World No. 1 Roger Federer: The Inspiring Journey from Wimbledon 2012 to Rotterdam 2018

From being a casual Grand Slam tennis fan with a liking for Roger Federer, I turned into a daily follower of tennis with an inexplicable craze for everything Roger Federer, thanks to the man himself, as he traversed one of the most intriguing and fascinating years of his illustrious career.

I still remember that day – Wimbledon Finals 2012. I was rooting for Roger to win against Andy Murray. After the loss of the first set, the turning point was the set point in the second, when Roger hit a ridiculous drop shot, stealing that set right under Andy’s nose. The rain added to that drama, but that match defined the beginning of my craze for Roger Federer. In the following years, I would see Roger going through ups and many many downs. The back caused problems in 2013. Roger appeared refreshed in 2014 after the racquet change and having Stefan Edberg in his corner. He came tantalisingly close to regaining World No. 1 ranking and winning Grand Slams in 2014 and 2015 with three finals. Novak was there in his way all three times, refusing to lose in Wimbledon 2014 and imposing himself on Roger in 2015. 2016 started off with knee problems and after the loss at Australian Open, Roger wouldn’t be himself. He chose to take that six-month break – in hindsight, one of the best all-time decisions of taking breaks in sports – and came back in 2017 rejuvenated, refreshed and with his game honed with hours and hours of quiet practice. He conquered Nadal in a Grand Slam after a decade and would go on to win three more important matches against him. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and would come back in 2018 as the favourite to win Australian Open and do it in style.

As Roger chooses to take a second voluntary break from the clay season, I pause to reflect on the inspiration that he has been through the most challenging times in my life.

1. Never stop believing.

You may lose a match today due to many reasons. You may win a match tomorrow due to many reasons. Instead of reacting to the small successes and failures of each day, never stop believing in yourself. That can go a long way. This belief is what led to his incredible run in 2011-2012, culminating in being crowned the Wimbledon 2012 champion and World No.1 after a (then) long stretch of not winning any Slams. That belief then fuelled the sheer hard work and the grit required to reinvent himself after the back issues of 2013 by switching to a larger racquet and committing to net play like never before.

It is hard not to be disheartened when things don’t go our way, but belief is something that nobody can take away from us despite all external things.

2. Practice is key and there is a purpose to practice.

As Roger has grown older, his practice sessions are supposed to be so much more focussed so that he can bring in the quality that is required rather than putting in a lot of hours on the practice court. Edberg added the element of playing sets during practice instead of only points. There is nothing like practice for honing a skill and muscle memory requires constant practice.

3. Set goals for yourself.

Roger’s career is certainly one of the best in tennis history. Yet, after achieving so much, he still sets goals for himself. Be it getting to top 8 ranking by Wimbledon last year (which he overachieved and attained so much earlier than that), and now the quest to get to 100 titles (and simply winning as many titles as he can) and playing at the professional level as long as possible. Setting goals helps us focus on the actions that would take us to those goals, so practice gets tuned towards those specific goals.

4. Question yourself at the best of times.

Losses are crushing and makes one question what went wrong, but Roger has always questioned himself at the best of times – at his peak even when he won over 90% of the matches that he played. He is constantly on the lookout to improve himself and that shows why and how he has reinvented himself towards these later stages of his career – pretty much unseen in tennis history.

5. Health is more important than anything else.

Roger learnt it the hard way in 2013 when constant back issues thwarted his play. He persisted through it all, combined with an attempt to switch to a larger racquet. When again, in 2016, he had to undergo knee surgery, he finally decided to take a six-month break after some attempts to continue to play after a short rehab. And that paid off and how!

6. Take breaks, often.

Roger takes his vacation seriously. That time off, away from everything, visibly gives him the energy to come back and soak in it all. Even at the peak of his career, when he could have chosen to play so many more tournaments, he chose to take those critical breaks of few weeks between different parts of the tennis calendar. And that pretty much explains his longevity.

7. Celebrate your successes – more importantly, your efforts that went into them.

Roger celebrates his successes and more importantly the efforts that go into those. The definition of success itself varies depending on the stage of his career and what he encounters. At the time when Novak was on his peak, going on his invincible match-winning streak, the win against him at French Open was worth celebrating, even though the Finals was yet to be played.

8. Never forget your roots.

Roger remains a Swiss at heart. One of the most apparent gestures is having a pizza party with the ball kids after the Finals (even if he loses in the Finals) at his home tournament at Basel every year. He was once a ball boy at this same tournament and he never forgets to do his bit whenever he is back there.

9. Choose your goals intelligently depending on the stage of life you are in.

At the peak of his career, getting to No. 1 (and staying at No. 1) was always a big goal. Even as he reached No. 1 a few weeks ago (and he went out and played Rotterdam to reach there), his goals clearly have changed. Titles and playing at tournaments he enjoys playing and has best chances of winning are his current goals and more than all, simply expressing his love for tennis.

