For a journey in the spotlight that started with tears, it was bound to end with it – and lots of it.
Through most of what happened between Championship Point at Wimbledon 2003, till match point at the 2022 Laver Cup on Friday, Roger Federer betrayed little to no emotion while on court.
He’d shout a few ‘come ons’ along the way, throw in a few fist bumps, and on one occasion even provided a science lesson to an umpire. But as he’d send the crowd into a frenzy after yet another moment of magic, he’d often sport a stoic expression.
A video of that trophy presentation from Wimbledon 2003 has been doing the rounds on social media ever since the 41-year-old announced on September 15 that he’d play his last ever professional match at the Laver Cup. On Friday, there was no chance there’d be a stony-faced Federer. It was a day to celebrate the close of a career that has lasted 24 trophy-laden years.
His first ever acceptance speech was an unpolished affair – for a player known for the elegance of his craft. Federer, then 21, struggled to get the words out in an interview with Sue Barker before giving up altogether. But when he was called out by Jim Courier for one final interview at the O2 Arena, Federer started with a promise.
“We’ll get through this somehow. Right?”
And he held his own this time, taking a few gaps to gulp as much air as he could amidst the tears. He thanked his peers, his friends. He then bawled as he thanked his family – his parents, his wife, his four children – for being a part of his journey.
Finally, after 24 years of excellence, he was ready to walk away from all he’s known his entire adult life. And the better part of the lives of so many of his fans.
Indeed, watching Federer, in many ways, has always been an emotional experience.
The talent in the then blonde-hair-dyed teenager was never in question. The temperament was what was letting him down early on. The story goes that his father Robert once left young Roger with nothing but bus fare to get home after another embarrassing tantrum on court.
“He was highly upset when he lost a match. He could cry for half an hour after the match, which was disturbing for his parents. We were never angry if he lost a match but we were angry with his behaviour after matches,” his mother Lynette had said in the documentary Replay. “I used to tell him your bad behaviour is like an open invitation to your opponent – here I am, beat me.”
But after the death of his coach Peter Carter in a car accident in 2002, Federer decided to put aside the demons that had held him back and focus on his tennis. He doubled down.
That’s the period in his career where the emotions started to change from those watching around. Sure, there was some animosity about this pony-tailed 19-year-old Swiss upstart with a beaded necklace beating the great Pete Sampras – a Wimbledon darling – on the hallowed Centre Court.
That was his first big win. It put him into a spotlight he’d never leave.
His game was thereon dissected. And by the time he won his first Grand Slam, the beauty of his strokeplay came to the fore. As he rose to the world No 1 spot, started to rake in Major titles in bulk, and dominated the men’s game in a way not seen before, the romanticism of his craft found no bounds.
Federer, with experience, learned to keep his emotions in check (most of the time). But the beauty of his game started to extract more emotion from those watching from the stands, and even the other side of the net.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe the poetry of his play is when you consider that his one-handed backhand is his weakest shot in purely tennis terms. Yet it is the one stroke known for its balletic beauty.
In an era of big serves, Federer was not the most powerful. He didn’t often cross the 200 kmph barrier, but the accuracy and disguise he put in that smooth service motion saw him rain down 11,478 aces – the third-highest in the ATP chart. Then there were those graceful – yet devastating – groundstrokes. His forehand has perhaps been the most envious shot among tennis players.
At the level at which Federer plied his trade, every player had weapons. What set him apart was how he chose to wield his racquet.
He’d play tweeners with relish to bail himself out of trouble. He’d rush to the net while facing a serve – the Sneak Attack By Roger – to take away time from the opponent. He’d play shots around the net for an inconceivable winner. On Friday, he played a shot through that tiny gap between the net and post (though it didn’t count) – the commentator mentioned that even in his final game of his career, Federer still gave fans something they’d never seen before.
Often, he’d draw the ‘ohs’ and the ‘ahs’ from the packed stands that would come to watch him play. That is what actually puts Federer on a pedestal beyond measure. Federer made tennis look beautiful. He had an aggressive game and he made it look good.
In the list of adjectives used to describe Federer were ‘God-given’ and ‘natural talent’, but it is sometimes forgotten how hard he has had to work to develop this playing style. Behind the success of Federer the artist was Federer the warrior.
The Swiss grew up at a time when tennis courts were being slowed down on purpose, demanding changes in strategies where rushes to the net were being replaced by baseline brawls. Yet he remained relevant throughout, reinventing himself and putting that typical sheen of artistry over the thick layer of hard work.
In 2013, at the insistence of his boyhood idol Stefan Edberg – his coach at the time – Federer reluctantly changed racquet specifications. The 90-square inch racquet face he’d used to win 17 Grand Slam titles at the time had now been increased by seven inches – creating the signature RF 97 line of Pro Staff racquets from Wilson.
A bigger racquet head meant a bigger sweet spot with which he could use to gain more oomph on his backhand – a shot Nadal had exploited over and over again.
Even earlier though, there was another period of resistance from Federer. His attacking game is rounded off by his willingness to come to the net and finish off points. But the pull to the net was not always natural for Federer.
“When he first started practicing volleys, he hated it. He wasn’t good at it. It was like there were sharks inside the service box,” his former coach Peter Lundgren had told Tennis Podcast.
In another era, in another sport, legendary German footballer Gerd Muller had often been dubbed the ‘Ghost of the Penalty Box’ for his knack of being at the right place at the right time. There were no explanations for the striker’s positioning, so it was left to being a natural ability.
As Uli Hesse wrote in Eight by Eight, “Gerd slightly resented this explanation because it ignored not only the countless hours of work he put in (he even loved to go between the sticks during training to better understand how a goalkeeper thinks) but also the rest of the team.”
The same is true for Federer. If not before, then it’s been clear in at least the past few years how much work he’s had to put in.
His knee has been his greatest enemy since he slipped in the bathroom while drawing a bath for his daughters in 2016. He recovered, won three Grand Slam titles, and then, in 2020 underwent two surgeries, made a brief return, only to need a third operation.
He tried his best to battle through that, but soon found that it was time to listen to his body.
On Friday, with the other members of tennis’ Big 4 by his side, the founding father of the sport’s golden generation wept as he bid adieu to a career that has given him everything. But along with him there were tears in the eyes of his younger peers. His rivalries with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic brought out the best in them (and in him) – they knew they’d have to dig deep against Federer to get a win.
The younger guard – Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini – seemed taken in by all of it as they watched the emotional Federer family embrace Roger.
Djokovic called it “the most beautiful moment” he had every experienced.
The journey began as a ball boy at the Basel Indoor event. Along the way he blossomed from that pony-tailed talent to a charismatic personality. If the term ‘image is everything’ haunted Andre Agassi, Federer lived by it. Articulate and courteous, off-court. Stylishly aggressive, on it.
After 24 years at the top, with a 1251-275 tour record, Federer was ready to hang up the racquet. It didn’t matter if his last match was a three-set doubles loss to Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock at the Laver Cup, his brainchild. That will remain an insignificant footnote at the end of a remarkable career.
And just as it panned out at the O2 Arena, as Federer readied himself to walk into the sunset, with his young family by his side, it ended in a flood of emotion. Just the way it all started in 2003 at Centre Court in Wimbledon.