle school (“You fucking hate me!” “I have never hated you and never will.”) but she was right: my mother needed me. After everything she had done to keep me alive, I owed it to her. So I’d go “home” and try to sit with her through some metamorphosis I didn’t understand, try to drag her back to the steady, comforting mother I knew. But I always failed; she never seemed to listen. So the still-simmering volcano in me would explode, and we’d fight. Exhausting, horrible fights, the kind we hadn’t had since I was a teen – except now it was hard to tell which of us was less stable. Then, shamed into lowering my voice from a scream to a sob, I’d beg her to get help. Promised her it had helped me, while secretly wondering if it really had. She’d promise that she would. And I just wanted to run, even if I had nowhere to go but the same room whose door I’d been slamming since I was 15.

RF Wimby 16

Wimbledon 2016: A tournament that did not end as hoped.

In 2016, we all crossed another bridge. Roger got to his first. He tore his meniscus, underwent surgery for the first time, and shaken by this memento mori, forced his unhealed body to play Wimbledon, his favorite tournament and “last best chance to win a Major.” The pressure to win an 18th Grand Slam had sucked out all his joie de vivre. “I had the feeling I could only disappoint people,” he said. What everyone remembers about his semifinal against Milos Raonic is the flat-on-his-face fall in the fifth set that “really scared” Roger and ushered in a loss as his already-tentative trust in his balletic body collapsed. But what I remember, and what Roger would remember, is the way he lost the fourth set: two double faults to lose serve, then three wasted break points. In layman’s terms? He choked. I turned off the live score tracker at that point; I knew in my cortisol-filled veins that Roger wasn’t going to be able to correct this nosedive. “Don’t remind me of everything,” he said in his presser. “Very sad about that, and angry at myself.” After he ended his season on medical advice, my mother sent me an anxious email: did you know about Federer? Suddenly she was the fearful child looking for reassurance, desperately searching for reason to hope. And though I knew Roger would need to be dragged into retirement kicking and screaming, I couldn’t lie to my mother, just like she’d never lied to me. “He’s getting quite old to be playing the level of tennis he is at, even though he is so great,” I said flatly. Not acceptance. Hopelessness.

In January 2017, after a sequence of increasingly terrifying events, we finally got my mother’s diagnosis. She is not “mental,” nor a “headcase.” She has a rare form of dementia. There is no cure. What a strange fate that both my parents – intimidatingly intelligent people that I’ve spent my life trying to make proud – will have both been dealt a coup de grâce to the brain. As usual, my mother was right, in her roundabout way: We never know what will happen. The decline, over the next seven years or so, will be unpredictable – less a plateau than a series of drops. I don’t know how many more Grand Slams my mother will be able to watch, nor how many Grand Slams 36-year-old Roger has left in him either. I kicked myself for not taking her to the U.S. Open earlier, even if Roger wasn’t playing perfect. Anger burns every time I hear someone complain about two healthy, living parents. I am heartbroken for her, for her frustration with being unable to focus long enough to read, for the weakness she admits to herself and the weakness she doesn’t. And I am scared for myself. My mother has always been the final force stopping me from jumping off a building – it would kill her, I’d think. I used to resent her for this, for the fact that she was keeping me “hostage” on Planet Earth. But now I worry that once my mother is gone, there won’t be anything holding me here.

L’Aveugle Par Amour

Come on, baby. Come on, come on, darling.

