Roger Federer’s Generous Farewell

It used to be easy for Roger Federer’s many fans, and his fewer critics, to characterize—and to caricature—him. He was sublime; he was Swiss; he was elegant; he was a bit of a toff. He liked dad jokes and flew private, he was graciously aware of his good fortune, and could also seem a little smug about it. He was dominant—the GOAT, the greatest of all time. His life seemed frictionless.

His style of play was part of this, of course: the beau idéal. Federer has never been the fastest player on tour, but he was always one of the quickest, able to levitate in that little split-step hop long enough to read the angle, anticipate the shot. No one had greater racquet-head speed, or stronger wrists; those wrists allowed him to deploy an astonishing range of slices and spins, and to play close to, and often inside, the baseline. “He just takes the time away from you,” Tommy Haas, his friend and former competitor, told me while watching Federer play a few years ago. “Anyone else would have hit that ball four hundredths, five hundredths of a second later, but that, in tennis, makes such a difference. Inches on the court that suddenly seem so much further away playing Roger.” He could half-volley his groundstrokes, or knife the ball to skid a slice, or feather it to die on the bounce. He even seemed to know when he could make mistakes, and which points were critical. He did all of this, somehow, without obvious effort. When he struck his forehand—blurred racquet meeting blurred ball—his focus was perfect, his gaze a still point.

From 2004 to 2007, Federer won eleven of sixteen Grand Slams. Starting in 2003, he won five Wimbledon titles in a row, losing the sixth, in 2008, to Rafael Nadal, 6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5), 6–7 (8), 9–7, in what is widely considered the greatest match ever played. He won five consecutive U.S. Open titles, too, from 2004 to 2008. He made twenty-three Grand Slam semifinals in a row, and occupied the No. 1 ranking for two hundred and thirty-seven consecutive weeks. By 2010, he was widely understood to be the best player in the game’s history—and had also become its most iconic, the embodiment not only of tennis but an idea of it. He seemed like an actual gentleman. Even people who favored other players—who wept for Andy Roddick, or who favored the sweaty intensity of Nadal—could get swept away by the aesthetic quality of his shotmaking. He turned legions of casual viewers into fans.

Then he did what people do: he got older. In 2010, Calvin Tomkins wrote a long piece about Federer for this magazine, titled “Anxiety on the Grass.” It begins with a discussion of the pain that many people—the author included—felt when watching Federer lose. “Two years ago, when Federer was twenty-six and struggling with mononucleosis and chronic back pain, there was much anxious talk about his decline,” Tomkins writes. Retirement was discussed, if only to be pushed off; the old man, still light on his feet, seemed to have some life in him yet. He was twenty-eight.

Still, it seemed obvious that his best days were behind him. For starters, there was Nadal. How could Federer be the greatest if another player was always beating him? Nadal arrived like Federer’s negative: a lefty in contrast to the righty, a clay-court grinder who only later learned to win on the grass that Federer preferred. Federer’s forehand was a laser; Nadal’s was a lasso, and its topspin bounce seemed expressly designed to exploit the weakest shot in Federer’s game, the backhand around the shoulders. Nadal projected maximum effort with every shot.

Soon after Nadal established himself as a challenger, at least, for the title of GOAT, there came another contender, equally different—a Serbian upstart with a hyper-efficient game, who came to seem as unbeatable as the house in Vegas. Novak Djokovic unsettled the tennis hierarchy, even more than Nadal had—and Federer, who lost the U.S. Open semifinal to Djokovic, in 2010, despite holding two match points, seemed unsettled by him, too. “It’s awkward having to explain this loss because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference,” Federer said after that match. It wasn’t the last time Djokovic eked out a win against Federer that, by many measures, he should have lost.

Federer spent a few years in the wilderness, dealing with back pain, and a loss of confidence. He tried a bigger racquet, rejected it, picked it up again. When he managed to triumph at Wimbledon once more, in 2012, it seemed like a last gasp, a late-career flourish of the sort that all-time greats sometimes get to enjoy. In 2016, after a career blessed by good health, he had knee surgery, and seemed near the end of his playing days. He wasn’t, of course; he would win three more Slams and even regain the No. 1 ranking. He started driving his backhands against Nadal, and won six of their last seven meetings. He nearly took Wimbledon from Djokovic, in 2019, with two match points.

The funny thing—and this, for me, will always be his real legacy—is that those victories, as sweet and glorious as they were, both for him and the millions who loved him, seemed somehow beside the point. Federer, who had once appeared to represent a kind of luxury that is well out of the reach of most of us, came to symbolize something more approachable, a kind of sunny decency. He treated people well, in public and behind the scenes. He’d faced disappointment, and cried, and got on with it. He embraced his success and good fortune. “I’m happy I don’t have flashbacks at tough moments in my career,” he said on Wednesday, at a press conference ahead of his final match, at the Laver Cup. “I see more the happiness, me with trophy, me winning, me winning moments, and I’m happy that my brain allows me to think this way, because I know it’s not easy to push, sometimes, defeats and those things away.” Once, that might have seemed conceited; now it came off as an admirable way of being in the world. He loved his life: loved the travel, the competition. He loved tying his shoes before matches, he said, and putting on his bandana. (He did not love “the knots in my tummy.”) He loved the time with his family, the traditions. He loved the people.

Federer and his management company created the Laver Cup—a round-robin-style event featuring some of the world’s top (or, at least, most marketable) players—a few years ago. He named it after Rod Laver, the elegant Australian champion, but it is, of course, an event in Federer’s own image. There are photo shoots of players in dapper tailored suits, a black-tie gala, an absurdly giant trophy. There is cheering from fellow-players, and camaraderie.

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