In an era where professional sport is increasingly physical and formulaic, Roger Federer made it seem almost effortless. That is not to say the Swiss maestro, who announced his retirement from all tennis earlier this month, did not put an enormous amount of hard work into his game and his body; far from it. But, bestowed with phenomenal talent and genuine humility, Federer brought to the game an innate nobility that cannot be taught or manufactured. In all likelihood, it will never be repeated.
It is not hard to understand why Federer was well-liked. He played an ultra-aggressive yet graceful brand of tennis, won more titles than any other player, was (and remains) a significant philanthropist, and above all else, he was in every respect the quintessential gentleman who respected his opponents, his fans, and the history and tradition of the sport.
On the court, Federer’s was a career littered with countless unforgettable moments, frozen in time for all who bore witness. The dethroning of Pete Sampras at Wimbledon as a mere teenager in 2001; the career grand slam at the French Open in 2009, followed by a record-breaking 15th grand slam title at Wimbledon just one month later; the return to number one at Wimbledon in 2012 with victories over Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray; and his unexpected resurgence at the 2017 Australian Open, culminating in a victory over his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal.
Even Federer’s defeats ring more poignant than one would ordinarily expect. Just think to the 2008 Wimbledon final, considered by many to be the greatest tennis match ever played; the losses to Novak Djokovic at the 2010 and 2011 US Open semi-finals, on each occasion after having match point; and his first-ever 6-0 set loss at Wimbledon in 2021, against Hubert Hurkacz in what would ironically be Federer’s last-ever set of grand slam tennis.
Perhaps that is because, for so long, Fortress Federer did not seem like it could possible be breached. No player has dominated the tour quite in the way Federer did between 2005 to 2010, when he reached 18 of 19 grand slam finals, including a record 10 in a row. His greatest rivals, Djokovic and Nadal, have managed streaks of only 6 and 5. Over the same period, Federer built a streak of 23 consecutive grand slam semi-finals appearances and 36 consecutive quarter-final appearances, records that are unlikely to ever be eclipsed, especially given the rigours of the modern game.
It is more difficult to explain how Federer has maintained an unparalleled degree of popularity over such a long period of time.
The early stages of Federer’s career effectively pre-dated social media, and his career spanned nearly 3 generations of players. More recently, Federer has been out of action with long periods of injury, playing just 20 matches in the last two years. Yet somehow, Federer has won the fan-voted ATP Fans’ Favourite award a staggering 19 times in a row, a streak that began in 2003.
But statistically speaking, Federer is not the greatest of all time. After all, in tennis, grand slam titles are the most objective measure of success, and Nadal (22) is now clear of Federer and Djokovic (each on 20), though Djokovic is widely expected to overtake both. Fans will argue relentlessly over the finer points – whether Nadal’s record is unfairly skewed by his 14 French Opens, whether Djokovic’s record is tainted by his off-court controversies– but that ship has now sailed without Federer on board.
What this demonstrates is that, like art, the beauty of sport is in the eye of its beholder. It is, after all these years, almost trite to say that Federer elevated sport into art, but the metaphor still rings true; a tennis racquet was to Federer what a paintbrush was to Picasso. Federer was the proponent of strokes widely thought of as the best of all time, especially on the forehand wing. His versatility, his touch, his shot selection – all were magically unique, and painted pictures in a way that no one else could.
Gracious in victory, magnanimous in defeat, Federer was the closest thing tennis had to royalty, and his fans were nothing if not loyal subjects. Tennis will be poorer without him, but Federer’s legacy to the game will endure.