The moment, when it arrived, was exquisitely framed. With an incredibly expensive watch on his left wrist, a couple of sheets of writing paper with the “RF” monogram on the desk, and eight gold replicas of the Wimbledon’s Challenge Cup glittering in the locker behind him, Roger Federer looked like he was in every inch. emblem of Swiss casual luxury as he made the announcement that his sport, indeed all sport, had feared.
It is, as befits someone who has been globally exalted for nearly 20 years, mindful of its own magnificence. As such, he made sure his final farewell had both the tone and staging of a state speech. Fittingly, he saved the heavier line with pathos to the end. “At the game of tennis”, he declared, “I love you and I will never leave you”. It’s a wonder he recorded those words without his voice shaking.
Federer, despite his unabashed mid-game demeanor, is a sensitive soul. He cried in interviews, even on the pitch, for both victory and defeat. For him, and for his countless disciples, to abandon the greater stage forever means a loss almost too painful to bear.
Watching Federer in the flesh meant savoring a particular aesthetic, a glimpse of sport in its most idealized form, in which a technically diabolical game became a spectacle of the purest artistic skill. At times, parallels have been drawn between Federer on Center Court and Nureyev on the Bolshoi. Generally, comparing a tennis player to a ballet teacher would be an outrageous overrun. But with Federer, no tribute seemed too mean.
“Federer made the game wonderful”
The more you studied him, the more you noticed how no single element of his performance was rushed or forced. There was never a step out of place, never a footwork that didn’t feel liquidly rhythmic. Rarely – except for one night in New York when they left the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium – even a drop of sweat on his forehead.
Federer is the reason why many newbies prefer to learn the backhand in one hand, the shot that made his signature, even when the double is less complex to adopt. It’s why City high rollers would spend half of their annual bonuses on the Wimbledon finals that involved him. It’s why his hordes of adoring Far Eastern fans would have camped along Church Road overnight, decked out in the black and white of the Swiss flag, as if they were attending a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.
And Federer was, in many ways, an art installation in human form. While he could at times be surpassed by Rafael Nadal or outsmarted by Novak Djokovic, he could never be eclipsed as a model of how tennis was to be played. It is no coincidence that Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, was often spotted in his corner. She was attracted to him not only because she cut a dash in a Versace dress, but because she conveyed a look of supreme elegance with every pose she assumed at court. Where Djokovic writhed in awkward shapes, Federer made the racket look like a natural extension of his body.
Many grown-ups never truly grasp the extent of their gifts. But Federer, you guessed, enjoyed his amazing virtuosity. On several occasions, he has made remarks that would have sounded unforgivably great if made by someone else. In Melbourne in 2010 he expressed the difficulties for Andy Murray as follows: “I know he would like to win his first slam. But now he’s in his second final. Plus, he’s playing with me. ”In Halle, the German grass event has won so many times that he had a local street named after him, he started training in a shirt decorated with his own face. And in Wimbledon , his beloved fiefdom, Nike dressed him for runways in 2009 in a diamond white military jacket, paired with a flashy gold shoulder bag.
There is no other sportsman alive who could have carried out such ostentation without a riot in the locker room. Yet Federer not only backed him up with his superlative prowess, he did it without a single rival having a bad word to say about him. Take Andy Roddick: After losing his third Wimbledon final to Federer, 16-14 in a fifth set, he saw his winner morph into a top decorated with the number ’15’, signifying a record haul of major league titles. singular masculine. But far from ranting against any perceived presumption, Roddick has become one of Federer’s closest allies.
It was Roddick’s misfortune, at least for his career stats, to compete in the shadow of the greatest tennis sorcerer ever known. The American, like so many who followed him, seemed broken and disoriented by the magic unleashed on the other side of the net. In a famous match in Federer’s hometown of Basel, he imagined he scored the point with a smash, just for the Swiss, by jumping into the far corner of the pitch, to invent a stunning header with such a lateral rotation that the ball is back inside the line for a winner. Roddick, fittingly, threw his racket at Federer in desperation.
“His contribution extends well beyond the court tracks”
Federer was the most powerful antidote to cynicism in sports. Just when you thought you knew every curl in his repertoire of him, he created another to defy all kinetic conventions. There was no clearer example than during a US Open semi-final against Djokovic, where, after a delicate exchange at the net, he escaped back to the baseline to shoot a “tweener” straight over the confused Serb. Even Father Robert was out of his place in amazement, struggling to calculate what he had just witnessed.
Once upon a time, Federer was just another ambitious teenager with a ponytail and a volcanic temper. One of his former coaches of his reflected: “When he was 14 you had to run away, because he was throwing rackets around.”
It was among his best hits that, somehow, he figured out how to translate this stark belligerence into his snapshot rather than his body language, rarely revealing even a trace of irritation as he sacked his opponents for fun.
Very few, both in tennis and elsewhere, are acclaimed both as icons of their craft and of sportsmanship. Even fewer are able to negotiate their professional lives without even a glimmer of scandal. Tiger Woods, with whose dominance his own pomp overlapped in the mid-2000s, was later exposed as a serial adulterer, so lost in life that he was arrested on a Florida road in the middle of the night while under the effect of prescription drugs. Federer stands in stark contrast to that chaos. Whether it’s his wedding to childhood sweetheart Mirka, or his twins – two girls and two boys, all dressed in matching outfits to attend his latest Wimbledon final in 2019 – his personal hinterland is a place of extreme symmetry.
“He romanticized tennis for millions”
The poem of his departure is not exactly how Federer would have written it.
He didn’t go through three surgeries to broadcast his retirement on Instagram, without the Wimbledon curtain he craved. While Pete Sampras, the man who usurped, had the satisfaction of retiring with a 14th major in New York, Federer can’t change the fact that his last act at the All England Club was to lose a set 6. -0 against Hubert Hurkasz. It may be consoled, however, that this will be a forgotten postscript. After all, he bequeathed a museum of masterpieces.
It is hard to imagine that any champion will again command such intense collective worship. All the living legends of Wimbledon were in attendance for Center Court’s centennial celebration this summer, from Rod Laver to Bjorn Borg, from Chris Evert to Billie Jean King. But it was Federer’s introduction that sent the crowd into wild ecstasy. “I miss being here,” he said. “I hope I can come back once again”.
How painful that it does not happen now. Federer grew to such stature at Wimbledon that he became the thread that held the whole tapestry together. It turns out that the player who romanticized tennis for millions of people doesn’t have the privilege of retiring entirely on his terms. In just a couple of hours from his statement, you saw how deeply he missed him.
“I wish this day would never come,” said Nadal. “It is a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world.”
They will reunite touchingly at next week’s Laver Cup, the same competition Federer helped create in honor of his Australian idol.
But this is an occasion that, rightly, will be redesigned as a Federer tribute show. He could leave Nadal and Djokovic behind in the stakes of the slam, but none have implanted themselves more indelibly in the public conscience. In less educated hands, tennis can be a game of attrition.
Federer made a marvel of it. His is a contribution that extends well beyond the tracks of the courts honored by him. Because it was, quite simply, the pinnacle of sophisticated sport.