“The Bear has come out of hibernation!”
With that simple, yet all-encompassing phrase, Jim Nantz immortalized one of the greatest moments in sports: Jack Nicklaus’ Sunday charge to win the 1986 Masters. Heading into the final round, the Golden Bear was considered all but out of the running; after all, he hadn’t even won a major championship in six years.
Then, with a flurry of birdies on the back nine that set off a massive series of roars that still echo through the Augusta pines, Nicklaus, at age 46, turned back the clock to snag his 18th Major and gave fans one last glimpse of his magic and sheer greatness.
And doesn’t Roger Federer deserve to go out on a similar note?
Consider the parallels between Federer today and Nicklaus in ’86. Both owned the record for the most major championships in their respective sports with 17, but it had been a while since either had experienced the championship success that had once been a foregone conclusion.
With a win for the ages in 1986, the Golden Bear cemented his legacy as not just the greatest golfer of all time, but as one of the greatest figures in sports, capable of transforming a seemingly ordinary moment into instant beauty. Federer deserves another shot at inspiring and energizing a world audience on one of the biggest stages in tennis. It wouldn’t just be serendipitous — it would be beautiful.
We don’t often talk the beauty of sports as often as we should. As much as I love following strange storylines, being inundated with statistics and managing my fantasy roster, sometimes those ancillary details get in the way of what makes sports truly special: seeing the impossible come to life before our eyes — moments in which time, space and consciousness just seem to come to a halt.
The late, great writer David Foster Wallace made a strong argument for appreciating the beauty of sports and understanding the inspiring transcendence of Roger Federer in a New York Times column “Federer as Religious Experience,” one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting ever.
In 2013, we saw the Swiss maestro slide down in the rankings while he dealt with injuries and an absurdly deep pool of talented players from across the world. We thought that we’d definitely seen the last of his on-court wonders or — at the very least — the last flashes of his 2004-07 dominance.
In 2014, however, we’ve seen the return of vintage Roger, the player who glides across courts while others merely run, who snaps trademark forehands from impossible angles and never manages to break a sweat. With his most recent tournament victory in his hometown of Basel last weekend, the 17-time major champion has climbed back to number two in the world and could very well take over the number one ranking by the end of the year.
All along the way, he has shown the world that his game is back at the elite level that drops jaws across the world, or — as David Foster Wallace would put it — evokes a religious experience.
Now, all that’s left for Federer to do is bring those religious experiences back to the Mecca of the sport and hoist a trophy one last time. All of the heartbreaking losses over the years — 2009 in Australia, 2011 in Paris, 2014 at Wimbledon — would feel less burdensome and one last performance for the ages would undoubtedly inspire tennis players across the planet. Just as a 10-year-old Tiger Woods watched in amazement as Nicklaus sank that birdie putt on 17 in 1986, the future of tennis could very well benefit from a complete Federer Renaissance.
And if Federer does return to the finals of a Grand Slam event, how sweet would it be to see him stare down Rafael Nadal on the other side of the net? It would be a meet-up of the two greatest players in the game, each looking to cement their status as the greatest of all time. Tennis, in many ways, is like boxing — it is an intensely one-on-one affair which naturally fuels rivalries that few sports can match.
One last chance at appreciating the spectacle that is Federer-Nadal — the clash of effortless grace vs. athleticism and nerves of steel — would be a religious experience unto itself, filled with the beauty and suspension of disbelief that sports are made of.
And though I typically don’t root for him, I’d pull for Roger all the way in that one. If anyone deserves the chance to go out on top, it’s him.
The religious experience of Roger Federer made Vihan Lakshman turn his back on Scientology. Implore Vihan to change his mind at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.