After waiting for so long, in less than two weeks three royals are gone. The queen of tennis, Serena Williams, stepped away amidst New York neon. The Queen of England passed in her Scottish castle and now Roger, our Roger, has told us in a social media video that he’s retiring.
Federer gave us so much: the sheer brilliance of youth, the sublime confidence of a dominant champion in ascendance, the calm majesty of a kind of ambassador for good, the speed of a sprinter and astounding balletic ease. Yes, he was a fierce street-fighting man, but he battled with a deep, panic-free calm. No one had a greater tennis IQ. And, of course, more than anything, he bathed us in his athletic grace.
Here was a man who could not avoid beauty – his rhythmic serve, his easy sprints and grand dashes from the baseline, his jaw-dropping finesse and quick-flick stabs. His varied forehand flashed with an all-court brilliance. Most of all, he lifted us with his backhand – the stroke from the heavens.
Dance critic Sarah L. Kauffman noted, “It’s not only the ancients who looked at athletes and saw classical ideals and paragons of beauty. To many…[Federer] belongs equally to the realm of aesthetics as to sports…I’m interested in the living, continuous, moment-to-moment pleasure of watching him play.”
Across three generations, Roger has inspired wannabes, while leaving his foes dumbfounded. In his shadow, otherwise imposing athletes have appeared ordinary. “He made Andy Roddick seem like a Buick,” joked one observer. At one US Open, Lloyd Carroll claimed, “the tournament is all about who gets to lose to Federer in the final.”
His story is, in part, about astounding numbers: Roger reached 31 Slam finals and won 20. He battled his way to 23 straight Grand Slam semis, was No. 1 for 310 weeks and reached 58 Slam quarterfinals. He won 103 tourneys (just behind Jimmy Connors’ mark of 108) and prevailed at Wimbledon and the US Open five straight times.
At his peak he was untouchable. Reporter Sue Mott suggested that dictionary writers would soon be asked “to absorb the verb ‘to Federer,’ meaning ‘to demolish with gasp-inducing precision.’” Richard Gasquet observed, “Roger is irreplaceable for aesthetics, game style and personality. We will not see a player like him again.”
The 41-year-old’s longevity was epic. In 2007 the London Times said he was in decline. He won nine Slams after that. All the while there has always been an impish boy within. He’d giggle with his arch-rival Nadal or show his sensitive side and tear up at award ceremonies. Andy Murray knows how to cry – but Federer is better. And, of course, no other champion could so astound us with a mere flick of the wrist. The New Yorker wrote, “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 confided, “I can’t imagine anyone waking up every morning being so content with everything.” He exuded an existential quiet. Here was a tennis rarity – a grunt-free zone with little angst. One summer he sported a retro cream blazer at Wimbledon. 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, 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, soars like an alpine peak.
He has it all: one of the most crowded trophy cases in all of tennis, astonishing CEO-in-sneakers business triumphs, an extraordinary brainstorm (the Laver Cup) and a loyal, loving wife. 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 – that 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 endure, or comparing tennis and hoops with Michael Jordan. And, yes, he sat by Queen Elizabeth’s side as they munched on a proper English lunch. Then, with a playful twinkle in his eye, he told the press that the queen gave him tips on his backhand.
And yes, he has not one, but two sets of twins. Svetlana Kuznetseva claimed that Roger is even better at reproduction.
At times Roger could be a bit imperious. More often he was 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. 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 mixes with well-heeled glitterati from Monte Carlo to Manhattan. Swiss and Austrian post offices offer Federer stamps. Streets and trolleys in Switzerland and hotel suites in New York bear his name. Tournaments give him cows. He gave us memories.
How can we not compare him with others? Roger’s 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 Sampras, Roger claimed Wimbledon’s Centre Court to be his own. At times it simply seemed to be his studio. One sign read, “Quiet – genius at work.” Another suggested, “Federer is betterer.” Andre Agassi said that “Sampras was great – no question. But there was a place to get to. You knew what you had to do. There’s no such place with Roger.”
Yes, Rafa’s muscles glisten. There has been no greater tennis craftsman than Nole. Both have more Slams than Federer. But Roger has long been the game’s artist-in-residence. His backhand is liquid. His serve is powerful yet silky. His imagination prompts invention.
When we ask fans, players and the media, “If you could watch just one player, who would it be?” almost invariably Federer is the answer.
Beyond tennis, Roger draws comparisons with our greatest geniuses, like Leonardo da Vinci. Federer is sports’s 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 the wizard of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs? 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.” Mary Carillo also had a metaphysical take: “Roger bends time – not just on court, but off court, too. He never seems rushed. 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.”
Roger confided that he played on and on, because he needed, “the fire, the excitement, the whole roller coaster.” But even the mighty Federer could not counter that most brutal of foes – time. The chances of a 41-year-old returning to the very top from a fourth knee surgery were always modest. Then again, as Nicolas Kiefer reminded us, “We are on Earth – he’s on another planet,” so we dared to imagine a magical last act.
But now, after this week’s Laver Cup, we’ll be living without Roger on the circuit. We remember that baseball survived without Babe Ruth. The NBA didn’t fold when Jordan stopped soaring. But tennis without our ethereal ambassador just won’t be the same. Roger may not be considered the greatest of all time, but to millions he is the most wonderful.
Sages remind us that, “All things must pass.” But, oh, how we wish it weren’t so. After all, immortality does have its appeal.