By Bill Simons
He’s not Babe Ruth – the fabled pioneer at the heart of baseball.
He’s not Muhammad Ali, the charismatic trailblazer whose bravado and blows shook the world.
He’s not MJ – Michael Jordan – the no-bull Chicago Bull whose surefire swagger and in-your-face dunks changed the culture of sport.
He’s Roger Federer. Man, brand, champion, icon and artist. The genius who combines on-court power and off-court ease, whose grace, longevity and ability to reinvent himself draw adoration from Manhattan to Madagascar.
What we love about this man is not only that conventional wisdom tells us he is the best player to ever pick up a racket. It’s not only that he backs schools in Africa or that he embraces his fame with a metro-hip confidence. It’s not only that he still unleashes a youthful power, yet has been playing for decades. It’s not just that he continually rocks his world while adapting to the changing tennis universe about him. After all, with ol’ Rog there’s always (literally and figuratively) a fresh wrinkle – a new racket, a new coach, a reinvigorated back, a new set of twins or some strategic ideas – including his much-ballyhooed SABR tactic.
But ultimately, what we really love about Roger is his beauty. Okay, he flicks his gorgeous brown hair, and seems to tell us, “I’m Roger, isn’t that just grand?” He informs us he “never wakes up angry.” And then asks, “Why would I?” He can be a tad dismissive or even imperious – who wouldn’t be?
After all, Roger is Roger. Unlike the NFL’s Tom Brady, he’s avoided even a whiff of controversy, all the while being the man who cannot avoid beauty. His dagger-in-the-wind backhand is a kinetic wonder, whether powered with topspin or cut with a not-so-nice slice, down the line or crosscourt. This is tennis as art. But this artistic triumph is not hidden in the corner of some dusty museum or in an obscure gallery. This is “ballet-ball” on Centre Court or amidst the explosive roar of Arthur Ashe Stadium – a very public canvas.
Roger’s winners laugh at risk. The man has a mythic power. His forehand is lethal, his serve a Jedi wand. He loves to attack. He punishes with a wink – just ask the three (or is it four) generations of players he’s bruised: Sampras, Hewitt, Safin, Roddick, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
Roger is light, feather-free. His movement teases gravity. His balance never teeters. The man floats – a graceful master like no other.
His matches, of course, are very real. But there is a dreamlike quality that hovers – a Federerian spell of stylish strokes and energetic ease. Roger sweats – it just doesn’t seem that way.
Tiger, Gretzky, Kobe and Manning are all legends. But what other performer so combines art and athleticism? What other sportsman draws comparisons to Picasso, Baryshnikov and da Vinci? He tells us, “Once you find that peace, that place of peace and quiet, harmony and…confidence, that’s when you start playing your best.”
Yet even Roger is mortal. The end will come. So for now, enjoy, relish. Thank goodness, this genius is still at work.