Learning to Live Without Roger

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

In the wake of yet another harrowing Roger Federer surgery that in August left the 40-year old again on crutches and again out of the game, a single observation came to mind. Long 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 decades the aura of the great champion has been hanging all over tennis. For years the prime narrative in the storybook of men’s tennis revolved around the singular Swiss.

We know the chapters. There’s the young long-haired prospect taking down mighty Pistol Pete at Wimbledon in 2001. There’s the Swiss grabbing his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, or weeping when Rod Laver handed him the shiny trophy in Melbourne. And there’s The Mighty Fed falling to Nadal in the Wimbledon dusk in 2008 in the greatest match of all time. Finally Roger would lift that illusive French Open trophy. He’d switch to a larger racket, suffer his first knee injury, score a stunning fifth-set comeback to down Nadal in Melbourne and fail to convert two Wimbledon championship points against Novak Djokovic. In his twilight, there would be more injuries and a string of un-Federerian losses.

Still, across three generations, Roger both inspired wannabes and left his foes dumbfounded. In his shadow, otherwise imposing athletes appeared ordinary. “He made Andy Roddick seem like a Buick,” joked one observer.

His story is, in part, about astounding numbers: Roger has reached 31 Slam finals and won 20. He battled his way to 23 straight Grand Slam semis, was No. 1 for 310 weeks, reached 58 quarterfinals and is the only player to win at least ten titles on all four surfaces.

He’s won 103 titles and both Wimbledon and the US Open five straight times. At his peak he dominated. 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.’”

Yet there always was an impish boy within. He’d giggle with his arch-rival Nadal or show his sensitive side and tear up at award ceremonies. And, of course, no other champion could so astound us with a mere flick of the wrist. The New Yorker said, “To root for Federer is to root for a platonic ideal. It is like rooting for truth.”

Roger was one king who was always comfortable on his throne. His wife Mirka said, “I can’t imagine anyone waking up every morning being so content with everything.” He exuded an 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. One summer old school Brits – who so adore civility – lifted the Swiss up to an almost saintly pedestal. But then, just eight weeks later, we saw a far more gritty Roger, a street-fighting man in black inspiring the rowdy US Open throng. In South Africa over 50,000 devotees came out for an exhibition. Fans traveled thousands of miles to Indian Wells just to see him practice. Where has he not been embraced? His brand – confident urban chic – soared like an Alpine peak.

He’s had it all: one of the most crowded trophy cases in all of tennis, a loyal, loving wife and not one, but two sets of twins. And his no-sweat, “I’ve got this covered” social skills impress almost as much as the easy fluidity of the most beautiful shot in tennis – his cross-court topspin backhand. With barely a blink, he navigates through press conferences in three languages and hobnobs with the mighty. There he is, chatting with Tiger Woods about the isolation superstars suffer. He compares tennis and hoops with Michael Jordan. And yes, he sits by Queen Elizabeth’s side having a proper English lunch. Then, with a playful twinkle in his eye, he tells the press that she gave him tips on his backhand.

All the while Roger has always been just a regular guy. “He beats the crap out of you,” recalled James Blake, “Then you come back in the locker room and he’s one of the guys.” Mid-match at Wimbledon, Dominik Hrbaty thanked him for being his friend. Andy Roddick poignantly noted, “There was never a sense of entitlement with Roger. How he conducted himself when no one was watching is the takeaway I have.”

The man helps wide-eyed kids in dusty Africa and inspires well-heeled glitterati from Monte Carlo to Manhattan. Swiss and 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.

How can we not compare him with others? His devotion and love of the game bring to mind Rod Laver. Like Bjorn Borg, he’s a Euro zephyr. He has a discipline suggestive of Ivan Lendl and Djokovic – but with ease and joy. Like Pete Sampras, Roger claimed Wimbledon’s Centre Court to be his own. At times it simply seemed to be his studio: “Quiet – genius at work…Federer is betterer.” Yes, Rafa’s muscles glisten. Novak’s splits astound. There has been no greater tennis craftsman than Nole. But Roger long has been the game’s artist-in-residence. His backhand is liquid. His serve is powerful yet silky. His imagination prompts invention.

Beyond tennis, Roger draws comparisons with our greatest geniuses, like Leonardo da Vinci. Neither man could avoid beauty. Federer is sports’ answer to Fred Astaire – kinetic perfection their creed, balance the key. Like Baryshnikov, Roger lifts athletic grace to astonishing heights. Like Picasso his distinctive strokes inspire. And what of this Swiss tennis player and Steve Jobs, the wizard of Silicon Valley? Well, they both did their best work in sneakers.

In the end, 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.” To master coach Steve Stefanki, “Federer never looks like he’s imposing his will…He’s playing off the music of his opponent.”

Jim Courier is famous for his celebratory dive into Melbourne’s Yarra River, but said he wouldn’t do it again because Roger might be walking on its waters. A sign at the Miami Open read, “Commit your sins when Federer is playing. Even God is watching.”

But even the caring Roger can’t counter that most uncaring of forces – time. The chances of a 40-year old returning to the very top from a fourth knee surgery are slight. Then again, Nicolas Kiefer reminded us, “We are on Earth – he’s on another planet.”