10. It’s all about love (for tennis).

At the end of the day, Roger loves tennis too much to easily walk away from the game. It is this love that drives him to work hard, to set high goals for himself, to manage being not just a tennis player, but a family man, ambassador for many brands worldwide and work on his Foundation to give back to underprivileged children in Africa and Switzerland.

11. Make sport a part of your life.

Roger recently talked of how he encourages his children to play tennis/sport – not to push them into becoming professional players but simply to lead a healthy life style, have fun, make friends and experience the feelings of winning and losing and thereby learning how to deal with them.

12. Family first

Roger’s priorities in life are always dictated by the well-being of his family. It is a privilege that he is able to travel on tour with his family. Yet, given the logistics and having to deal with four small children, it requires much more than just a will to be able to do it. Staying with his family and keeping his family together is far more important to him than participating in many tournaments staying away from his family.

13. Fans are people. Support staff are people. Ball kids are people. Journalists are people.

There are countless accounts of Roger staying back for so long after each of his practice sessions and matches to sign autographs and allow fans to take selfies with him. His dad talks of how much time he spends signing cards to be sent to his fans (based on the fan requests sent to him by mail and on his website). The way he seems to ‘care’ for people around him makes him the special person that he is. One of his favourite quotes is ‘It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice’. And he walks that talk.

14. Give back (to the society, to tennis, to fans, to juniors).

Tennis has given Roger so much in his life and he feels that responsibility to give back in so many ways. Be it the work through his foundation, taking up administrative positions on the tennis tour, or taking the time out to help juniors who start off new on the tennis tour.

15. Be an ambassador for what you stand for.

Roger is a true ambassador of tennis. He believes that he has a role to play in the evolution of tennis. He goes out of his way to promote tennis – playing in many non-competition events, kids’ clinics and defending tennis for what it stands for. He believes that he should leave the sport in a better place than it was when he started out and he took up the responsibility of being the players’ representative for 8 years during the peak of his career. He even endorses the brands he is sponsored by with such passion.

16. Every little detail matters.

Starting from the colour of his outfits to the designs on them, Roger is involved personally. He pays attention to every little detail because he cares and believes that each little thing has an importance of its own. During an interview at this year’s Australian Open, he said that it was an opportunity to tell stories about yourself through the designs that you put on your outfit.

17. Manage your time by focussing on the task at hand.

Roger has this incredible ability to focus on whatever he does at that moment. This automatically improves the quality of time he spends on different tasks – practice, family time, attending social events. He says how when he goes back to his family after a match, he should play with them and spend time with them in the exact same way, irrespective of whether he lost or won a match. This ability to switch off and switch on not only makes him so much more efficient but also helps him enjoy each task fully.

18. Think positively.

Roger is an incredibly positive person. He is able to put things in perspective after every loss. In fact, all I have to do to cheer up after one of his losses is to hear his post-match press conference. The way he rebounds from every loss (he has won the following tournament he participates in after so many of his crushing losses) shows his incredible positive view on his tennis and his life.

19. Have fun.

Though he appears to be this cool and calm person on court, the Roger we see off court is super-fun. The joy inside him is very much visible and he makes sure he has fun – be it on the practice court, in interviews (which he doesn’t consider a terrible obligation, but an opportunity to tell his story), and in all his public appearances. Sample this.

20. Keep reinventing yourself.

Even in his upcoming years, it took a lot of time for Roger to round up his game and attain invincible heights, given the many tricks he had in his bag. Yet, that was not enough. The game kept changing and so did Roger. He could have said enough and walked off the game at any point – the success he had from 2004 to 2008 was unprecedented. Yet, he would not hesitate to change his game, try out different strategies, take the big step of changing his racquet after 11 years of playing with the same one that suited him the best, hire his childhood idol Stefan Edberg to be his ‘inspiring’ super-coach and embrace the net courageously. All these have culminated into the last one and a half years of late-career success, crowning him with the No. 1 ranking and three Grand Slam titles and numerous other titles at places he loves to play in.

The grass season is around the corner. The GOAT must be getting ready to graze in his beloved lawns. I can’t wait to see his magic and artistry once more, as he dances on the green grass, moving his feet light as an elf, waving his racquet like a wand in the hands of a wizard and conceiving strategies that would take the game to the next level and hitting out-of-the world shots that would leave his opponents shaking their heads.

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The Ilaiyaraaja Top 20 Project

On Nirmal‘s request as a parallel to The ARR Top 20 Project, I set out to make this very nostalgic playlist. Most of these songs are mixed with the inseparable feeling of me fiddling with the music system in the ‘Orange room’ in our old home about 25 years ago, only to leave my father bewildered every evening at the weird things that the music system would do. I can almost feel the breeze from the balcony, as my sister and I would hear these songs, defining what my first memories of film music would be. Rahman was around the corner and Chinna Chinna Aasai would start reverberating in that room soon enough, but Raja had ruled those days with his unique sounds and unbeatable Carnaticness and sheer melody. I enjoy these songs even more today as I listen to the nuances in the music, enjoying each sangati, and the lyrics. As I type each of the song names, I can see in my mind’s eye their names inked by my father in Tamil on those good old TDK D90 cassettes. I only wish these songs are re-mastered in high quality and released again. Here goes the top 20 in no particular order:

1. Sundari Neeyum – Of all his avatars, I probably like the singer Kamal Hassan the best. A wonderful voice suited for Carnatic and the way he emotes brings alive the song in a beautiful way. Kedaram ragam is lovely by itself. Made lovelier by this song.

