By Tushar Bhaduri
Father Time has finally caught up with tennis divinity. Roger Federer has finally realised that the sort of magic he used to create on a tennis court will not be possible on a consistent basis with a body creaking after multiple knee surgeries.
As the Swiss star walks into the hallowed sunset, debate rages about his place in the pantheon of tennis greats. Federer, along with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, took the game to unprecedented heights of excellence over the last two decades. The other two have, over time, surpassed Federer in the race for Grand Slam success, but it was the man from Basel who made tennis look classy and modern at the same time.
Suffice to say that there has not been a tennis player easier on the eye as far as one can remember. If greatness is measured in the number of new fans introduced to the sport and getting casual fans more interested, Federer would easily be the most impactful player the game has seen. Someone who can’t tell a topspin from a slice will also stop to watch the Swiss in action, such was his regal grace.
There have been many elegant players in decades past, who merged athletic prowess with balletic grace. But they graced the courts in eras before social media and YouTube. These tools have been force-multipliers for Federer, as far as fan following is concerned.
Not that Nadal and Djokovic don’t have several such highlight reels dedicated to them. But their prowess is centred more around grit, footspeed, athleticism and accuracy, rather than magic.
With Federer calling it a day, it remains to be seen how long the other two carry on. The Serb and the Spaniard clinched three of the four major titles of 2022, but there are signs that a change of guard may be in the offing.
Carlos Alcaraz is the new World No. 1 and the US Open champion. There are a host of other contenders like Daniil Medvedev, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas ready to take over the mantle.
One or more of them can go on to dominate tennis in years to come. But it’s hard to imagine that they will be able to generate the kind of devotion that Federer did. For his loyal fans, the Swiss was the best thing since sliced bread and could do no wrong. Nadal and Djokovic were sworn antagonists, even though the public interactions among the three have been largely cordial, and often warm.
Federer has often been cheered loudly even in defeat, even more than the victor, which got under the skin of some opponents, most notably Djokovic, who even used it as a psychological ploy to raise his game.
There are reasons for such passionate support for Federer, which go beyond his prowess with a racquet. His classy demeanour on and off the court, frequent displays of sportsmanship, and general articulation on various subjects (tennis and beyond) in five languages – English, French, German, Swiss-German, and Italian – make him a darling of the patrons and sponsors, and by extension, the broadcasters. It’s hardly a surprise then that Federer was the highest-earning tennis player in the world over the last year without playing a competitive match.
Federer and Nadal have appreciated the level of support they get and often gone out of their way to oblige fans with autographs and selfies. They have also taken time out for frequent media interactions as well, even when they have not been playing.
Style, substance and sportsmanship
But the abiding memory of Federer would be his fluid style on court. The deceptively fluid and easy service motion, the devastatingly-beautiful forehand, the classy single-handed backhand a thing of beauty, the lobs and drops, and many other shots that only Federer could conjure. The way he found seemingly-unachievable angles on the court, and left opponents stranded and flat-footed often had watchers in awe. He often went for the outrageous instead of the straightforward option, and was not always successful. But he never doubted his ability to make the improbable possible. He could hold his own in baseline duels with the best in the business, but was never satisfied to be just a groundstroke warrior.
His tally of 20 Grand Slam titles and 103 tournament wins are impressive enough, but these numbers could have been even higher. There have been several high-profile matches which Federer has lost from positions of strength, even holding match points in some. Djokovic has given him the greatest grief in this regard, but the Swiss licked his wounds and always came back for more battles. The steel in his graceful game is an underrated quality, and adds another fascinating dimension to his legacy. He was never afraid to show his emotions in public, whether after winning his first Grand Slam title or losing to Nadal in a memorable five-set battle in the 2009 Australian Open final.
The tributes that have poured in since Federer announced his retirement show the high esteem in which his peers hold him. They know that he has done more than most to make tennis a beautiful game, more than just an exhibition of strength, stamina and fitness.