Roger Federer: fanning the flames in both victory or defeat
Roger Federer’s uniquely beautiful version of tennis has captured the imagination across sporting boundaries
Amid the hype and hyperbole of a certain football jamboree in Brazil, many found their pleasure in a quiet, suburban corner of England, where lawns and flower baskets and picnics and freshly-varnished benches provided a backdrop to the elegant and athletic, gladiatorial and singular, bold and beautiful sport of tennis.
Football may long have been dubbed ‘the beautiful game’, but we who favour one-on-one intensity, no-time-limit physicality, lone problem-solving fortitude, we watch a different ball.
Tennis is surely the most exposed and exposing of sporting endeavours, revealing any weakness or mental frailty, with nowhere to hide, no finish line, no last click of the clock—with the only point of contact a small, yellow orb that may blast by at 140mph or drift over the net like a feather.
At this particular battleground in SW19—so benign, so beautiful, but so unforgiving of the combatants—there is one final exhortation to the two who already know this contest will take their all. And it is, perhaps, the hardest to deliver: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”.
Tennis, though, is blessed in having more than its share of grace—and not just the physical grace demanded by the ballet of competition. Its protagonists, especially so among its elite, are among the most gracious in victory and defeat.
So it was, on final Sunday at this year’s Wimbledon, as two of this sport’s best played out one of Centre Court’s finest thrillers in a contest of such high quality that winners outnumbered errors by almost three times, of such resilience that the champion was in doubt until the final ball, of such athleticism and fortitude that lesser men would have buckled.
Both were hugely admired former champions, former No1s, and in pursuit of their own special dreams. Yet one carried with him almost every fan in the arena, online, on TV or mobile. It was not that they wished the top seed, Novak Djokovic, to lose but that they wanted his opponent, seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, to soar in the place he has made his own.
For in this most beautiful of sports, Federer’s uniquely beautiful version of tennis has captured the imagination across sporting boundaries—and has arguably transcended sport entirely. Just cast an eye across his box—and at Wimbledon, the Royal Box—for the evidence.
The adulation comes from men and women, young and old. It comes from those who remember the pre-Open days, and those who’ve never played a day’s tennis in their lives. Even Federer’s chief rival for title of “greatest ever”, Rod Laver, is a fan: “It’s amazing how good his is… In Australia, they’re all in love with him… He’s such a nice individual.”
It’s rare, this kind of universal admiration. Rarer still is that Federer attracted it almost from the start. And far from diminishing, the love-affair with Federer seems only to intensify, fed by the fear that time is running out to savour his gifts, even though he continues to defy the march time.
What is it about this particular athlete that has so captivated for so long?
It would be easy to point to the records and the benchmarks. He has won the most Grand Slam titles, reached the most finals, most semi-finals, most quarter-finals—and in each case, put together the longest streaks by a mile.
He has spent the most weeks at No1, had the longest unbroken stretch at No1, the longest unbroken streak at the Majors: The US Open will mark his 60th in a row.
He has won more World Tour Finals, formerly the Masters Cup, than anyone—six titles—and fallen short of the semis only once in 12 straight years: in 2008, when he was carrying a back injury.
Yet if statistics were the answer, other players would have achieved similar adulation. Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi all had their fans, were admired by their peers, and still command huge respect, but do not compare.
No, it is not the records: it is rather how Federer plays the game. Writers draw on a common vocabulary: fluid, balletic, graceful, cat-like, effortless—for his gift, as well as his curse, has been to make it look easy.
The ease comes from light footwork, fine balance, a super-smart read on the game and razor-like reactions. Mix into the cocktail a serve of infinite variety and a blend of spin and angle from the baseline—now a flat forehand down the line, next a backwards dance for an inside-out that bends away from the sideline.
Then there is the singular artistry of the backhand. The Federer single-hander, once regarded as a weakness, has been honed into both a defensive and offensive weapon—and one of the most beautiful shots in tennis.
Now more than ever, he has injected crowd-pleasing, charismatic net-play: that old-fashioned tactic of serve and volley, flamboyant smashes, elegant angled touch volleys, whispering drop shots… Federer’s is the most complete pallet in the tennis watercolour.
