A World Without Federer – Reflections on the Mortality of a Tennis God

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Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

ALL THINGS MUST PASS

Bill Simons

Years ago in New York, writer Lloyd Carroll noted the obvious, saying “The aura of Roger Federer is all over the US Open.”

More to the point, for more than a decade, the aura of Roger Federer has been hanging over tennis. For years the prime narrative in the storybook of men’s tennis has revolved around the singular Swiss.

We know the chapters. There’s the young long-haired prospect taking down the mighty Pistol Pete at Wimbledon in 2001 – such a shock upset. There’s the Swiss grabbing his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, or weeping when Rod Laver handed him a shiny trophy in Melbourne. He’s inspired wannabees while leaving his foes dumbfounded. In his shadow, otherwise imposing athletes were made ordinary. “He made Andy Roddick seem like a Buick,” noted one observer.

His story is, in part, about astounding numbers. Roger reaches 27 Grand Slam finals and wins 17. Roger reaches 23 straight Grand Slam semis. Roger camps out at No. 1 for 302 weeks. This was one king who always seemed comfortable on his throne.

Roger, the man of grace, always exuded an almost existential quiet. Here was a rarity in our game – a grunt-free zone with little angst. He once sported a retro cream blazer at Wimbledon, a hint of arrogance. But it was hard not to embrace it. Old school Brits – who so adore civility – lifted the sensible and sane Swiss up to an almost saintly pedestal. But then, just eight weeks later, there was a far more gritty Roger, sporting urban black, inspiring the rowdy US Open throng. Where is this man not embraced? His brand – confident and assuring – soars like an Alpine peak.

The man has it all: the most crowded trophy case in men’s tennis, a loyal loving wife and not one, but two sets of twins. He is pretty good at reproduction and his no-sweat, “I got this covered” social skills impress almost as much as the easy fluidity of his cross-court topspin backhand. With barely a blink, he hobnobs with the mighty. There he is chatting with Tiger Woods about the isolation poor little superstars suffer. There he is comparing tennis and basketball with Michael Jordan. And yes, there he is sitting by Queen Elizabeth’s side, just below Wimbledon’s Royal Box, having a good old time. Easy chatter at a proper English lunch.

Roger Federer helps wide-eyed kids in dusty Africa and inspires well-heeled glitterati from Manhattan to Monte Carlo. Austrian post offices offer Federer stamps. Streets in Switzerland and hotel suites in New York bear his name. Tournaments give him cows. He gives us memories.

Writer Sue Mott suggested that it won’t be long “before dictionary writers are asked to absorb the verb ‘to Federer,’ meaning ‘to demolish with gasp-inducing precision.'”

How can we not compare him with others? His devotion and love of the game bring forth images of Rod Laver. Both so adore their sport. Roger moves like the wind. Like Bjorn Borg, he’s a Euro zephyr. He has a discipline suggestive of Ivan Lendl – but with ease and joy. Like Sampras, Roger claimed Wimbledon’s Centre Court to be his own. At times it simply seemed to be his studio. Quiet – genius at work? Pretenders need not intrude.

While Roger was applauded as an artist, some zealous Federerians dismissed his prime rival, Rafa Nadal, as merely a muscle man. As for today’s No. 1, there are those who claim Novak Djokovic is but a master craftsman. Roger’s backhand is liquid, like Guga Kuerten’s. His serve is powerful, yet silky. Think Pancho Gonzalez. Once senses his McEnroe-esque imagination is compelled to invent.

Then again, forget tennis. Roger draws comparisons with our greatest geniuses, like Leonardo da Vinci. Both men couldn’t avoid beauty. Federer is sports’ answer to Fred Astaire – kinetic perfectionism their creed, balance the key. Like Baryshinikov, Roger lifted athletic grace to astonishing heights. And what of the Swiss tennis player and Steve Jobs, the sage of Silicon Valley? Well, they both did their best work in sneakers.

In the end, Roger Federer is incomparable. David Foster Wallace said the man defies gravity. He somehow coaxes the ball to be still, to hang in space. The yellow sphere seems to pause for a curious half second, almost still.

But we interrupt this article to deal with a startling truth. Even Roger Federer can’t counter that most uncaring of masters. Time is a force that even the most mighty among us can’t defy. For the first time since 1998, Basel’s tennis genius won’t be playing a Slam.

What?

In this world there are certain undeniable truths. Politicians lie. Beyoncé shocks. Curry drains “threes,” Federer plays Slams – some 66 in a row. But now the great man has withdrawn from France’s annual tennis fest. There will be no Roland Garros for Roger, like a French cafe without chatter –  a Paris breakfast without a croissant. It’s not that the Mighty Casey struck out. The tennis world has not stopped spinning – it just seems that way.

For over 40 Slams in a row I’ve had a tradition. Whether flying far above the Atlantic or the Pacific, or zooming over America’s plains, I gather questions to put to Roger at the next Slam. Now in the dark middle of a May night above Greenland, the only question that comes to mind is this: is the Federerian end at hand? Yes, the 35-year old is the most astounding No. 3 we’ve ever encountered. Watch him bounce right back and win his beloved Wimbledon – don’t count him out. Still, we wonder, will we soon have to deal with a tennis world without Roger?

Could be. But remember, baseball survived without Babe Ruth. The NBA didn’t fold when Michael Jordan stopped soaring.

But tennis without Roger just won’t be the same.

So get ready. The day may not be that distant when the man of grace will no longer grace us with his on-court poetry.

It will be a shame. We’ll all then have to hold hands, adjust and have confidence that our tennis globe without Roger will still spin and have appeal.

The sages tell us, “all things must pass.” But admit it, don’t we wish it weren’t so? Immortality does have its appeal.