Applying Kipling’s “If” to Wimbledon

Andy Roddick, heroic in a losing cause

Andy Roddick, heroic in a losing cause

An exhilarating and exhausting week at Wimbledon has come to an end with an exhilarating and exhausting match between Swiss player Roger Federer and American Andy Roddick. Roddick was once my favorite player and Federer is my current favorite so I felt torn as I watched the longest match in grand slam history. It came to an end when Federer broke Roddick’s service at 16-14 in the fifth set (the only set not settled by a tiebreaker). Yesterday’s Wimbledon final was the longest and among the greatest men’s final matches of all time, vying for that honor with last year’s Federer-Nadal match, the consensus pick as the greatest final.

6119429Federer emerged not only with the win but with the all-time record for grand slam event victories (the grand slam events are the Australian, French, Wimbledon and American). Whether his 15 victories, which surpass Pete Sampras’s 14, make him the “Greatest Of All Time” (or GOAT) is a subject for those endless discussions that help keep sports vital. Is he as great as old time masters like Bill Tilden or Pancho Gonzalez, who participated in fewer because, in those days, the grand slam events were only for amateurs? How about Rod Laver, who won the four grand slam events, turned professional, waited for five years for the tournaments to become “open” to professionals, and then won all four tournaments again? And what about Raphael Nadal, the brilliant Spaniard who seems the one player able to regularly get inside Federer’s head? Before this year’s French Open, Nadal had a 5-2 edge over Federer in grand slam finals, but his physically punishing game has led to tendonitis in his knees, leading (perhaps) to his early defeat in the French Open and to his withdrawal from Wimbledon. In any event, Federer is a worthy champion and Roddick did what the best of challengers do: he played his best and bring out the best in the champion.

In the tunnel that leads to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the players pass under two lines of poetry by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.” The passage is from “If,” a poem that is regularly voted as Britain’s most popular poem and that occupies a status that Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” does in the United States. There was a BBC short of Federer and Nadal reading “If.”

I devote today’s post to examining whether Federer and Roddick are following the poem’s advice.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

Tennis at this level becomes a mental game and, for five grueling sets, neither man lost his head. Federer was down 6-2 in a second set tiebreak and managed, incredibly, to win it, thereby staving off a two-set deficit that could well have spelled his defeat. Roddick, meanwhile, having missed a backhand volley that would have given him the set, nevertheless regrouped and, by the fourth set, was outhitting Federer from the baseline.


If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:

No one thought Roddick had a chance in this match, just as no one thought that Roddick had a chance in his semi-final match against Andy Murray, the brilliant Scottish player. Roddick, however, was more focused than he has ever been and played the two greatest matches of his life, coming up just short in the second. He understood people’s doubts about how his career has faltered—he had those same doubts—but he moved past them.

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

I use this opportunity to talk about the extraordinary patience that Federer exhibited in the face of Roddick’s overwhelming serve. Roddick won 37 service games in a row, often with 140+ mile an hour serves in crucial points. Yet Federer kept working to get the ball in play and finally broke through. As Roddick said after the match, “You didn’t even get a sense that he was even really frustrated by [being unable to return my serve]. He kind of stayed the course and just toughed it out. He gets a lot of credit for a lot of things, but not a lot of the time is how many matches he kind of digs deep and toughs out.”

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

Given the media frenzy surrounding sports these days, it is easy for an athlete to lose his or her bearings. A small incident suddenly gets blown out of proportion—Federer sobs after losing the Australian Open to Nadal and suddenly people pile on. Roddick makes an innocent comment and it gets twisted out of all proportion. Remarkably, both these men seem able to maintain an even keel in the face of it all.

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

Kipling seems to be delivering a warning about becoming too full of yourself—a real temptation for athlete superstars who are hoisted upon pedestals. In some ways, the challenge of handling excessive praise may be greater than handling negativity. Again, both these men seem fairly grounded.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

In answer to a post-match question, Federer noted that he never dreamt of surpassing Sampras’s seemingly insurmountable record. But when that record came in sight, it threatened to master him. He struggled through the French Open when Nadal went out early, suddenly feeling pressure from this golden opportunity to win the one tournament that had eluded him. I sensed similar pressure to win Wimbledon with Sampras in attendance—except for moments, Federer didn’t play quite as brilliantly or artistically as he is capable (with the exception of his serve). Of course, some of this was Roddick’s doing. In the end, however, he focused on the play, not the dream.

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,

Anyone who plays tennis (and most sports) knows that you’ve got to get “out of your head.” Both Federer and Roddick were able to play smart but instinctive tennis, thinking their way through the match without fighting themselves in the process.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:

As the lines that Wimbledon has chosen to post on its hallowed walls, this sentiment invokes an ideal of sports that too often we forget: as seriously as we take it, it is just, in the end, a game. Losing hurts but, over and over, Roddick and Federer seem able to regain perspective. Watching how they handle triumph and adversity ups my admiration for both of them.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

See “being lied about” above.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

Hats off to Andy Roddick here. People thought he was on the downside of his career, but he hired a new coach, lost 15 pounds, and is playing the greatest tennis of his life. Not that a 26-year-old body is a warn-out tool, and the passage is even better applied to Tommy Haas, Federer’s semifinal opponent who managed to come back through countless injuries and surgeries to give Federer a tough match.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:

I salute here some of Roddick’s backhand passing shots and his second serves. Time and again, he went for the difficult rather than the safe shot and actually outduelled Federer in the groundstroke game, something no one thought he could do. In fact, a number of people remarked that it was though they were watching a reverse game, what with Federer’s 50 aces and Roddick’s baseline rallies.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

Hats off to both men in the fifth set, pulling out critical shot after critical shot, each knowing that a couple of errant shots would mean their defeat.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly mentions going to inteview Federer and finding him vacuuming his apartment. Both Federer and Roddick go out of their way to talk to the media (Federer in four different languages). The fact that they are so grounded (to use that word once again) helps explain why they are not burning out.

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

Forget about foes. In the sports world, friends are sometimes the real problem, attaching to your glory train and pulling you off course. Kipling’s poem is about keeping perspective. Federer and Roddick seem able to do this better than many.

If all men count with you, but none too much:

This can be a tough line to walk, giving yourself to the world and yet maintaining a certain detachment from it as well. The detachment is necessary if you are not to be swallowed up. Andre Agassi got swallowed up for a time. Federer seems to have mastered this balancing act.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Well, that sums up professional sports, where a single misstep can lead to defeat. Most of us cannot begin to imagine the focus and concentration it takes to perform at such a level. Yesterday, Federer and Roddick filled up every minute with sixty seconds of all-out distance run.

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

In the end, life is more about being than having. And just so we understand “Man” in its non-gendered sense, let me give a shout-out to the Williams sisters, who keep going at an age when most women tennis players are done.  Serena’s semifinal win of Elena Dementieva required a superhuman effort on her part and is one of the great Wimbledon matches.

This entry was posted in Kipling (Rudyard) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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  1. By Poetry at Wimbledon on July 3, 2010 at 1:00 am

    [...] Wimbledon, the classiest of the tennis tournaments, to work poetry into the occasion.  I wrote last year about how the players walk past Rudyard Kipling’s “If” on their way to Center Court.  Did you [...]


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