I don’t know why I thought Roger could win the 2017 Australian Open. It was his first tour-level event in six months, and he was ranked 17th. He was 35. He’d have to beat four top ten players, including Nadal, and no one thought Roger could deal with the “mental scar tissue” of losing 6 out of 8 Grand Slam finals to Nadal. He had not won a Slam since 2012. And I had emergency flights home to book, no spare hearts to break. Yet I felt the buzz of that elusive thing I’m named for but never seem to feel: hope. Maybe it was because Roger vowed to leave everything on the court during the final; because he was finally talking honestly about his history of mental weakness against Nadal; because his longtime partner Mirka was praying in the stands in a sweater with a roaring, Leonine tiger on it and the words L’Aveugle Par Amour. Blinded by Love. Maybe I had hope because I’d finally internalized my mother’s lessons; because I had befriended an Andy Murray fan in graduate school and watching someone’s howling compassion for another player had opened my heart. Maybe I had hope because there was nothing left to hope for. “Is what’s-his-name, Federer, still in?” a former Australian official asked me. “Yeah, he’s the one, isn’t he? He’s so good. And he just seems like such a good guy.” It felt like this was building into Team Federer’s long-awaited moment, our victory over the self-doubt that had plagued not only Roger but all who loved him for the past four and a half years. So I had hope. But I still said a little prayer on January 28: dear God, please let Roger Federer win today. Please, for my mother. I don’t know how much time we have left. 

For the first four and a half sets, everything proceeded exactly as precedence would have it. As usual, Roger alternated brilliance with bewilderingly bad errors that were “inexplicable, but nerves do nasty things.” As usual, Nadal was “unrelenting,” “never gives in!” And as usual, Nadal broke Roger’s serve immediately in the final set. Roger had four chances over the next three games to break back and save himself, but as usual, squandered them all. “Come on, Rogi!” a man yelled in the crowd, but now I understood. This was Roger’s on-air death scene. God had brought Roger back from the dead just to destroy him – what the fuck, God? My hope, that is, had been punished. I should have fucking known. “Ah, shit, it’s all happening again,” Roger thought, panic flooding in, legs getting heavy. “Why, again? Why am I losing again to Rafa?” The commentators knew why: he wasn’t trying hard enough. He didn’t really want it. He had no will to win. He didn’t know how to cowboy up. “It’s been easier for Roger, he’s super-talented,” John McEnroe eulogized, “[Nadal] has worked at it, willed himself.” Chris Fowler blithely wondered if Roger was truly as “willing to suffer” as he claimed. I almost threw something at the TV. Not at Roger, but at those dillweeds who thought emotional dysregulation, mental weakness, la manie, whatever, is a character flaw, let alone a choice. And I turned the TV off at 6 A.M., with Roger down 1-3, unable to watch him die.

I tried not to curse God for rejecting my plea. I tried not to see this as a sign that my mother’s illness would progress faster, since in the course of my prayer – in the course of our lives – my sympathetic magic seemed to have linked their fates. I will never follow tennis again, I vowed. Not Roger. Not anybody. My mother and I had given the sport’s greatest player all our love and been crushed, and I was fucking done with losing everyone. For the next two hours I had bad dreams about telling my mother that this was how it had all ended: in my dreams she was trying to find lost things in strange houses, and I was trying to hold her still so I could tell her, as she had so often told me, “Roger lost, I’m sorry.” She’d pull back, face contorted, as if she didn’t know who Roger was. Or who I was. The final word in the final sentence you ever uttered to me was love.

I woke up knotted in psychosomatic pain to the ping of a Facebook message from my friend the Andy Murray fan. I assumed he was paying his condolences, as he did after Wimbledon in 2015, as I have tried to start doing when Murray has lost heartbreakers. I willed myself to allow myself to be consoled. But en route I saw that he had posted a link – Roger kissing the trophy, how could he kiss the trophy if he had lost? – and a note of congratulations – to Roger?! – and my heart — exploded. I stumbled out of bed, my heart racing with that thing rarer than hope, that thing I absolutely never feel: joy. Roger had out-gutted Nadal. He outran him, winning the type of absurd 26-shot baseline rally that is the younger Nadal’s forte. With the freefall fully underway, down 1-3 in the only set that mattered, Roger had made like UA 746 in 1963 and pulled himself out of the mental nosedive to do the last thing anyone asked of him to cement his place in history: beat Nadal in a five-set Grand Slam final. It was rickety – he had to save two break points while serving for the match, and at championship point, nearly double-faulted (sigh) – but then, with a forehand winner, Roger proved everyone wrong.