Still, we can’t help but wonder whether we’ll soon be living a tennis world without Roger. So we remember that baseball survived without Babe Ruth. The NBA didn’t fold when Michael Jordan stopped soaring. But get ready – tennis without our ethereal ambassador just won’t be the same. And the day is coming when this graceful man will no longer grace our courts. Then we’ll have to gather round, hold hands, sing Kumbaya and trust that Planet Tennis without Roger will still spin, and continue to nurture our souls.

Sages tell us, “All things must pass.” But don’t we wish it weren’t so? After all, immortality does have its appeal.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. Hard to summarize his impressive career, the grace he brings on and off court and being the most loved athlete in the world. Hopefully when the time comes to retire he will continue with exhibitions and be a tennis commentator

  2. Roger federer is my idol.even if I didn’t play tennis.he is the reason why I woke up early to see his game.win or loss.federer is the greatest of all time.he is like mj in sport.

  3. Absolutely one of the best articles you have written. Your description of Roger Federer makes him sound peRFect. Even if that may not be true, no other tennis player has given me more pleasure to watch.

  4. Knowing Roger, he will try and mount a come back. He loves the sport so much. His career has been stellar and scintillating. So many will miss his graceful, elegant precision tennis and his fine character. He’s NOT dead, just absent from the scene.

  5. Wonderful article. You summed up so well how I’ve felt as a Federer fan for many years. Blessed to be able to see him in person many times at Indian wells. Hope he can do a farewell tour of sorts.

  6. Beautifully written and wonderful tribute to an incredible human being! I put him up there with Ghandi. He is so peaceful and graceful as a man first and then you throw in his amazing talents of tennis, his giving to others, his multi- languages and loving family man. Thanks Bill Simon! We will learn to live without him on the court ( most probably) and look forward to his other adventures in life.

  7. Cool article. As a tennis player I remember the first time watching Fed and I thought to myself then this guy has got everything. Its a bit like his game is 5 dimensional compared to others who might be 2 or 3 dimensional. Very sadly I think your right. It is a long shot to see him come back from this. I doubt it. But I tell you what I’ve been watching him all his Career and it has been brilliant. You are right. As a tennis player Fed is unique. So many options in his game. And a great sport and a Gentleman. He will be sorely missed by all those who have watched him over. Fed is a legend of tennis.

  8. I will never forget seeing him live in the couple of tournaments I managed to get tickets to. Beautifully written article! I used to have a Swiss post stamp…so many memories thanks to your lines. Bravo!

  9. I travelled thousands of miles too, perhaps without being able to see him. But the chance that i might or just knowing that Roger was in the draw, was enough for me.

  10. Thank you! Thanks for reminding us and explaining to others why we love him so. I would have only added to the article his 5x Laureus World sportsman of the year awards. We should all want to be ourselves but damn!… Being Roger probably wouldn’t suck.

  11. Great article, the end is near for our dear Roger. As a fan I will always watch reruns of great matches. Lucky to been able to watch him play at US Open and Indian Wells. Roger Federer will forever be the King of Tennis, the GOAT, the one and only…the legend.

  12. This was so beautifully written. A man I have never met has for the past 20 years been such a huge part of my life. No one has the gifts to play like Federer, the choice of shots from every section of the court. Just an utter joy watching him play. He plays with grace, and he exudes such grace away from the court. How I will miss him.

  13. Federer it’s not about tennis alone. His legacy on and off the court is the inspiration i always look for to face the daily challenges, his charm is the example to behave with others at work and personal life, his spirit is the support one could take to overcome hard times and still go on no matter what. And i am sure im not the only one who thinks that way.
    Thank you mr Federer, you sir could not even imagine the lives you help with the way you are.

  14. Definitely an extra ordinary narration about a living legend of contemporary Tennis . One of the all time greats who will be remembered for many generations . Nobody could have said better than this about this great talented but always composed and humble .

  15. Bill,
    Kudos to you for writing an article that my queen of tennis, Chris Everett tweeted was a “must read”.
    Roger is simply put “a touch of class”. He has also been kind to his fans. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when his “handlers” were trying to shoo him through a small group where in Roger decided to give us some of his time and love. I have a wonderful photo to show for it. I’ve got to believe that although his days on the courts may be short lived Roger will stay involved with the sport that he helped define.

  16. Oh my, what a beautifully written article. I have followed Mr. Federer from the beginning…his take down of Pete Sampras at Wimbledon being the first match I remember. I have arisen numerous times in the middle of the night to watch him capture another Australian Open title. I saw him play live at the US Open in 2005…still a very “young” Federer. But nothing can top watching him win on the grass at Wimbledon. I truly can’t imagine tennis without Roger Federer…the thought of it breaks my heart. Thank you for this article. This one line from your article says it all:
    ‘A sign at the Miami Open read, “Commit your sins when Federer is playing. Even God is watching.”’

  17. I couldn’t agree more. Although Nadal has a pantherlike grace, the Fed is truly sublime. I never cared much for “Pistol Pete’s” one note performance nor do I like Djokovic’s haughty sneer..

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