True love knows no gender!
The match with Federer is over, and the Swiss, for all his heartbreak, embraces Safin at the net, they exchange words and go to their separate seats.
What happens next, usually, is that the loser will exit swiftly for sorrow is best not left on show while the winner will linger and soak in triumph he has bravely constructed. Except this ritual of ages has an abrupt interruption, for the briefest of moments, so brief that people may not really sense its significance, custom is abandoned.
Federer, head bowed, racket bags on both shoulders, is walking out, and as he passes Safin, it is expected they will politely ignore each other, the victor allowing the defeated his ego, the defeated not wishing to look his champion in the face.
But incredibly, by instinct not premeditation, Safin puts out his hand and rests it on Federer’s shoulders.
It is nothing but everything. I am staggered for I have not seen this before, astonished because grace has become an aberration; this gesture does not fit the modern urge for one-upmanship, it does not sit with the silly vanity of the times.
We cannot say exactly what message Safin’s act is sending. Perhaps it is one simply of solidarity, that he knows, too, how losing hurts; perhaps it is merely an acknowledgement of the sustained battle they have just fought and that so little separated them.
Perhaps it is an act of humility, as if he knew one defeat does not truly end a reign; perhaps it is recognition of each other as human beings, an understanding that while they may play our their hearts in public arenas they know there is life beyond this court.
It is beautiful, it is a gesture of spontaneous decency in a time when we find ways to excuse Hewitt’s petulance, it is a natural moment in a sporting world of artificiality, it is an instinctive sign of respect in an era of stage-managed show biz.
Federer does not shrug him off, or freeze, but puts out his left hand to touch Safin. And for this fleeting of instants, it is a better sporting world.