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With Roger Federer, you just switch on the television and fall in love, instantly and unconditionally.

No champion past or present — and he is a champion generously endowed with records of consequence — has blended accomplishments with artis­try as seamlessly as Federer.

roger federerSo much grace and artistry that to enjoy Roger Federer, you need not be a Federer devout; you needn’t know his name or his history or his place among sporting immortals.(AP/FILE)

In what can only be described as Roger Federer Moments, there were occasions when the ball seemingly hung in the air as if waiting for his flying racquet and floati­ng feet. Much like the geometrical patterns of the spider’s web, Federer’s strokes traced patterns that inspired awe: forehands caressed to acute angles on the other side of the net; backhands audaciously flicked on the half-volley; sudden but subtle changes of pace effected with dece­ptive ease; deft under-spun slices that barely skim the surface of the racquet; feet ever in motion and yet never betraying the slightest hint of haste.

If there is an exponent of tennis more ca­ptivating to behold than Federer in full flow, then the world is yet to see him. That tennis, and certainly not the modern-day avatar of the sport, does not lend itself to grace under pressure is all the more reason to appreciate better the worth of his feats. No champion past or present — and he is a champion generously endowed with records of consequence — has blended accomplishments with artis­try as seamlessly as Federer.

So much grace and artistry that to enjoy Federer, you need not be a Federer devout; you needn’t know his name or his history or his place among sporting immortals; you needn’t even be a tennis connoisseur, the ones that could distinguish between top-spin and back-spin from the gallery, or a tennis nut that has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game.

You needn’t even need to know tennis, its rules or fundamentals, or the shots or names of the shots. Just like you needn’t be a classical music aficionado to relish Beethoven or Saint Thyagaraja. Or an art critic to marvel at Rembrandt or Ravi Varma, or a poet to like Neruda or Lorca. Perhaps, in-depth knowledge on these subjects helps a deeper understanding and appreciation of their works, but it does not diminish the process of enjoying them. Federer’s art, like art of the highest scale, could be consumed by the layman and the expert, the devout as well as the skeptic.

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Switzerland’s Roger Federer celebrates with the trophy after winning the final against Australia’s Alex de Minaur. (REUTERS)

There was something for every shade of audience—art for the aesthetes, stats for the number-nerds, science for the scientists, verse for the poetry-lovers and trophies for the chroniclers. Yet, it was perhaps art that defined his game and career, art that exceeds all other virtues of his game. It’s art that made him most watchable and endearing. It’s not to suggest that Federer was art and beauty alone, he was athletic and cerebral, imaginative and intuitive, besides being incredibly successful, or to state that art is the single most definitive yardstick to measure greatness. There is a distinct art to the game of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as well. As it had for Pete Sampras or Boris Becker in a generation before.

But Federer’s was different. You don’t fall in love with them as spontaneously as you would a Federer. Nadal and Djokovic are more of an acquired taste you develop after watching them for months, understanding the layers of their game, marvelled by the boundless limits of physical prowess and no doubt fuelled by their ripping success. With Federer, you just switch on the television and fall in love with him, instantly and unconditionally.

He was different too—old-world yet modern, serve-and-volleyer but at the same time could pound from the baseline too. In him a bygone world blended with the new-age, a bridge that connects two generations, a link to the Sampras and Fab Four-era. The love for Federer, in a sense, was the love of the past too.

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With one of its greatest players, tennis has lost its greatest throwback too. One of the last who could serve-and-volley, and one of the last who could unlock the one-handed backhand. After the serve-and-volley game died in the early 2000s the one-hander has become a final vestige of the sport as it was traditionally played. The one-hander, which is less effective against high-velocity, high-bouncing shots, has come to be seen as a liability. For example, Nadal has used his high-kicking topspin forehand to break down Federer’s one-handers.

Roger Federer (SUI) waving farewell to the Centre Court fans. (USA TODAY Sports/File Photo)

In a sport where cheekiness is deliberately swept aside, unlike in the last century, Federer was a non-conformist. The genius of his inventiveness or cuteness is best exemplified by the ‘tweener’ against Novak Djokovic in their US Open semi-final in 2009. There is a whole pile of those on Youtube like “top trick shots from Federer” or “Federer, the trick shot king.’ You would find only a few similar entries for Nadal or Djokovic. Not that every great player should have a compilation of such tricks to achieve absolute perfection, but it all adds to the experience of watching an elite athlete.

There was grace off the court too. There have been times when he has lost heartbreakingly and repeatedly to Nadal. In 2009, he lost four times, but Federer never seemed to take it personally. That same year, he traveled to Majorca to help Nadal open his new tennis academy. “In the end it’s just a tennis match, and you’re supposed to get over it, I don’t want to be the kind of father who comes home and his kids are asking, ‘What’s wrong with dad?’ Or that kind of husband,” he had once said.

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Even when he struggled, there was grace. In that epic five-setter defeat to Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008, he hit one of the most beautiful passing shots, with a vertical leap of utmost beauty, anyone has ever seen. For a lay watcher to remember that stroke after all these years in itself is a stamp of his immeasurable quality. There is so much to remember, watch, rewatch and pore over. Repetitive watching only enhances the genius, and the more you watch the more there is to be watched. Watching him is like reading a classic. Flip a random page from a book and you read. the page still has the powers to engage and engross you, even if you are not a bibliophile. Just as you need not be a Federer devout to enjoy Federer. To experience Federer you needn’t even know tennis. This is perhaps his greatest gift.

First published on: 19-09-2022 at 10:30:49 am
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