Roger Federer: A personal tribute

Federer: “I have laughed and cried, felt joy and pain, and most of all I have felt incredibly alive”

Roger Federer
Roger Federer (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Followers of tennis, whether particular admirers of Roger Federer or not, immediately knew what the first paragraph of his open letter yesterday augured.

“Of all the gifts that tennis has given me over the years, the greatest, without a doubt, has been the people I’ve met along the way: my friends, my competitors, and most of all the fans who give the sport its life. Today, I want to share some news with you all.”

Sure enough, he went on:

“Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt, and now I must recognise when it’s time to end my competitive career.”

In truth, the door to one of tennis’s greatest careers had been steadily closing for a while. It had even seemed that way as long ago as 2016, when well into his 30s, he had a long hiatus following a first surgery to his knee. That, and persistent back problems, forced hard choices. He withdrew from the French Open—ending an unbroken streak of 65 Majors—and finished the season after Wimbledon.

That he had returned in 2017 for an Indian Summer that took him to three more Majors and back to No1 made him seem near invincible. Yet by now, into his late 30s, the body that had served him so well for so long—and his first tour match-win was in 1998—was finally refusing to play ball.

He put it simply in his announcement:

“The past three years have presented me with challenges in the form of injuries and surgeries. I’ve worked hard to return to full competitive form. But I also know my body’s capacities and limits, and its message to me lately has been clear.”

Because 2019 had been his last full year of competition, a year of four titles, plus final runs at Wimbledon and Indian Wells and the semis at Roland Garros. A fine season by any measure, but he was on borrowed time.

Come 2020, the Australian Open would be his only tournament—though even then, it was a semi finish. His other knee demanded attention, two surgeries and lots of recovery time, but in the event, that proved not to be enough.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Time was creeping up on the apparently ageless Federer, and he returned only gingerly in 2021, played scant matches as he headed to the beloved Wimbledon where he had won the junior title, and then beaten his idol Pete Sampras while still a teenager.

How much trouble that knee was still giving him he has never revealed, but he had won only a single match at Halle in preparation, and his final Centre Court appearance spoke for him: a straight-sets loss in the quarter-finals, concluded with a bagel.

The sense of ‘loss’ had been profound just a year before, when the Swiss held two championships points, only for Novak Djokovic to deny him. Now… well, it really did feel like the beginning of the end.

Perhaps the signs were already there. He had withdrawn from the fourth round at Roland Garros, citing knee problems. Still more significant, Federer and his family had, during the month of Wimbledon, auctioned all his memorabilia—the rackets that had won records, the kit that had graced magazine covers, the shoes still stained red by Roland Garros clay, all sold in aid of his Foundation.

Sure enough, more knee surgery came in August, as he turned 40, and his video message was at pains to manage expectations. He would, he said, by out for many months, but “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.”

Updates continued to postpone his return, most recently citing the Laver Cup and the Swiss Open. That schedule alone was heavy with meaning: The former event was his ‘baby’, his tribute to Rod Laver’s legacy; the latter was played in his home town of Basel.

In the event, even that schedule proved optimistic. There were rumours of more knee trouble, and if Federer has ever committed to one notion in his career, it is that he would only play as long as his family and his body were willing. He would not jeopardise his physical wellbeing and his future life with those he most loved.

Of course, accepting the inevitable is one thing. Accepting the prospect of a new era without Federer’s uniquely special contribution on and off the court is another.

His fans, naturally, will take time to become reconciled. His fellow players, too, have been vocal in their gratitude and sadness. Stand-out tributes came quickly from his oldest rival, Rafael Nadal:

“I wish this day would have never come. It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world. It’s been a pleasure but also an honour and privilege to share all these years with you.”

And from the woman who, at almost exactly the same age, delivered her own farewell message a fortnight ago, Serena Williams:

“I wanted to find the perfect way to say this, as you so eloquently put this game to rest—perfectly done, just like your career. I have always looked up to you and admired you. Our paths were always so similar, so much the same. You inspired countless millions and millions of people—including me—and we will never forget.”

Messages poured in from great former champions like Laver, Christ Evert and Martina Navratilova, who said:

“What a heartfelt message, full of love, life, hope, passion and gratitude. Which is exactly how Roger played the game we love so much. Thank you thank you thank you!”

Billie Jean King added: “Roger Federer is a champion’s champion. He has the most complete game of his generation and captured the hearts of sports fans around the world.”

But there has been just as much affection and respect from young champions, the new standard-bearers who have won both Majors and the No1 ranking already:

Carlos Alcaraz, age just 19:

“Roger has been one of my idols and a source of inspiration! Thank you for everything you have done for our sport! I still want to play with you! Wish you all the luck in the world for what comes next!”

Roger Federer

Roger Federer (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

And Iga Swiatek, only 21:

“I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done and everything you are for our sport. It’s been a privilege to witness your career. I wish you all the best.”

So anything that this particular admirer says pales against the brightness of such tennis icons. Yet I have just as much to thank the Swiss man for—not least in spurring me to abandon one career for another that took me back to my youthful love of tennis.

I have now travelled the world, been to countless tournaments, reported extensively through a ‘golden age’ of tennis that has seen not only Federer but also Nadal and Djokovic stride past what seemed the untouchable Sampras record of 14 Majors.

I have thrilled to Andy Murray’s journey to Olympic gold, Davis Cup and eventually to No1, and watched Serena with nothing short of awe.

But the most abiding pleasures have coalesced around Federer’s uniquely elegant, athletic, fast-paced style of tennis, which dipped into my old-school tennis memories.

And the appeal only grew with familiarity. Contrary to his calm, on-court persona, he is an extrovert, a glass-half-full optimist, one who seems always to have time for signing for his fans, for speaking in three languages to the media, but whose timetable was invariably packed with the PR demands of the tour, with exhibitions, and with fund-raisers for his foundation. And judging from the plaudits of his colleagues, always the time to extend a hand of welcome or help to his fellow players.

I always anticipated that Federer’s career would end before mine, yet after so many years, it was I who first planned my exit route following a few personal wake-up calls. I decided to draw my ‘line in the sand’ back at the O2, where I saw the then 30-year-old Federer win his 70th career title, his sixth at the ATP Finals—on my birthday in 2011.

Since then, I have seen him win his eighth Wimbledon, reach his 100th title in Dubai, become the tour’s oldest No1 in Rotterdam. Again at the O2, I photographed him accepting two of a record 40 ATP Awards, including the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship gong—from Edberg himself.

And whether smiling down my camera lens or looking me in the eye as he answered my questions, he has been the model of patience and courtesy.

So his closing words about his departure speak for me and many more, too:

“This is a bittersweet decision because I will miss everything the Tour has given me. But at the same time, there is so much to celebrate… I have laughed and cried, felt joy and pain, and most of all I have felt incredibly alive.”

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