RF AO 17

Australian Open 2017: A tournament that ended as hoped.

Maybe getting a preview of his own long-delayed death as a tennis player and realizing that “when all is said and done, it will be fine,” unbound him from the external pressure to win #18, as well as the internal pressure of “want[ing] it too much.” For one of the first times in his life, Roger played as if he had nothing to lose. He played the ball. Not Nadal, not time, not the weight of an unfinished legacy. Just the ball. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” to quote Camus. And the shield, really more of a straitjacket, cracked open. After years refusing to look at his player’s box – when you’ve had to rely so much on others to prop you up, you go it alone just to show yourself you can – Roger would clench his fist and look to his team after nearly every point won, where coach Ivan Ljubicic was pounding his fist against his heart (“without heart or balls”) and Mirka was flying out of her seat, urging, “Come on.” In the months to follow, commentators would wonder if they had ever seen him “emote so early,” while a less restrained Roger would admit he had “an easier time sharing these feelings.” Federer looks unhinged, a Djokovic fan said, and when Roger admitted to being riddled with nerves during his second round match at Wimbledon, he was mocked. But Roger saw it differently: “if I’m nervous, that means I care.” Maybe if your horizontal stabilizer is broken, the only way to keep your “pitch” in trim is to let go, to give up your shield.

“Go cry!” my friend the Andy Murray fan told me that morning in January, so I did. We all did. Then I called my mother, half-scared that she didn’t even know the Australian Open was happening. We hadn’t talked about tennis since Roger crashed out of Wimbledon the year before. We talked about pills. About doctors. I hadn’t had that much hope. But she was watching, sounding nervous, sounding exactly like me. For once I could make her a promise that I knew I could keep: this match would have a good ending. For the next three hours, we watched the ESPN replay separately. She called back immediately after the final point was ruled in by HawkEye. I could hear her insistent joy in the ringing of the phone. “Did you see him win? Oh my God. He was crying!” I could tell from her voice that she was, too. “Did you see?”

I laughed. I did. Allez.

All These Things About Me (You Never Can Tell)

Be running up that road, be running up that hill, be running up that building… 

For some reason, this is the sort of story one tells about Roger Federer: full of death and hope and suffering, stories grown in the dark and glittering forest of fear and love. There is Kurt Streeter, who watched Roger play the 2006 French Open in a hospice with his tennis-loving father, only for his father to die as Roger was losing to (who else?) Nadal in the final. There is William Skidelsky, who tried to distract his partner from the pain of a miscarried pregnancy by bringing her to see Roger play in the World Tour Finals. There is Porochista Khakpour, who followed David Foster Wallace’s obsession with Federer out of a suicidal fugue. And of course there is DFW himself, whose final downward spiral came during Roger’s terrible 2008 summer, prompting crazed speculation that he committed suicide because Roger’s failures had proved that God could die. Rooting for Roger is a lobster-trap for emotionally busted-up high-achievers: you’re drawn in by all the peRFect, and by the time all the losing starts, you’re in love, and being forced to bludgeon yourself, to finally admit your peRFect is a lie.

So Roger is never going to be a motivational poster, a Gatorade commercial, a Profile in Courage. He’s a sherpa up the mountain of sorrow and disappointment and self-hate and other dark places that we are taught to run from, especially in sport. In tennis as in life, you can’t have beautiful, aggressive play without embracing the slew of errors that comes with it; and you can’t have Roger without his temperamental heart. Calvin Tomkins “used to be ashamed of my own agonized cries and writhings, alone in front of the TV set,” until he realized that everyone on Team Federer lives on the precipice of heart attack, dreading a shanked return or a netted ball or a double fault, begging our emotionally dysregulated hero to please don’t fuck this up, baby – when we’re not screaming profanities at him, and thus at ourselves. Most of us have tried to draw lines in the sand after some devastating loss forces upon us “emotions you didn’t even know you were capable of feeling,” like, this is it, it’s too much, I can’t take it anymore, only to find ourselves right back there at the next tournament, thinking, maybe this time. In 2017, Roger told us such intensity was okay: “Sport is emotional. When you win and you lose… it’s stronger than you.” In 2017, Roger is nearly smashing his racket in Miami, hitting a ball into the crowd in anger in Montreal, swearing in English and Swiss-German alike. In 2017, Roger admits that “the stress and pressure that I have every single day from playing is a lot.” Dr. Marsha Linehan, who believes in the radical acceptance of emotion, would tell us there is no other way: “The path out of hell is through misery.”