2. Manram vandha – If one song could define a movie, it is this one that basically encompasses the main emotions of Mouna Raagam. The proximity yet the unbridgeable distance. Water on lotus. SPB’s impeccable rendition.

3. Thenpaandi cheemayile – Another movie-defining song. The rustic rendition by Ilaiyaraja that echoes the plight of the boy Velunayakan, the classic Kamal rendition at different stages though the movie. Powerful emotions. At the end of the day, it is just a small boy’s angst who saw his father murdered in front of his own eyes.

4. Panivizhum malarvanam – Simple melody in Chalanattai. The deep tones of a ‘vivadi’ ragam transform into a romantic melody in the expert hands of Ilaiyaraaja. Inspiration enough for Sanjay Subrahmanyan to weave the landing ‘S S S S S S S S’ of Panivizhum malarvanam into his Chalanattai kalpana swarams.

5. Per vechchaalum – A fun song to hear and hilarious to watch. Dappankuthu beats, Malaysia Vasudevan in full flow.

6. Thoongaadha vizhigal – The flow of Amritavarshini. Yesudas’ deep voice. Brilliant picturisation by Mani Ratnam.

7. Idhu oru ponmaalai – Kedaram again. This song serenely flows in constrast to Sundari Neeyum, which lingers on with its mischief in every line. Beautiful lyrics – Vairamuthu’s first song.

8. Ninnukori varnam – Probably the peppiest song in Mohana ragam ever. Interludes with the quirky sounds only add to the charm.

9. Motta maadi – All songs in this movie are amazing, but this is my most favourite. More childhood memories of growing up with these songs. Mani’s magic comes through as well when we see how these songs are conceived completely interweaved with the movie.

10. Raakkamma – The catchy tune of Raakkamma, the ‘sodukkus’ to keep the beat, ‘jaangu jakku’ – all of these blend to take the song to a pinnacle and that’s when ‘Kunittha puruvam’ happens and takes it to an all-new level. And what a way to capture the first He-She meeting.

11. Nee oru Kadhal sangeetham – Beautiful romantic song. There is a great deal of discussion online about which ragam this is in. I am more in favour of ‘Shuddh Saarang’, as given here. Everything about this song (the voices, interludes, the sound of the instruments) is simple and mellifluous.

12. Poomaalai vaangi vandhaan – Yet another example of the genius of Ilaiyaraaja while dealing with classical ragams. There is an inherent depth in Kaanada ragam, and here Ilaiyaraaja wields it to show the desperation of the main character. Kaanada shines through it all.

13. Kanmani anbodu – An interesting song concept. A beautiful melody. The song starts off with just plain words written in a letter and moves into the wondrous La La Land 😉 towards the end.

14. Mari mari ninne – I am sure this must have gotten a lot of backlash from the purist Carnatic community at that point. This original song by Saint Thyagaraja in ragam Kambhoji has been completely reinvented by Ilaiyaraaja in ragam Saramathi and only goes on to show his prowess in Carnatic music. A majestic song.

15. Maalaiyil yaaro – The beautiful Suddha Dhanyasi ragam flows in this song. Beautiful lyrics and the melodious-yet-strong voice of Swarnalatha adds to the beauty of this song.

16. Yelangaathu veesudhe – One of those songs hearing which you wonder whether it is coming from within or without. Like something that has always been a part of you but you never realised it until you heard it out aloud.

17. Endhan nenjil neengadha – Nalinakanti ragam. That suffices.

18. Valaiyosai – Wonderful combination of SPB & Lata Mangeshkar. That Pallavi line beats all tongue twisters. And at what a pace! A whirlwind of a song.

19. Chinnakkannan azhaikkiraan – The legend Balamuralikrishna. Reethigowlai ragam. The joy with which Balamuralikrishna sings is infectious. Though many recent songs in this ragam have appeared in movies, this still remains one of the best.

20. Akashe Jyotsna/Nee paartha paarvaikkoru – Hariharan. Asha Bhonsle. Piano. Magic.

Bonus (Non-film): Pooveru konum – Thiruvasagam – Orchestral music always sounds grand. Here the beauty of Suddha Dhanyasi (in the first half) combines with it to create this masterpiece. Ilaiyaraaja and Bhavatharini have sung this with a lot of bhaavam.

There are many more gems to discover in Raja’s music and hopefully, we will get to hear more from him, but nostalgia of my early childhood shall always be synonymous with his magical music.