Roger Federer and the Futile Quest for the Definitive

By John Gorman

Yesterday, Roger Federer won his record-tying 7th Wimbledon championship, and his record-extending 17th Grand Slam title. He became the oldest Grand Slam title winner since Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. He thwarted Andy Murray’s bid to become the first Brit to win on the English grass in 76 years.

By all accounts, this is a mammoth sports story. A quick Google search confirms this, with over 14,911 folks touching digit-to-key to document the event.

But what do we read first? Who do we trust? Who will satisfy with the gold-standard take on Federer’s unparalleled excellence? The answers are too murky, and a quest for words to encapsulate all that will transcend box scores and analysis, soapboxing and grandstanding, leads to fatigue and futility.

This is by no means a foggy-black-and-white-nostalgia column meant to derail and detract from today’s sportswriting landscape. I’m not old enough to remember the halcyon days of the Fedora-capped, bourbon-soaked, cigar-smoking typewriter wizard, and in truth, there are plenty of gifted writers, pundits and media personalities out there who have attempted and will step into the box and take their best verbal cuts to knock this story out of the park. Trouble is, there’s too damn many of them, and sometimes the best of them will be buried underneath an ocean of SEO-hunting, keyword-stuffed sewage.

Used to be, when a story broke that sent the sports seismographs into seizures, you could catch it in metered, measured doses: The local paper, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the 11-o-clock news, and – once cable swallowed network air whole – ESPN. Those were, to any ol’ truth-seeking layman, the sports media outlets of record up until the advent of cliched and pejorative terms “24/7 news cycle” and “blogosphere,” which are just euphemisms for “Everyone Has A Voice.” You read the papers the following day, the news that night, Sportscenter the following morning, and Sports Illustrated would box-and-bow the story up by the middle of next week. And we settled for that, and we were satisfied.

I suppose you could still get your sports news that way. After we buffed Roger Federer’s lip-smear off the English metal, we could have waited for the highlights on Sportscenter, sifting through Coors Light Cold Hard Facts and the epileptic Weekend Encore. We could have ponied up the cash to go behind the New York Times paywall. We could pick up a morning paper and read an AP-syndicated recount of yesterday’s events. We could wait the excruciating eternity until SI plopped on our front doorstep. We could. But we’d be woefully behind, and feel like we were being fed ground chuck at the same diners where once they served us tenderloin.

In our industrious impatience and our impossibly insatiable appetite for “The Last Word,” we navigate the impenetrable, impervious Internet for our daily dose of truth. We scour for someone to change our minds, or to say what we were thinking so eloquently that no more reading is required, that this moment was perfectly aggregated in all it’s nuance, complexity and profundity. Close your laptops, go outside.

Perhaps by growing older (and hopefully) wiser, and technology exponentially proliferating beyond my capacity for consumption, I’ve tossed the bar for the ‘definitive’ take on anything too high for me to touch. But as with the beer industries and music industries (I offer these two other disciplines for comparison’s sake, but you could substitute almost anything in which you have a keen interest), proliferation means what’s popular is less likely than ever to be what’s “best”, and what’s “best” is less likely to be definitive and more likely to be a matter of subjective taste … and far less likely to be on the front page of the “101 Things Everybody Should Read Before The Sun Sets” Gazette.

More dizzying still, trying to sift through “Best Of …” lists of anything: Men’s tennis players, women’s tennis players, NBA players, vacation destinations, albums, songs and artists, etc, becomes an incalculable mess that’s been botched, re-heated, botched again and aggregated with authorities on each discipline devouring each other with each successive update. Who’s right? Who’s off? Consensus is created only at the convenience of the consumer.

Add this to the parallel paradox of more excellent writing being readily available than ever before, and what you have is a deluge of perspective and information that can exhaust you before you’re ever really satisfied. It’s a five-star, five-course meal where every course is All-You-Can-Eat, and you’re often full before you’re presented the Bluefin Tuna Tartare.

In the end, you’ll walk away knowing Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray in four sets. You’ll know he entered a rarefied air where it’s become nearly impossible to declare any other men’s tennis player to be the “Greatest of All Time.” You’ll know he tied a Wimbledon record with his 7th title, and broke the not-all-that-old all-time Pete Sampras record of Weeks Spent as the No. 1 Tennis Player in the World, a ranking that’s as close to definitive as any evaluation method we have in sports, but that’s just math – no words required.

And in the end, due to the magic and power of SEO and Google News Listings, you’ll probably stumble upon this column hoping to read the defining word on Roger Federer’s fortnight truimph at the All-English Club, only to skim through and realize this column wasn’t really about Roger Federer at all, and you’ll click on the next item down on the list and continue your exasperating quest for the perfect perspective you will never read.

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