We are living through a period where the expected has surprised. In life, there is always an ending. Always. We know this. We anticipate this. We try to prepare for this. But when the passage of time forces a chapter to inevitably close, the reality of it all still stuns like a thunderbolt.
Roger Federer wasn’t going to play tennis forever. Aged 41 and having endured one injury after another in recent years, the sand was rapidly falling to the bottom of the hourglass. Even great champions retire.
But, like Serena Williams, Federer had altered the expected arc of a tennis player’s career. In their fourth decades, they continued to accumulate titles and break records, strengthening their greatness. In their fifth decades, they both were, incredibly, still present.
While their longevity allowed us to appreciate their talents, to savor each tournament and each passing year, it also lulled us into a false sense of security, into believing they would always be there, even as injuries led to prolonged absences in later years. They would be back. They always came back.
Federer won his first of 20 grand slams in 2003, a time when people were excited by the latest Nokia phone, and before the United States and the UK launched a war in Iraq. A professional career that spanned 24 years, Federer had become a constant in our sporting lives. While we were all – quietly and slowly – getting older, there Federer was still playing, still winning, still defying time, duping us into believing that neither the world, nor us, had changed that much.
But on Thursday – two weeks after Williams played what is expected to be her last professional match – we were forced to acknowledge that we were entering a new age.
“I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career,” said Federer in announcing that he would be calling time on his career after next week’s Laver Cup in London.
“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.”
The Swiss has not played competitively since Wimbledon last summer, after which he underwent a third knee operation which ultimately forced one of the most incredible tennis careers to conclude without the flourish it perhaps deserved.
Federer was the first man to accumulate 20 grand slam titles. Still, no other man has won as many as his eight Wimbledon titles, played as many (429) or won as many grand slam matches (369). He leaves the sport with 103 titles, second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open Era, and more than $130 million in prize money.
During a five-year period in the early part of the century, when he won 12 of 18 grand slams, Federer redefined the meaning of tennis brilliance in the men’s game.
Many of the standout records he set have been broken by Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, the other outstanding talents who would later come to prominence to make the last 15 years the sport’s golden age.
Federer had spent 310 weeks as the world number one; Djokovic has surpassed that feat. Nadal now has 22 major titles, Djokovic 21.
It is likely that all of Federer’s records will, one day, be broken but numbers only reflect a fraction of Federer’s genius. A Google search of his statistics does not explain his greatness or his appeal. This is a man who has won the fans’ favorite award at the end-of-year ATP Awards for 19 years straight.
Federer is praised not just because he won, but for the way he won, for the way he played. Nobody has graced a court like him. Will we see his like again? Perhaps, but it would be some player.
Has there been a better forehand in the game? A sweeter backhand? A more effective serve? In the men’s game at least, for Williams’ serve is widely regarded as the best there has been. Has anyone played any sport with such beauty?
“It’s like a symphony” was how Patrick Mouratoglou, once Williams’ coach, described Federer’s style a few years ago.
“Nobody will ever play tennis like that ever, impossible. It’s just perfection. The movement, the timing, everything is perfect and that’s incredible.”
Acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, in his 2006 New York Times essay “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience,” described the Federer forehand as a “great liquid whip.” The genius of Federer’s game, Wallace explained, was lost on television.
Federer was a young man when the essay was written, but already, at 25, was being talked about as the greatest there had ever been, and not just by Wallace.
There were good players on the tour, of course, but no one who could consistently live with Federer’s shot-making and on-court intelligence. He was that good.
Six years prior to the publication of Wallace’s essay, no one thought Pete Sampras’ record of 14 grand slam titles would be broken – then came Federer, later to be joined by Nadal and Djokovic to form the “Big Three.”
Now, of course, there are those who will argue that Nadal has proven to be the greatest of all time, or that Djokovic is a better all-rounder. Perhaps, perhaps.
The balance of power may have shifted, but what cannot be denied is that neither Nadal nor Djokovic are as aesthetically pleasing as the Swiss.
Watching Federer play in 3D is – and there is still just about time to talk about his style in the present tense – to be mesmerized. It was, sorry, is special, an I-was-there moment that can be told, and retold, to the grandchildren or anyone who will listen. No one has made playing sports at the highest level seem so effortless.
The annals of sports history will put Federer alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and, of course, Serena Williams. Gamechangers all who transcended their sports, who will be talked about for years after retirement, inspiring one generation after another.
Tennis is entering a new future. Federer will soon be retired, Nadal, at 36, is unlikely to play to the same age as his friend and rival, such has been his history with injuries, and Djokovic is 35, still able to accumulate more major titles but aging none the less .
We knew, one day, it would happen. But, as we know, it takes time to adjust to change.