Roger Federer | The master who waved a magic wand on court 

A player who reconciled with his tennis mortality, tweaked his technique, spruced up his fitness and competitively excelled across three decades in the sport is on his way out 

September 18, 2022 12:45 am | Updated September 19, 2022 10:33 am IST

Roger Federer illustration by R. Rajesh

Roger Federer illustration by R. Rajesh

On July 3, 2022, Roger Federer attended a special ceremony at Wimbledon to mark the 100th anniversary of the Centre Court. A year ago, he had trudged out of the same hallowed turf in a pensive mood, following a painful straight-set defeat — including a dispiriting 0-6 scoreline in the final set — to Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz in the quarterfinals. “I hope I can come back one more time. I’ve missed it here,” Federer said on that sunlit celebratory centenary Sunday. “I knew walking out here last year it was going to be a tough year ahead. Maybe I didn’t think it was going to take me this long to come back but the knee has been rough on me. But I’ve been happy.”

Just over 10 weeks later, Federer, announced that the upcoming Laver Cup (September 23-25) would be his last ATP Tour-level tournament. The Swiss could not sufficiently recover from the knee surgery he had undergone in the aftermath of the 2021 Wimbledon reverse. It was his third since the start of 2020, a period that saw him play just six professional tennis events. “The message to me lately has been clear,” he said. “I am 41 years old. I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years. Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt, and now I must recognise when it is time to end my competitive career.”

The ending may not have been to his many fans’ liking but in the future, when memories shift and time doesn’t act as a fixative, Federer’s will only be remembered as a stellar career, a fantastic longlist of achievements which can never be whittled down.

He won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, 103 ATP singles trophies, 28 Masters crowns and six ATP Finals (year-end championship). Of his 1,526 matches, he won 1,251 (82%) and was also ranked the World No.1 for 310 weeks, a record Novak Djokovic surpassed only last year.

Federer first made his mark at Wimbledon 2001 when, as a pony-tailed 19-year-old, he upset the then grass-court king and seven-time champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round.

Playing the way purists would approve of — with elegant classicism, touch, precision and economy of movement — he appeared to herald the changing of the guard with the pulsating five-set victory.

Since then, Federer’s career has been about managing the pressure of expectations as much as tennis. Two years later, he broke through at Wimbledon for his first Major trophy, and that kick-started a four-year period where he was the undisputed best. From 2004 to 2007, he won 11 of the 16 Majors to be held, with the only suspense during every Slam fortnight being how much more he could elevate his level of play.

The ascent of Nadal

But Rafael Nadal’s ascent, first on clay, then on grass and eventually on hard courts, was the first real threat. Pitted against the down-to-earth rugged artistry of the young Spaniard, the aesthetic splendour of Federer’s play seemed like a fragile art. The Spaniard — holder of a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles today — beat Federer in three consecutive finals at Roland-Garros (2006-08), at 2008 Wimbledon and at 2009 Australian Open.

Then came Djokovic and his elastic genius, with which he has now accumulated 21 Majors. While the Serb’s success on synthetic surfaces and clay was considered largely commonplace, his rise on grass astounded many. On a surface which Andre Agassi called “ice slathered with Vaseline”, on which Federer went around choreographing his play with the grace of a figure-skater, Djokovic defended every blade of grass and found the tennis to fell Federer in two finals (2014 and 2015).

“I didn’t want to have a rival,” Federer told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “I just wanted to be the best and there was the rest basically. That’s how I saw it... And then when Rafa came onto the scene, I guess at first I had to also appreciate the rival, that he’s going to be around. And maybe I had to adjust my game.”

Intelligent serve

It is this ability to reconcile with his tennis mortality, tweak his technique, spruce up his fitness, and competitively excel across three decades in the sport — all under the golden veneer of his artistic brilliance — that will eventually come to define Federer. In what was arguably the greatest era in men’s tennis, he was at the top of the totem pole.

When he started out, he was predominantly a net rusher. From Rod Laver to Stefan Edberg to Sampras, all saw shades of themselves in him. It helped that his initial successes came at Wimbledon. He looked the part. Even as he slowly morphed into a baseline-hugger, he continued to play what was quintessentially grass-court tennis, showcasing his remarkably intelligent first serve and devastating backhand slice. His razor-sharp instincts and magic hands only added to this allure.

But after years of underperformance against Nadal, he changed to a bigger racquet-head for probably the first time in his career. Tennis players are sticklers for habits. Every change is a revolutionary act. But the shift helped Federer be more consistent with his serves and effectively counter players targeting his one-handed backhand with spin-loaded shots. Nadal leads Federer 24-16 in the head-to-head count. But Federer has beaten him in seven of their last eight matches, including the 2017 Australian Open final which gave the Swiss his 18th Slam title, ending a four-and-a-half-year drought.

Renewed purpose

Playing with renewed purpose, he added two more Majors — 2017 Wimbledon and 2018 Australian Open — and subsequently returned to the top of the ATP rankings to become the oldest-ever men’s No.1, a record he still holds (36 years and 10 months). Against Djokovic, the difference largely came down to fitness. Tennis-wise, the match-up worked the best, even better than the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Each has beaten the other at all four Slams. If Federer was the master of tennis’ first act, the serve, Djokovic was of the second, the return. Federer hit with pin-point accuracy but Djokovic could nullify it like none other.

The high point of this was the 2019 Wimbledon final, in which Federer held two match points — on his own serve — in the fifth set before losing. He was nearly 38 then and had come within a single stroke of becoming the oldest men’s singles Grand Slam champion.

“You take it on your chin, you move on,” Federer said hours after that defeat. “You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There’s just tons of it. For now, it hurts, and it should like every loss does at Wimbledon. [But] I’m very strong at being able to move on because I don't want to be depressed about an amazing tennis match.”

As a player, Federer was committed only to the moment and the task at hand, leading a mystical journey towards sporting nirvana which fellow kindred spirits could partake in. At other times, with his wife Mirka and four kids in tow, he shed the aura that came with being one of the greatest players, and gave the impression of being one among us. He found Zen, both on and off the court.

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