DAYS AFTER a 19-year-old Spaniard outlasted, outran and outpowered yet another opponent to win his first Grand Slam to be the new World No.1, a 41-year-old Swiss, not a super-athlete but a true modern-day sporting great, announced his retirement.
Carlos Alcaraz’s grand coronation and Roger Federer’s graceful exit is that page-turning moment that tells fans that the book they have been savouring for way too long, and were hoping wouldn’t end, is about to reach the back jacket. After 24 years of playing beautiful tennis and winning 20 Grand Slams, the oldest of the Big 3 was taking the curtain call. Federer’s rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, though much younger, are also aging and look fragile.
The teens and 20-somethings were finally not cursing themselves for having been born in an era that was graced by 3 GOATS. Now, they saw a window of opportunity, since the draws at tennis events would look less intimidating. Disruption and displacement are expected on Planet Tennis since it no longer would be divided in three halves — the biggest of these regions was inhabited by those with RF tattooed on their souls. Tennis’s generational leap was about to happen and Federer, even in the race to retire, had a ‘first’ to his credit.
In his message on social media, Federer would finish a long thank-you note with a touching last line: “Finally, to the game of tennis, I love you and will never leave you.” His body of work has ensured that he will continue to grace record lists and his legacy will live on.
Of late, Federer’s supple and agile frame had made him look increasingly out of place on tennis courts. Even among his reputed peers, he was the one who resembled players from the last century the most. He was a throwback to the days when tennis was about strokes and not strides. During his big announcement, while he cut the last thread with which he had barely managed to hang on to the pro circuit, there was a sense of relief. He no longer had to punish his body, strive to stay relevant and try getting the better of tennis players who could easily pass off as athletes, bodybuilders and gymnasts.
As is the case with most legends, Federer understood the science of his sport. There is a popular theory among fans that Federer’s greatness is appreciated more by those who have played sport with some seriousness. It’s only if you have struggled to cover the court can you understand how he perfected the complex geometry of the rectangle box. He never took an extra step to reach the ball and it was this that made him look unhurried and effortless.
Shot after shot, for every match and for years, the fleet-footed Federer stuck to his energy-efficient footwork pattern. Those giant initial strides, the small adjustment steps just before reaching the ball, remained his signature move. It was a simple routine but, in the heat of a match situation, was tough to follow. It was this beautiful balance that coaches would want their wards to follow.
While pundits drool over his footwork, pop culture will always identify Federer’s game with his balletic single-handed backhand. In days to come, if tribute-givers want to install life-size statues of him outside stadiums, it would invariably be that pose of him with his racket pointing to the sky, ready to unleash his favourite shot. With his knees bent, his racket-wielding right hand would first flow down with the smoothness and energy of a waterfall, and after hitting the ball, climb up in the follow-through like a rising wave. Any freeze frame of his backhand had the potential to be muse for a painter.
Mostly associated with artistry, the elegant mind behind his beautiful game would often get overlooked. Even when in the most hopeless of situations, Federer’s mind would be in search of that window of opportunity that could see him get back in the game. He wouldn’t let the consequences of defeat cloud his head. Federer wasn’t afraid to flirt with fine margins at crucial points since the distractions of defeat never ventured anywhere close to him. An ace to avoid a break, an ace at Championship point — that was part of the famous Federer act of ages.
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It was this grace and guts that got him life-long fans. In a survey done in 25 countries, he once got voted as the second-most trusted man on earth after Nelson Mandela. Those behind him were Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Bono.
It was his near perfect conduct off the court that gave him global appeal and made him a darling of organisers, brand managers and the corporate world. If tennis had a fairytale, Federer was the Prince Charming with picture perfect frames. He and his wife Mirka were part of the Swiss tennis team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, It was at the Games village they started their courtship. His box at Grand Slams at times looked like a picnic outing for the family. There would be wife, parents and his twins — two girls, two boys.
If greatness was measured by the number of Grand Slams, Federer is not a GOAT. On the overall list of Grand Slam winners, he is third. But for players like Federer, there are pedestals that are much higher than podiums.