And what was once his curse, to make it all look too easy, has evaporated. With the years, with the rise of the Rafael Nadals and the Djokovics, fans have more often notices the emotions that Federer learned, as a junior, to control behind an ice-cool façade. It may still be rare to see him hurl a racket, but it is far from rare to see tears prick his eyes in both victory and defeat.
Does this yet reach the heart of such loyal, broad and still-growing appeal to fans, colleagues, sponsors—even those most hard-nosed of critics, the media? One must go a long way to find unequivocal admiration for any player, man or woman, amid the sharpened pencils of the world’s press—but Federer has it. Because he has made it his priority to lead the way in representing the sport he loves so dearly.
It’s in the time he gives to fans—and he increasingly breaks personal news directly to them via his website or social media—and in the multilingual news conferences.
I’m very happy to see that with feeling normal I can produce a performance like I did the last two weeks
It’s in his dedication to the players’ professional body, where he served as President for six years, and oversaw the drive for increases in prize money for lower ranked players, for increased drug-testing, for greater co-operation between players and the Grand Slams.
It’s in being a role-model away from tennis, in organising fund-raisers for catastrophes or for his own Foundation—and tying in agreements with luxury brands for which he is a figurehead, such as Rolex, Mercedes, Credit Suisse and Lindt, with his charity.
The evidence is eloquent: He has been the ATP Fans Favourite for 11 years on the trot and has won the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, voted for by fellow players, nine times.
There is, of course, no denying that the package is made all the more appealing by his Vogue-photo-shoot looks, and that he is as comfortable in front of a camera as a press conference. He has a gift for—and an obvious pleasure in—his extra-curricular activities that reveals a certain mischievous awareness of his sex appeal. That he has been a one-woman-man since he was 18, and is now the father of two sets of twins, simply adds to the charm. Happily for tennis, the Federer headlines have never been about misdemeanours or scandal.
Does all this explain that response in that final on Sunday? In part, certainly, but something else has now come into the equation.
Three years ago, as the great Swiss headed into his 30th birthday, many already saw a look of autumn about his career. He was without a title from six straight Grand Slams, had won just a single title, in Doha, and for the second consecutive year, he had fallen in the quarters at Wimbledon. So he took time out to make a serious appraisal of why the titles had not come and, after resting through the Asian swing, he went on an unbeaten winning tear through Basel, Paris and London.
In 2012, the surge continued with titles in Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells and Madrid, and he reclaimed the No1 ranking with his 17th Grand Slam at Wimbledon. He went on to end the year with his most successful haul since 2007.
Many thought he may draw a line under the most successful career in tennis: many thought 2013, with its single title in Halle, an unprecedented second-round loss at Wimbledon, and defeats by players ranked outside the top 100, simply inked in that line.
But here was the proof that it never had come easy.
As always, it would take hard work and smart thinking to heal the chronic back problems at the root of his poor form. There were hard training blocks, a new racket, an inspirational coach in Stefan Edberg—and an undimmed love for his sport.
2014 then unleashed a fresh, net-racing Federer—now tackling the tour with a new set of twins—who has notched up more match-wins than anyone except Nadal. When he reached the final of Wimbledon again, the Centre Court was cheering for another fairytale ending.
Djokovic, though, was the deserved winner, Federer the heroic loser. However, an ending it was not. As the pragmatic Swiss said later: “I’m very happy to see that with feeling normal I can produce a performance like I did the last two weeks. That clearly makes me believe that this was just a stepping-stone to many more great things in the future. I’m looking toward a vacation and working out hard again to get myself in shape for the American summer.”
He then talked of the fans: “It’s not like I need another [trophy], but it would have been awfully nice to have it. I think that’s what the feeling was of the people. It made it so much easier to keep fighting, believing, showing great tennis to all the fans who were in the stadium. I know they love tennis. They love tennis after we’re all gone—the game is bigger than anyone. I’m very much aware of that. But I definitely appreciated it in a big way today.”
Yes, we who have found our pleasure on London’s lawns these past weeks will always love tennis, but we will also continue to savour every extra season that Federer graces our beautiful game with his presence.