It turns out the only missing ingredient from otherwise a stellar, era-defining career of Roger Federer will be a perfect farewell. Or perhaps it’s time to rethink our idea of a perfect sporting farewell, because Federer just can’t do things imperfectly. The retirement wasn’t a surprise act; it was expected for quite a long. Federer has been a very sporadic presence in the last few years, and hasn’t played a game since last year’s Wimbledon. It was coming all the way but the finality of it hit only when he confirmed it yesterday.
To measure Federer’s legacy through the prism of numbers will be a massive disservice to the man who, with his grace and gravity, made millions of casuals fall in love with the game. Not that he doesn’t have the numbers to back up his greatness, but it’s just that statistics alone can’t comprehend the genius of Federer. He didn’t exactly play tennis but performed it. The court was his canvas, the racquet his paintbrush, and the ball his hierodule. The monotonous game of returning the ball from one side of the net to the other acquired very different characteristics when Federer was at one end.
There was a wristy forehand that defied the geometry of the rectangular box; a drop shot that would get the crowd on its feet in unison; his instant charge down to the net that seemed very meticulously calculated and recklessly aggressive at the same point; then there’s a one-handed backhand that deserves an entire book in itself.
In “Federer as Religious Experience”, the late David Foster Wallace talked about “Federer Moments”. “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play,” writes Wallace, “when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” In simpler terms, Wallace is describing moments that makes you ponder, “How did he do that?” Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
These are the moments when Federer erases the line that separates beauty and brutality, when Federer conjures up a trick out of nowhere to stay alive when everyone expected him to lose that point, a stroke of resurrection from near-certain death.
For instance, take a look at this point. The occasion is the hallowed clay court of the Roland Garros – the only place remaining to be conquered by the Swiss. With Rafael Nadal already out in the fourth round, it was the best chance for Roger Federer to win his maiden Roland Garros. But here in the semifinal, he is two sets down and facing a break point at 4-3 in the third. At 40-30, Federer has been pushed to the left side of the court as the rally progressed. There’s an infinite space for Haas to exploit and then serve for the match. Just when Federer seemed almost halfway through the exit door, he unfurls an inside-out forehand at just about the perfect angle to win the point. He goes on to win the match and then beat Robin Soderling to win his first French Open.
In retrospect, it can be argued that this was perhaps the most important shot in Federer’s career. If not for that inside-out forehand, he may not have won the game and there would have been an asterisk of not winning one of the four majors attached to his name. Tennis fans are pedantic about career grand slam – winning all four majors at least once. The glaring omission of Roland Garros from Federer’s trophy cabinet surely would have tainted his legacy.
But for Federer fans, it’s entirely plausible to imagine a parallel universe where their idol would command the same level of hype and adulation, even without winning that tournament even once. He was already a superstar by then, both a breaker and creator of too many envious records. By winning the US Open in 2008, he became the first player in the history of the game to win not one but two majors on five consecutive occasions. Between 2004 and 2008, Federer had an unblemished record at the US Open, which is not even his most successful major. The three-year stretch between 2004 and 2007, in which Federer clinched 11 out of the 16 majors, remains the most absurd peak across sports. Even when winning was a routine affair, the magic lay in how the scripts unfolded.
Federer represents the dying breed of players who managed to retain their utility without sacrificing beauty. With the advancement of sports science and the increasing competitiveness, it’s unlikely tennis will get another player who is so good to the eyes and can also win 20 grand slams. The efficacy and aesthetics have diverged long ago.
He stormed into the tennis world as an expressive, loudmouthed teenager with an unbearable top bun, for whom a game of tennis was a fight between himself and the entire world. He will depart as a calm and composed man who gradually learned the art of dealing with his emotions. But while he transformed from an aggressive wonder kid to a gracious legend, his game never lost any hint of ruthlessness, even in the dusk of his career.
Where Federer’s game was a perfect embodiment of how a dream union of aesthetics and athleticism in tennis would look like, some of the losses he suffered revealed the true brutality of this sport. He has lost almost two dozen games after having a match point, out of which three of them came against Djokovic in the grand slams – the semifinals of the US Open 2010 and 2011, and most recently in the final of Wimbledon 2019. There couldn’t be anything sadder for a tennis player than going down after having a match point.
These are the defeats that are not easy to overcome, the mental baggage of such results can stay with a player for a very long and blur the road ahead. Federer, however, still showed up. If the dawn of his career was about pure talent, the divinity of his tennis skill, the dusk was about grittiness. But when you race against time, there’s always only one winner, and that’s not you.