Sunday, 7 February 2016

Roger Federer: How admiration for a sporting legend helped me turn my life around

When Jo Lourey was at her lowest point, it was her admiration for Roger Federer that helped her carry on. Now a student at the Victoria College of the Arts, where she is studying a Masters of Screen Writing, the 26-year-old reflects on how a sporting great she had never met got her through the tough times.

In this day and age, it's a bit lame to admit you're inspired by sportspeople. Especially when you're an adult. But I'm the first to admit that about Roger Federer.
PHOTO: Roger Federer was a pillar of strength and inspiration for Jo Lourey during her darkest days. (Scott Barbour: Getty Images)
PHOTO: Roger Federer was a pillar of strength and inspiration for Jo Lourey during her darkest days. (Scott Barbour: Getty Images)
I've never really been one to hide my love of things. I'm a heart-on-sleeve sort of person, far too enthusiastic, far too excited. Roger is one of those things I love.

My crush on Roger bloomed very early, when I was a gangly 13-year-old in the wretched early '00s; when Rip Curl T-shirts, boardies and runners were all the rage.

To be fair, Roger back then was not much better, overgrown hair in a kind of surfer's ponytail alongside his glowing white Wimbledon ensemble.

On the inside of my teenage bedroom door, I still have Roger's Australian Open Championship posters, collected carefully from the Herald Sun and The Age, taped together and yellowing.

I love Roger in the best and easiest way you can love a complete stranger, which is of course from afar, from the sidelines, when they are on-stage, on the field, and can't make out the faces in the crowd for the lights.
I remember forever what he said: 'God, it's killing me'

Roger Federer lost the Australian Open in January 2009. That year's final was particularly brutal, a punishing five-setter against Rafa Nadal, who pushed just that bit harder and edged him out. It went late.

When they went to present the runner's up trophy, Roger stepped up to the microphone and he started crying. He was going through the motions graciously, thanking Rafa for a great match, and then he paused and the words caught in his throat. He put a hand to his face. I remember forever what he said: "God, it's killing me."

Watching it unfold at home on the couch, I started to cry too. I was worn thin and threadbare, and every day was like that. It was killing me, too.

My mental illness was destroying me and I didn't know what else to do. I'd hit a wall. I couldn't sleep. I was getting confused by simple tasks.

"It's killing me." Roger voicing his own struggles felt way too raw, too close to home.

It isn't often you hear an elite athlete be so brutally honest like that. That it had really, truly hurt so much to still lose when you'd given everything. He was trying so hard. I was trying so hard. I didn't have a very good grip on things, but it felt for a minute like he understood.

Early that March, I went to hospital for almost a month. It wasn't good. It was one of those places where they can't trust you with shoelaces or a razor. Think Girl Interrupted, but less Angelina Jolie, and more people who patrolled the corridor at 3:00am singing David Bowie.
There was that steely look of determination in his eye
PHOTO: Roger Federer's ability to bounce back from his 2009 Australian Open loss showed a steely determination.(Adrian Dennis: Getty Images)
PHOTO: Roger Federer's ability to bounce back from his 2009 Australian Open loss showed a steely determination.(Adrian Dennis: Getty Images)
The second week I spent there, I was looking at the Herald Sun sports section. I say 'looking' because I could barely read anything without getting confused, and had to be content to look at the pictures. There was a picture of Roger on the back page, training somewhere, hitting up.

There was that steely look of determination in his eye, midway through a forehand, ball a little green blur. I looked at it for ages, because I was having trouble processing things. But it seemed to me like he had his eyes on the prize. Back to prove what's what. I carefully tore that picture out of the paper.

Later in the week, my psychiatrist challenged me to try and read a few pages of a book. I used the picture of Roger to mark where I was up to while reading The Great Gatsby, lining up the torn corners with each line and sounding out the words in my head, deliberate and remedial, like somebody starting all over again.

Eventually, I didn't need the picture to help me mark the words. I finished the whole book.

That June, Roger won the French Open.

Roger had never won a French Open before. Clay was his weak point, everyone always said. Rafa always bested him, and they'd faced each other three times previously and Rafa, who'd grown up with his socks covered in red dirt, was the king of clay.

But that year there was a shock upset — Rafa got knocked out by Soderling, his record-winning streak ended.

Roger faced Soderling in the final, and won. He finally had his career Grand Slam. All four. Bang.

I remember thinking really hard about that, as sick as I was. If Roger could achieve things he had never achieved before so could I, right? Wasn't that how things should go in life? If he could get back to number one so could I.

I know we were in completely different situations — he was playing professional tennis and I was just trying to get through a day without wanting to die. But don't they both require some significant mental strength?

The next year, Roger won the Australian Open again, after two years of loss. He held the trophy aloft, went down by the Yarra to get his photo taken. I cut that picture out of the paper too and stuck it on the inside of my wardrobe.

At my 21st birthday, a friend who'd never visited the family home before saw the door wide open in my room while putting his coat down. "What's that, an inspiration wall?" He chuckled. "You're not wrong," I replied.
For the first time I saw Roger in the flesh

Later that year, I passed my first semester of university. Roger never, ever, ever retired during a match. I graduated in 2013, six years after I enrolled.

A set down? It'll be alright. Two sets down? Fine. Come back and get it in five. Don't worry, you can do it.

In January 2011 I went to the Australian Open, as I usually do, and for the first time I saw Roger in the flesh. There was barely 20 metres between us as he practised on the showcourt. Well, 20 metres and about 100 other people who also wanted to see him.

I remember watching him frowning down at his racquet, plucking the strings absent-mindedly, and I thought it so completely crazy, as I always do, that one-way street of admiration.

I was standing there and he could never have known what a beacon he was for me in a shitty time where I thought I might not make it.

And now I have written it all down, it sounds fairly batshit. He doesn't know me and he never will. I'm just a tiny insignificant speck in the glittering constellation of millions of fans he has worldwide.

So I can't say thank you. There's no way to say thank you for the years of inspiration and encouragement that I found in a stranger.

So instead, I'm just content to sit here and have the privilege of watching his beautiful game while he's still playing. Every point he wins earns a clap, every unforced error I take a sharp intake of breath. I have total investment in every stroke and every serve.

It might be crazy, and it's definitely lame. But it's all absolutely true. Come on Rog, it's time for another Grand Slam.
PHOTO: Roger Federer's French Open win sealed his career Grand Slam. (Clive Brunskill: Getty Images)
PHOTO: Roger Federer's French Open win sealed his career Grand Slam. (Clive Brunskill: Getty Images)
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