Many greats never really grasp the magnitude of their gifts. But Federer, you felt, reveled in his astonishing virtuosity. On several occasions, he made remarks that would have seemed unforgivable had they been uttered by someone else. In Melbourne in 2010, he expressed Andy Murray’s difficulty as follows: “I know he would like to win his first Slam. But he’s in his second final now. Besides, he’s playing me. In Halle, the German grass-court event he has won so many times a local street is named after him, he trained in a t-shirt emblazoned with his own face. And at Wimbledon, his beloved hometown, Nike dressed him for the walk-ons in 2009 in a diamond-white military jacket paired with a showy gold shoulder bag.
There is not another sportsman alive who could have carried off such ostentation without a dressing room uprising. And yet Federer not only backed him up with his exceptional talent, he did so without a single rival having a bad word to say about him. Take Andy Roddick: After losing his third Wimbledon final to Federer, 16-14 in a fifth set, he saw his conqueror transform into a top decorated with the number “15”, signifying then a record of major titles in men’s singles . But far from mocking any perceived vanity, Roddick has become one of Federer’s closest allies.
It was Roddick’s misfortune, at least for his career stats, to compete in the shadow of the greatest wizard tennis has ever known. The American, like so many who followed him, looked broken and bewildered by the magic unleashed on the other side of the net. In a famous game in Federer’s hometown of Basel, he imagined he had sealed the point with a spike, only for the Swiss, leaping into the far corner of the pitch, to concoct a stunning header with so much side effect that the ball came back inside. the line for a winner. Roddick, quite rightly, threw his racquet at Federer in desperation.
“His contribution extends far beyond the tram lines of the courts”
Federer was the most powerful antidote to cynicism in sports. Just when you thought you knew every flourish in his repertoire, he fashioned another to defy all kinetic convention. There was no more striking illustration than in a US Open semi-final against Djokovic, where, after a tricky exchange at the net, he came back to the baseline to fire a “tweener ” right in front of the confused Serb. Even Father Robert was out of his seat, wondering, struggling to calculate what he had just witnessed.
Once upon a time, Federer was just another ambitious teenager with a ponytail and a fiery temper. One of his former coaches said: “When he was 14 you had to run away because he was throwing rackets.”
It’s among his finest accomplishments that he somehow figured out how to translate that raw belligerence into his shot rather than his body language, rarely betraying even a trace of irritation so that he threaded his opponents for fun.
Very few, whether in tennis or elsewhere, are acclaimed as both icons of their craft and sportsmanship. Even fewer manage to negotiate their professional life without the slightest scandal. Tiger Woods, with whose dominance his own pomp overlapped in the mid-2000s, was later exposed as a serial adulterer, so lost in life that he was pulled over on a Florida road in the middle of the night while that he was under the influence of prescription drugs. Federer contrasts starkly with such chaos. Whether through his marriage to childhood sweetheart Mirka, or his two sets of twins – two girls and two boys, all dressed in matching outfits to attend his final Wimbledon final in 2019 – his personal backcountry is a place of the most beautiful symmetry.
“He romanticized tennis for millions”
The poetry of his separation is not quite as Federer would have written it.
He didn’t have three surgeries to post his retirement on Instagram, without the Wimbledon curtain call he was dreaming of. While Pete Sampras, the man he usurped, had the satisfaction of bowing out with a 14th major in New York, Federer can’t change the fact that his last act at the All England Club was losing a set 6-0 against Hubert Hurkasz. It can be consoled, however, that it will be a forgotten postscript. After all, he bequeathed the value of a museum of masterpieces.