Roger That: Federer, Wimbledon and the Meaning of Money

 | Jul 17, 2017 | 3:00 PM EDT
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I was lucky enough to be at the final of the men's singles at Wimbledon yesterday afternoon, and even luckier to see Roger Federer win his record eighth title. To top it off, I snagged an invite to the Champions Dinner that same night, to see Federer celebrate with women's singles winner Garbiñe Muguruza at London's Guildhall.

Sunday's tickets were going for around £6,500 ($8,500) before the final, which saw Federer survive a tough first half of the first set and then coast to a straight-sets victory over Marin Cilic, who was suffering with blisters. Cilic, a 6-foot-6 Croatian, held three match points last year over Federer in the quarterfinals, but this year's win became a procession to, for many, the perfect result.

The match wasn't much, by way of contest, but was immensely significant by content. As a result, my piece of paper escorting me to my seat -- secured at the £190 ($250) face value -- could have paid for an all-included holiday to Britain. "You're going to the final?" my London-based cousin asked me the day before. Yes, I replied, telling him the scalper's price. "You were going, then?!" he joked back.

Seeing Federer play on Centre Court at Wimbledon, the most hallowed tournament in the sport, is the essence of tennis. If you could capture it and put it in a bottle, that would be it.

There was no way I was going to give that up, no matter the price. Others less attached to tennis would disagree. In a high-definition day, and a digital era, does it really matter what we see with our own eyes anymore?

The face value of $250 belies the $8,500 value on the black market for a ticket to Sunday's men's final at Wimbledon.

The face value of $250 belies the $8,500 value on the black market for a ticket to Sunday's men's final at Wimbledon

I had plenty of time to ponder the answer to that question during the match, which was followed by another straight-sets victory in the mixed doubles. Martina Hingis and the Scot Jamie Murray, a doubles champion surely fed up with being known as "Andy's brother," overcame last year's victors, Henri Kontinen, a Finn with 1930s-film-star looks, and Heather Watson, a popular British winner last year.

And I had even more time to ponder the answer at the dinner, when I was seated with Federer directly behind me, and Hingis, at my table, directly in front. I was the cheese in a Swiss sandwich. Also at my table were Wimbledon, French and U.S. Open champion Manolo Santana; Mark Woodforde, who won just about everything there is to win in men's doubles; Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli; and French Open champion Eva Majoli. I was only seated at the table as the "plus one" by virtue of my father, himself a five-time Wimbledon doubles champion.

I'll refer to Federer in old-school news style, by his last name, although he's universally called Roger. Only sports commentators fall back on concocted nicknames like the "FedExpress." Maybe he is, though, the GOAT. Greatest of all time.

Although the "best ever" argument is academic, I would say we won't see the likes of Federer for a few lifetimes. He is the best of his era, and certainly the best of this Wimbledon. Most of all, he's simply an immense pleasure to watch, effortless, with wonderful anticipation and the smoothest of strokes. Off the court, he's forthright and genuinely nice, confidence occasionally verging on arrogance. But c'mon, I then think, he has a lot to be arrogant about. Others wouldn't wear that mantle anywhere near as well.

Federer stands not only to set a bunch of "most" records but now also "oldest to" claims. A few days shy of 36, he became the oldest Wimbledon champion since pro tennis began in 1968, and the first to win the tournament without losing a set since Bjorn Borg in 1976. Did he, we may ask, even sweat?

With this year's Australian Open already in hand, Federer is achieving all this five years after people started telling him to retire "while you're on top" -- and with his four children watching. 

So I felt something special was happening on Sunday during the final. Crowds craned their necks to watch Federer wherever he walked. He's even a champion that other champions hope to grab for a selfie. 

The Champions Dinner long since ceased being a ball, although the myth is still frequently repeated to this day that the champions would share the first dance. They did, however, share a stage with the original trophies and the two-thirds replicas that they get to take home, each champion giving a brief interview reflecting on their win. 

That's when Federer imparted an interesting lesson. Muguruza, a Venezuelan-born Spaniard with a beaming smile, found herself a marked woman when she won her first major, the French, in 2016. A target for the media, sponsors and, of course, every opponent, she failed to win another tournament -- until this Wimbledon, on the grass surface she said she hated.

Roger Federer and women's singles winner Garbiñe Muguruza

Roger Federer and women's singles winner Garbine Muguruza

Her speech came first, and she admitted it was a surprise for her to be holding the trophy, even as a beaten former finalist. "But here it is!" she told her coaches, eyebrows raised, head cocked. Federer, likewise, said with his day sinking in that it was "surreal," and he'd make more sense of it later.

Did he ever think he would surpass his idol, Pete Sampras, when he beat him at Wimbledon back in 2001, a win that turned out to be the only time they played before Sampras retired, to signal the end of an era?

"Absolutely not," Federer said. "I thought about it at 40-30 [match point] today, and what it might mean to move past him." He still is amazed. Federer also put paid to the asterisk-laden haul of William Renshaw, who won seven Wimbledon singles titles in the 1880s, when the champion only played one match against the winner of the challenger's tournament.

Each year is special, he said, and he prizes them more as he gets older, not knowing when the next might come. The brash immortality of 2001 has passed, and he enjoys these moments more reflectively.

Did he have any advice for Muguruza? "You played a great match," he said. "Enjoy this evening. You're a Wimbledon champion now, and you'll be a Wimbledon winner forever."

Most interesting was what he said next. "It means a lot now. It's an amazing feat. But it will mean even more, a lot more, to you as you get older."

Very smart advice, I thought. When my table rose to toast this year's winners, I was glad to see that Hingis didn't toast herself, "not the done thing" in Britain. When I pointed this out, she said it didn't make sense. "We're all champions here," she said.

I score smaller victories. Keen to expose my children to the cultural side of Britain's capital, I've taken them to see more than their share of cultural sights, sites and experiences. There has been van Gogh's Sunflowers. Kew Palace, the retreat of "mad" King George III, who presided over the departure of the American colonies. Admiral Nelson on his column, overlooking a Union Jack in Trafalgar Square. Afternoon tea.

A table of champions - and the author (second left).

A table of champions - and the author (second left)

And there's The Fighting Temeraire, a stunning seascape by J.M.W. Turner showing the sail-driven 98-gun British navy battleship of that name being towed to its scrapyard by a smoke-belching, coal-powered tugboat. It was the end of another era. The painting will feature on the £20 note in 2020.

So it's literally money. How much is it worth, my son asked? Well, now that it's here in the National Gallery, I had to say it's priceless. You might be able to scalp a Wimbledon ticket. But good luck fencing that picture for notes printed with the very proof of your crime.

OK, my 8-year-old thought, but ehhh, what's money to an 8-year-old. It comes from the Daddy tree. And he rushed off to find his sister for a game of tag.

When Federer won, though, I had to admit I had earned well more than $8,500 in life experience. My time and experience means more to me than any stock-market gain. I am invested in that moment, that day, that piece of perfect tennis present when I was present, recent history now I reflect on it today.

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