My oldest memory of watching Roger Federer play tennis was when he was on the losing end of a match sometime around 1999 or 2000, early on in his career. It was a match I saw on TV in a tournament I can’t remember. The only reason I remember the match – and the reason I know he lost – is because I happened to be watching it when a female friend of mine strolled into the room and sat down for a couple of minutes.
“Who’s that?” she asked me.
“Roger Federer,” I answered.
“He’s losing?” she said.
Yes, I replied
“Awww, too bad,” she said. “He’s fun to look at.”
Since my friend cared next to nothing about tennis, I knew she wasn’t talking about Federer’s racquet skills. She, like many other women (and probably men) was enraptured by Young Fed’s flowing hair and dashing good looks.
But she had a point – Roger Federer was fun to look at. From a pure tennis standpoint, his might have been the most beautiful game ever. He seemed to float effortlessly around the court, with shots and movement that often resembled a ballet more than a sport.
This was the case even though Fed was a fierce competitor who played a hyper-aggressive game, constantly attacking, constantly looking for a chance to move forward and gain the advantage, after which he would punish opponents with the cold and efficient ruthlessness of an assassin, either driving a forehand into the tiniest corner of the court or smashing a volley into the next century. It was art; it was combat; it was magnificent.
The late writer David Foster Wallace – a top regional player himself as a junior – famously wrote about Federer in a 2006 article for The New York Times (“Roger Federer As Religious Experience”), during the prime of Federer’s career. Here’s an excerpt:
“Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy.”
That’s an excellent technical description of Federer’s gifts on the court. But it doesn’t necessarily capture the grace and fluidity of his movement, the ease with which he could turn a rally in his favor with a single stroke, the majestic sweep of his backhand or his deft touch with the racquet, more an extension of his right arm than a piece of sporting equipment.
I’ve been watching and playing tennis regularly for more than 50 years. In all that time, there are exactly two male players whose games seemed to transcend the sport itself into something artistic and ethereal: Federer, the gentlemanly and graceful Swiss; and John McEnroe, the loud and combative New Yorker.
Roger Federer’s professional tennis career is now officially over. He announced his retirement earlier this month on Twitter. It was shocking in its own way but not terribly surprising. He is 41 years old – ancient in tennis terms – and has been playing professionally for nearly a quarter of a century. He sat out the entire 2022 season trying to recover from injuries, and finally decided it was no longer worth the fight.
He played his final match over the weekend at London’s O2 Arena, just three train stops from where we live. It happened at the Laver Cup, an international team competition pitting the top European men’s players against the top players from the rest of the world (no contest, really – Europe is so far ahead of the rest of the world right now that their third-or fourth-best men’s team could probably beat the best of Team World). (UPDATE: The World Team actually won, for the first time. Yay World!).
Federer was paired with fellow legend and longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a doubles match against Americans Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe. Another legend, Novak Djokovic, also was on Team Europe. So was Scotsman Andy Murray, an all-time great who happened to play in the all-time greatest era.
Federer said a tearful farewell during a post-match interview in front of a packed arena that gave him a prolonged standing ovation. The tears flowed out of Nadal as well, as they did for Fed’s wife Mirka, a former pro player herself who he credited with being a pillar of strength and support during his career. Players from both teams carried Fed on their shoulders after the match, and his smile was as big as the whole outdoors. It was hard not to get a little choked up.
I was sorely tempted to try and score a ticket to see Fed’s swan song. The O2 is only about 20 minutes from home. But then I saw the ticket prices and opted out (some folks reportedly paid six figures on the resale market). I could only watch highlights on YouTube because the UK, in its infinite quest to f**k over tennis fans in every way possible, didn’t see fit to air any of the matches live – even though the event took place in London.
I did get a chance to see Federer play in person at the same O2 Arena back in 2019, during the ATP Finals. That was a huge bucket-list item for me – seeing the legend live. Tennis is one of those sports that you really need to see live to appreciate – how fast the players move around the court, and how hard they hit the ball. Federer was a marvel to behold from 10 to 15 meters away.
I will argue now and forever that in terms of all-around athletic prowess, no other sport matches tennis. To succeed at the top level, you need a world-class array of different skills: speed and quickness (there’s a difference), strength, endurance, agility, durability, footwork, hand-eye coordination, the power to rocket shots past an opponent and the finesse to incorporate delicate little slices, drop shots, and lobs.
