By the 2009 French Open, Roger Federer was already considered by many observers to be the greatest tennis player of all time. With 13 Grand Slam titles already and several good years to come, it seemed like a formality that he would win two more and pass on his idol, Pete Sampras.
However, there was much question about whether Federer could win in Paris.
When Federer woke up on June 1 that year, things had changed a lot. Rafael Nadal, the opponent he could not beat at Roland Garros, suffered a surprise defeat in the fourth round to Robin Soderling. Federer was suddenly looking at the biggest chance of completing the Grand Slam of his career.
Federer retiredThe 20-time Grand Slam champion made it official
But just two hours into his fourth-round match against Tommy Haas, an opportunity seemed to have been lost. Two sets down and 3-4, serving at 30-40, Federer was a point away from breaking and was likely to finish in the next few minutes.
As Federer’s second serve began, he immediately went into a backhand corner, anticipating that Haas would return cross-court. But instead of playing for a safe goal or drawing Haas into a rally, a backpedaling Federer launched himself from the red dirt and smacked an inside forehandâthe most dangerous shot he could have picked at the timeâof the opposite edge. And where Haas had left just one piece of an opening. It caught the line by the smallest margin. He won games, matches and tournaments – a sight of joy and relief that only Federer could write about.
It’s impossible to know how much hinged on that shot, how many monsters Federer would have fought if he hadn’t made it. But its mere existence and the daring spirit with which he was born speaks volumes about what it was like to watch Federer on the tennis court for two decades.
Whether you consider Federer to be the greatest of all time, there has never been a player who evoked a sense of history with every swing of his racket, whose game was so beautiful it could be painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and whose mindset was so audacious. The difference between talent and a crushing defeat was often no more than an inch.
Federer announced on Thursday that he is retiring from professional tennis after next week’s Laver Cup, a spectacular performance that will likely see him on the court with Nadal for one last time. It would also allow fans to bid Federer a fitting farewell, something he hadn’t received at Wimbledon a year earlier, when he lost his last competitive set 6-0 to Hubert Herkaz, and then had his third knee surgery in the period. was presented for. 18 months.
Since then, there was no hope that Federer would be able to return at the age of 41 and play as representative of his level of greatness. Even if everything went well in his recovery, playing in 2023 was going to be little more than a bye tour. Yet it seems wrong that Federer, perhaps the most universally beloved athlete of the modern era, wouldn’t even get that much.
But tennis doesn’t lend itself to the end of the story, except for Sampras who last spelled the 2002 US Open and never stepped on the court again.
More often than not, all-time greats have to admit some level of outrage in their final act. Bjorn Borg lost two consecutive Grand Slam finals to John McEnroe in 1981 and decided he had lost his passion. Andre Agassi did everything to upset Marcos Baghdatis in his final US Open at age 36 and there was nothing left in the tank for the next round against the unknown Benjamin Baker. Steffi Graf could not finish the match against Amy Frazier in San Diego due to an injured hamstring and announced her retirement a week later.
And as we just saw at the US Open, Serena Williams turned the clock back long enough to make it to the third round, but eventually walked off the court feeling as though she let the win against Ajla Tomljanovic slip away .
It seems like everything we’ve come to expect from tennis is a shock that Williams and Federer are walking away together. Although Williams had already won six Grand Slam titles by the time Federer won her first title in 2003, they were outplayed by their respective tours for two decades, even during a period when They couldn’t win everything. It’s not often that you see the great athletes of all time making the entire journey from adolescence to dominance to parenthood to inevitable athletic mortality, but they’ve seen the aging process better than anyone before them. made far more aspirational.
There were certainly a lot of hands-on questions about what this means for tennis in the coming weeks as these global superstars, drawing millions to millions of stadiums around the world, are leaving the scene. The reality is that Federer and Williams, along with Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have been around longer than anyone expected. There may be a period of transition, and it may be generations before one can match their achievements, but the game doesn’t stop.
As we saw 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz win the title at the US Open after epic battles with Janic Siner and Frances Tiafo, as well as Inga Swietec dominating the women’s side, plenty of exciting young stars took the baton. are ready for. ,
Be it them or someone else coming in the future, we will see players who push the boundaries of the game just like Federer and Williams did. This is how tennis works, the continuous development of technology, athleticism and power demands more and more players who want to win at the highest level.
What will be even more difficult for the next generation to recreate is the feeling that Williams and Federer generated when they were on the court. He didn’t play as much a match as the main characters in human drama, where his weaknesses were as much a part of the story as his one-of-a-kind talents.
There is an alternate world in which Federer completed a career Grand Slam in 2009, surpassing Sampras at Wimbledon for the all-time Slam record, and retired shortly thereafter. It would have arguably been the most impressive run in the history of men’s tennis, winning 90 percent of his matches in a span of six years to achieve practically everything he could possibly do in the sport.
But Federer was not afraid to fail or see his dominance diminish. This challenged him only to grow and get better, even though the next seven years of his career saw some painful losses to rivals, matches he failed to finish and missed opportunities to add more majors.
At the time, Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon title seemed like the last storm. In 2015, he lost close matches to Djokovic in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open and seemed unlikely to ever lift another major trophy. Then in 2016, he called it off after Wimbledon to take care of a back injury.
Chances seemed long that he might come back at age 36 and be a factor. Instead, he not only came back, won three more Grand Slams, returned to No. 1 in 2018 and defeated Nadal in five of his last six matches. , And he did it because, despite all the victories and success, Federer kept on refining his game, adjusting his backhand and working out solutions against players that fit him.
Every part of that trip magnetized Federer; Not only the ease with which he won, but the devastation of so many losses – perhaps nothing more than the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic, when he scored two match points in the fifth set, missed an ace by a millimeter and then the title Failed to shut down.
Those moments could very well cost him the greatest nickname of all time. But even someone who knows nothing about tennis can look up to Federer and see the artistry and talent in the game.
When Federer came along, the men’s game was struggling. It was all about big serves and quick points, a paint-by-numbers game that lost a lot of creativity and skill.
Federer flips it over the head. He didn’t have the fastest serve, but he was the deadliest. He bowled more deliveries than any other top player, missed countless break points and often found himself in situations where he had to get out of trouble. He had a variety of shotmaking like no other, a backhand slice that he turned into a weapon and a willingness to come forward for a volley that was unusual for his era. And when Federer got a forehand to hit, he really hit it â a signature shot in which his eyes close at the contact point, which everyone who lifts racquets over the past 20 years has tried to recreate.
Federer didn’t always play perfect tennis, but he always looked perfect. And in the moments he needed to be great â such as the 2009 French Open â he often found the right balance between toughness and grace.
Federer will be missed not only in tennis but for everyone who remembers how he was at his best. The numbers say whether or not he was the greatest player of all time is irrelevant. For nearly 20 years, no one wrote down moments that made his fans feel something they had never felt before.