Roger Federer brought beauty, grace and lots of magic to the tennis arena

Roger Federer brought beauty, grace and lots of magic to the tennis arena
Roger Federer of Switzerland reacts as he leaves the court after the men's quarterfinal match against Hubert Hurkacz of Poland at the Wimbledon Championships, in Wimbledon, Britain, 7 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NEIL HALL)

The great player could transport us to where we felt we were watching something divine. It couldn’t be explained through normal human virtues.

London was a sad place last week. Britons laid Queen Elizabeth II to rest on Monday, 19 September, and then, at London’s O2 Arena, Swiss great Roger Federer played his last professional tennis match – as a doubles partner to Rafa Nadal in the Laver Cup.

The retirement of a professional athlete is hardly comparable to the death of a monarch but, in sporting terms, Federer’s retirement from tennis feels like a bereavement.

It’s the natural cycle of a sporting journey. No athlete can stay on top indefinitely, and they certainly cannot play at the highest level forever.

Federer has certainly gone on longer, with more sustained success, than any player before. But even graceful, seemingly ageless Federer could not fight off Father Time.

He turned 41 in August and had played competitively until he was 39. The last 18 months, though, have been spent largely on the sidelines due to three knee surgeries. In reality Federer, the top tennis player, was probably finished when he exited Wimbledon at the quarterfinal stage in 2021.

That defeat, against rising Pole Hubert Hurkacz, ended with Federer losing the third set 6-0 on his beloved Centre Court at Wimbledon. Luckily it’s a match that will only be a footnote in the otherwise storied career of a man who made the world a better place, simply by wielding a tennis racquet.

In many ways it’s sad that Federer could not go out on his terms. That he could not have one last hurrah at SW19, where he won eight of his 20 singles Grand Slam titles. Instead, his retirement has arrived after the better part of two years spent on physios’ beds and not courts around the world.

Injuries that hadn’t plagued Federer for most of his 20-year career between 1998 and 2018, ironically, had the final say.

For a man and a player who was so elegant and light on his feet, who hardly ever seemed to perspire (you can imagine his mother saying, “only horses sweat, Roger”) and who flowed across a tennis court like human mercury, to be cut down by something as mundane as a knee problem, seemed cruel.

Not that Federer wants, or needs, sympathy. His was an astounding body of work that yielded 103 professional singles titles, 20 Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal and career earnings on and off the court of close to $1-billion. He’ll cope. But will tennis? 

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Never be another like him

Of course tennis will cope. It’s not like Federer is the first superstar to retire. Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Serena Williams came and went, and tennis survived and even thrived.

But there has never been someone quite as universally adored as Federer. There has not been one negative comment from a fellow professional and pretty much every message has been of praise, love and respect.

It’s quite a staggering achievement in a sport that is gladiatorial by nature, pitting two players in direct battle with each other.

Novak Djokovic, one of tennis’s “big three”, who himself has 21 Grand Slam singles titles, was in London for the Laver Cup this week. Djokovic and Federer have been rivals, and their relationship is not especially close off the court. But the respect from the Serb towards Federer was instructive.

“Roger’s impact on the game has been tremendous, the way he was playing, his style, effortless, just perfect for an eye of a tennis coach, player or just a tennis fan,” Djokovic told reporters in London.

“He has left a huge legacy that will live for a very long time.”

Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer lifting the trophy in the 20 Grand Slam tournaments he won during his career. Federer announced his resignation from professional tennis on 15 September 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE)

Joy to the world

Although it might never be measurable, there is little doubt that not many other people in their chosen fields have brought more joy to fans. Federer’s play was more performance art than sport. He played shots of such beauty, they seemed to defy physics and drew involuntary gasps from crowds.

He was a winner of course, which people love, but he was much more than that. There is winning and then there is winning, and occasionally losing, with style and panache.

His racquet was magical and his movement light and balanced. Despite his slight frame, his power was remarkable and little could pierce his armour-plated mentality.

Fluent in at least four languages and conversant in several others, Federer was never involved in anything remotely resembling a scandal. Always polite in public and extremely generous with his time and money towards charitable causes, he was the model ambassador for his sport.

If artificial intelligence had crafted the perfect tennis player it couldn’t have done better than Federer. That’s not to say Federer wasn’t – or isn’t –ruthless, because you don’t win more than 100 singles titles without a killer instinct. But he was never a jerk.

Being nice, while being extremely successful is an increasingly undervalued trait, which the Swiss master managed to balance.

The sport Federer began playing at professional level in 1998 is very different from the sport he played until last year, yet he managed to stay on top by adapting and evolving.

Racquets, playing surfaces, ball tracking and string technology have all evolved in the 21st century, along with constant improvements in nutrition and sports science.

The amount of analysis a player can glean from technology lays bare every opponent’s weakness, yet Federer, until his knee injury problems, had never been knocked off the top for a sustained period. He just grew gracefully with the changes.

He seemed light on his feet and easy on his body. It’s a massive simplification obviously, but Federer sustained far fewer injuries because he won the genetic lottery. And then he maximised those gifts.

A Federer performance could transport the observer to a state where we felt we were watching something divine. It couldn’t be explained through normal human virtues.

“When my love of tennis started, I was a ball kid in my hometown of Basel. I used to watch the players with a sense of wonder. They were like giants and I began to dream.

“My dreams led me to work harder and I started to believe in myself. I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart. To everyone around the world who helped the dreams of a young Swiss ball kid come true.

“Finally, to the game of tennis: I love you and will never leave you.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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