Teaime and ordinary human wear and tear told us that Roger Federer had to stop playing professional tennis at some point. Here’s a man who was winning Grand Slam tournaments before the invention of the iPhone, while Tony Blair was still a very popular prime minister, and who won Wimbledon for the first time two months after Carlos Alcaraz was born.
And yet the news that Federer now intends to retire at age 41 still feels like a shock, an oversight, a rumor that got out of hand. Is everyone really sure about this?
It’s always tempting when a champion leaves the stage to announce that we will never see them like us again, that the book is now closed. It takes to overdo the mockish Viking funeral material, to drown in ill-fated sweetness, to turn every departure from Paddington Bear into a tug on the sleeve, to conclude that sports life will never really be the same again.
On this occasion both these answers seem to be correct. Federer’s retirement certainly brings the end of a shared period a little closer. There has never been a period of dominance in a global sport like the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic tripod of power.
His departure also puts an end to a more personal era, as even in this aristocratic company there was the outstanding presence of Federer, the greatest of all time in men’s tennis. And by extension, and without any reasonable reason to argue – the proper term should cover a lot of ground here – the greatest tennis player of all time.
It is a measure of the brilliance of Nadal and Djokovic that both now shadow Federer on the original tally of Grand Slam wins. Nadal’s invincibility at Roland Garros is the backbone of his 22 titles. Djokovic is a fellow all-court master and leads at 21. As triple-godheads they’ve been the most unique source of entertainment, income, and basic relentlessness, circling the game world like mobile one-man city states. What’s with these people? Do they ever get tired of seeing their reflection in that clay surface?
apparently not. Juan Carlos Ferrero won the French Open, the last Grand Slam tournament in the Old World, in May 2003. A year younger, Federer won his first Wimbledon a month later and within five years had 12 of 18 victories. Long ago Nadal joined him. In the years leading up to Wimbledon this summer, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated the game in a stunning pitch of shared destruction.
Djokovic is 35 now, still in peak condition but a little distracted by Covid stuff, culture war noise and generally being a kind of magic energy truther. Nadal is 36 and held together with twine, staples and glue. With the retirement also of Serena Williams there is undeniably a sense that something is ending, the time of giants passing.
And yes, Federer really was the best of them. We know this because Nadal and Djokovic were great enough to make this such a point of fevered discussion, and to elevate every contest along the way, producing such a wonderfully more-ish contrast of style, manner and execution, the same greats playing the same game in the same space, but in a way that somehow never really felt the same.
And with Federer greatness was as much about style and form and texture. There was a sense in his talent of something that never quite reached its end point. Even at its most concentrated pitch one never felt one got to the limits of what Federer might do. There is probably still a bit in there, Rog, if you ever feel like giving it another go.
Even in defeat it was like watching a fully geared high-spec machine run at its own pace. Federer did not lose. He regroups. As good a game as sport at his best, there was a sense of genuine ultimateness.
His backhand was clearly ridiculous, hyperbolic, hilariously good. This, a thought, looking at that thing – knee flexion, wrist flexion – is a type of artifact, a European cultural treasure, such as a Bach cantata or a full acorn-poached Iberian ham, a type of backhand a The power-mad Bond super villain may try to steal from his laser-guarded case and take him to the Moon.
Tennis is in many ways the most difficult of all sports. Firstly because of its technical and material demands. But also because it’s always you, every point; And every point comes right after the last, a constant pressure with no shadow, no margin, nowhere to hide.
Why was Federer the best at it? Because he had that all-Surface game. Because he felt like the default in every tournament, a player whose defeat was important to everyone else in the draw; And because his game was so perfect he would have been a champion in any era, as well as all ages to come.
Of course there was something else. For all the titles and the great matches – the 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal, in despair, with both men approaching the end of something, arguably the best tennis match ever – the lasting memory will be the way Federer felt it.
He was that rare thing: not only the best player in the world but also the prettiest, most pleasing to look at, grace note as well as the winning ending. It wasn’t just a function of that strange sensual presence, the kind of hormonal groan going off center court, a Federmons rush, one that seemed to move more easily through the air.
It wasn’t the styling, the deep, piercing (woof) eyes, the ballistic grace in his movements. The real Federer hit was like this…