It started with the name. Fe-de-rer. As an eight-year-old, I found it peculiar with all the Es and Rs in it. There were two other players at the time with somewhat similar names – [Juan Carlos] Ferrero and [David] Ferrer – and it made things confusing. Until the name finally stuck in my head, I kept it simple – just search for the guy with the bandana and ponytail, the beads around his neck, the Wilson racket, the Nike gear, and that single-handed backhand.
My first tennis hero was Pete Sampras, after my parents got me hooked to the sport nice and early. The American’s languid game was fascinating but it was his dominance at Wimbledon that reeled me in. The pristine grass, all-white clothing, heritage, style, no branding on court and that gorgeous men’s singles trophy... Wimbledon remains one of the most unique sporting events to date. And Sampras’ record there made him stand out.
Roger Federer had a few obvious similarities with Sampras – the Wilson racket, the Nike gear and the single-handed backhand. For a kid at an impressionable age, these little things mattered. I’d want to watch him play, still trying to sort his name out in my head, before finally that day came along in 2001. Federer, the guy with the beads, had defeated Sampras at Wimbledon and right there, I had a new hero.
Growing up with Federer, you were enriched by two things – the joy of watching him in action and the many learnings from the way he went about his business in the glare of constant limelight, on and off court. And together, they brought to life a journey that left you eternally grateful.
Joy of watching Federer
When Federer was in the zone, he provided his fans an unparalleled thrill. All that success on the back of what seemed an extraordinarily simple game style proved to be a heady mix. He was that rarest of rare player who didn’t need a strong opponent to make a match thoroughly entertaining. His game was such that it didn’t need to be put under pressure to reveal its best. He just dazzled by himself.
That big, booming forehand down the line, inside-out, inside-in, round the net post. That silken backhand with the devastating slice. That stylish service motion and the consistency with which he found his spots. The jaw-dropping volleys. The angles he created. The unhurried yet incredibly efficient movement. It was all captivating.
There wasn’t one aspect of Federer’s technique that wasn’t beautiful. The fact that he complimented it with an aggressive game style – taking the ball early and refusing to be pushed back from the baseline – and stoic demeanour made his matches entirely irresistible.
There were, of course, a whole lot of those ridiculous shots too. Like the lob winner running back at Dubai 2005 that left Andre Agassi rather miffed, the slice/smash at Basel 2002 that made Andy Roddick throw his racket across in disbelief, the drop shot at Miami 2017 that left Tomas Berdych so severely flat-footed that some say he’s still standing there, that tweener at US Open 2009 against Novak Djokovic, and the SABR. The list is long and you get the drift.
But this isn’t all. There were the other little things about Federer on-court that were the icing on the cake. He loved to hit a tennis ball and had a penchant for artistry, so he combined that and often ended up testing the ball kids randomly. He would hit balls to the kids kneeling at the side of the net or even at the other end of the court, they would smile either way after catching or dropping it, and the crowd was left applauding. It was the simplest thing, yet added so much to his charm. Remember, he too started off as a ball kid.
Then there were the interviews and the tears. His on-court interviews with Jim Courier at the Australian Open have a separate fan-base. No matter how tired he was after a match, he would stand there and try his best to match the American’s incredible wit. And again, those watching were left with beatific smiles. Of course, there was his inimitable grace too, like the 2017 Australian Open where he said he wouldn’t mind sharing the title with Rafael Nadal.
Tears were also a constant, from his first Major title in 2003 to his last in 2018. Tears of happiness, tears of sorrow... just tears. Whether it was Australian Open 2006 where he struggled to thank Rod Laver for the winner’s trophy or three years later at the same venue when standing with the runner-up trophy was “killing” him – he always wore his heart on his sleeve. It further humanised him, made his connect with audiences even more personal.
The many learnings from Federer
It’s impossible to imagine Federer’s unrivalled popularity would’ve sustained this long had it just been about the on-court exploits. Through the years and decades of his professional career, the class with which he conducted himself was, perhaps, the clincher.
One of the biggest lessons Federer taught through his career was how to deal with heartbreak. His appetite for winning was insatiable, there’s no denying that, but the losses didn’t make him bitter. There were some crushing defeats as Nadal and Djokovic established themselves at the top and it would also be fair to say he felt most nervous on crucial points among the Big Three. But that never deterred him. He mostly took the sport for what it was – just a sport. He kept returning to enjoy it and face those anxious moments all over again.
His words after the 2019 Wimbledon loss to Djokovic, where he squandered consecutive championship points on serve in the fifth set, summed it up: “You take it on your chin, you move on. You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There’s just tons of it. Like similar to ‘08 maybe, I will look back at it and think, well, it’s not that bad after all. For now, it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon. I think it’s a mindset. I’m very strong at being able to move on because I don’t want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match.”
Another inspiring aspect about Federer’s personality that probably isn’t appreciated enough is how he compartmentalised his life. Be it the tennis, the fashion, the brands, the philanthropy or looking after his mental health.
He would play match after match and never retire, but he also knew when to take breaks and rejuvenate himself. He had the most attractive game but also took a keen interest in making his on-court attires attractive – from the jackets at Wimbledon to the all-black Darth Federer at US Opens. He endorsed a zillion products and carefully built his brand which also allowed him to do great charity work from a young age. He launched the Roger Federer Foundation, which helps educate children in Africa, in 2003 and his brand value played a critical role in growing tennis as a sport over the past two decades. The gratitude he received from the tennis community after announcing his retirement is testament to that.
Finally, there was the immense respect he had for the sport. From his early days on tour and through the giddy highs, he never missed an opportunity to celebrate the sport’s rich history. He mentioned the likes of Rod Laver, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Sampras innumerable times as his inspirations. He loved tennis and being a good role model was important to him. It even reflected in the way he interacted with his peers, his juniors and the media. No matter how brutal the match was or how pointed the question, he would give measured, thoughtful answers. There was hardly any ego.
“I think everyone has realized how great a tennis player he is, but I want to tell a quick story,” former American player James Blake said after the 2006 Indian Wells final. “About a couple of years ago, I was injured in a hospital in Rome. It’s at a time when everyone else is concentrating on their tennis and playing as well as they can, and I got one note at that hospital room and it was from the number 1 player in the world, Roger Federer, wishing me the best.”
In an increasingly divided world, Federer was a force that mostly just united. For his humility, the respect he gave his sport, the effort he put into being a great role model, the goodness he emanated throughout his career – he deserves to be eternally celebrated. There will be new champions and naturally, life will move on. But any time there’s a discussion on the greatest or most influential athlete in history, I’ll be searching for that name again. And rest assured, I won’t struggle to remember it anymore. His name is Roger Federer.
Thank you Roger Federer, for a tennis experience to last a lifetime
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