Top tennis players also need a deep reservoir of mental toughness and competitive fire to weather the inevitable ups and downs that occur during a single tournament, match, game or even rally. They need a keen mind for strategy, with the ability to problem solve on the fly. There are no coaches or teammates to offer in-match advice, or to bail you out. Tennis players are all on their own.
Federer might have been the best ever at combining all of the above. He was fast and deceptively strong, with powerful ground strokes and a deft touch. He was amazingly durable, rarely sitting out for long stretches due to injury until very late in his career. He was a top player for two decades, winning his first ATP tournament in 2000 and his final one in 2019. He won his first Grand Slam title in 2003 and his final one 15 years later.
Fed began his career in a serve-and-volley era dominated by the likes of Pete Sampras, when players got to the net quickly and ended points quickly. He closed his career in a backcourt era dominated by the likes of Djokovic and Nadal, when players would hug the baseline and bang shots back and forth until one gained the advantage or the other just folded. Federer excelled at both.
He did all this, by the way, with dignity and class. Fed had a hot temper as a younger player but learned how to tame it. He was often stoic on the court, rarely changing expression and never giving his opponent a mental edge. He could will himself to win even when he was not at his best. That’s the mark of a champion – the ability to beat your opponent when they are in top form and you are not.
Few if any players had a higher tennis IQ than Federer. He rarely made mental mistakes or bad decisions on the court. He seemed to have an innate sense of where the rally was headed before it barely started. He could figure out an opponent’s weakness early on and exploit it immediately.
Fed dominated almost everyone – except Nadal and Djokovic. He had a losing record against both (16-24 against Nadal and 23-27 against Djokovic). BUT: Nadal’s biggest edge was on clay, where he was nearly unbeatable. And Djokovic’s peak happened to coincide with the downside of Fed’s career.
I won’t get into the whole Greatest of All Time argument here, other than to give my stock answer: Nadal was easily the best ever on clay, Djokovic almost certainly the best ever on hard courts, and Fed probably the best ever on grass.
It was so easy to admire Roger Federer. Apart from his tennis genius, he just seemed like a genuinely nice dude, well-liked by his fellow tennis players, affable and good humored, and generous with his time and money (he has been very active in numerous charities, and often visits people out in the field to lend a helping hand). He could speak several languages and was courteous enough to answer questions in all of them during post-match interviews.
I read (and reviewed) Federer’s unauthorized biography, and one thing I came away with is just how normal and centered he seems. There are no scandals attached to his name, no skeletons in the closet, nobody important trying to take him down on social media. That’s amazing for one of the most famous athletes on the planet. Now he can share more time with his family – he and Mirka have two sets of twins – and he seems grateful for the opportunity.
I loved Federer as a player, but I didn’t always pull for him. There were players I rooted for more (Isner, Nishikori, Tsonga). I had a habit of pulling for Rafa when he played Fed on grass and pulling for Fed when he played Rafa on clay.
I was genuinely deflated when Fed beat Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final, a tough five-setter that went 16-14 in the fifth, before Wimbledon adopted the final-set tiebreaker. Poor Andy just couldn’t figure Fed out. Over their career, Federer won 21 of their 24 matches. That 2009 Wimbledon final meant everything to Roddick, and Fed broke his heart yet again. (I was maybe even more deflated when Novak beat Roger in another tough five-setter at the 2019 Wimbledon final).
I did pull for Fed 95% of the time and made a habit of watching as many of his matches as I could. His game was that beautiful, that compelling. Man, I will miss seeing him play.
Millions of tennis fans feel the same way. Fed was beloved by many and admired by all. The sport will survive, and I already look forward to the careers of young male players like Carlos Alcaraz (an otherworldly talent) and Jannick Sinner (ditto).
But there will never be another Fed. He created his own mold, and when he retired, the mold stepped down as well.
My friend was right: Roger Federer was fun to look at.
Note: I (obviously) did not take the featured photo here. It is from the New Yorker. Here are a couple photos I took when I saw Fed play at the ATP Finals in 2019 against Dominic Thiem. Yes, the photos suck. A photographer I am not….