A few weeks after Roger scraped his way through several dogfights to win Miami, I went back to therapy. I had spent most of the tournament with my hands over my eyes, whispering in my empty office, “just keep fucking fighting, Roger,” and I suppose I figured if he could find the will to fight, then maybe so could I. I suppose I wanted to find a way to sit with hope. My new therapist practices Dr. Linehan’s specialty, dialectical behavioral therapy, and she is still trying to figure out what all I’m afflicted with – it feels like every week we add a new potential disorder. But that’s because I’m trying to take the shield down, layer by layer, one iron piece at a time.

And I had the audacity to decide to take my mother to see Roger at the U.S. Open. The stars seemed aligned to make a big now-or-never push. But everything is fragile. My mother is no longer able to be my rock when it comes to Roger. And sometimes I am angry about this; angry that she dragged me into this combustible, painful love-like-a-lobster-trap when I only ever thought Special McPerfect was an all-too-familiar whining, volatile brat, and then left me alone with it beating in my hands like a bloody heart. I visited Mom during the Halle final, but because she was too tired to watch I sat in the dark and watched Roger alone, the way I first stumbled across her watching Sampras and Agassi. Wimbledon didn’t take us back to the wonder-years before she got sick; when she sent me a cheerful, six-word text that Roger had won his second round match I burst into tears on the street, so relieved I was that she was still cognizant enough to watch Wimbledon. Maybe she could hold it together for the U.S. Open. Maybe we could spend just a little longer together in the glittering forest of fear and love. But when Roger tweaked his back two weeks before the U.S. Open, I went into a full-on suicidal panic for a week, terrified that this was it: my mother would never see him play; Roger’s career would end after having been too briefly revived; and then, that thing that I’m really running from would happen and my mother would die. I told my therapist I felt like I was being punished, for daring to have hope that we could have this one thing before the end. “I’m so stupid,” I said, “to think there is anything out there for me except suffering.”

But he didn’t withdraw. Mom and I are going to see him play, us and 22,000 others, on Arthur Ashe Stadium. I don’t know what’s going to happen, except that for sure it won’t be peRFect. In 2017, Roger is constantly reminding himself to accept errors, as if finally – 20 years later – understanding that Peter Carter was right. In 2017, Roger has answered John McEnroe’s rhetorical question asking why, with all his tough losses and mental implosions at what were supposed to be his final chances to win a Major, he hasn’t jumped off the Empire State Building: because he loves tennis more than winning. As Kurt Streeter wrote, tennis “offered a special kind of truth… a feeling of mastery and control and singular competition that he would never get anywhere else… Call it joy.” The struggle itself is enough. In 2017, Roger admitted, “I don’t particularly like this ‘Mr. Perfect’ image. There are lot of things at which I’m not perfect.”  Sure, he’d still rather not do “stupid stuff” on court, isn’t “super happy” when losing. But in 2017, Roger also tells himself “don’t try to do well” and “don’t try too hard.” In other words?

RF IW 17

Roger, for Indian Wells.

Fuck perfect.

***

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2 thoughts on “Running Up That Hill

  1. Audrey Simmons says:

    Wow just wow please get out of my head! I’m at my desk at work trying not to cry because you’ve captured exactly all my emotions re Roge👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

  2. nadia bulkin says:

    Hey, thanks so much, and thanks for reading! At least we know that we’re all in this together.

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