“Just look at it over there. Look at that.” Those last nine words were among the many thousands that made up David Foster Wallace’s famous 2006 essay “Federer as Religious Experience.” After explaining the mathematical genius and philosophical significance of the young man already known as the Maestro, the late novelist chose to conclude with the simplest appeal of the sports fan:
Watch Federer play.
Watch him, Wallace might have said, rise on the toe of his right foot like a ballerina and pass through the long arc of his backhand. Watch him pounce on his forehand and follow it forward in one smooth motion. Watch him start his serve easily and finish it powerfully. Watch him stick a ball with the quietest clubhead. Watch Federer blend grace, purpose, aesthetics and achievement.
Over the past quarter-century, from his ATP debut in 1998 to his final bow at his own event, the Laver Cup, in 2022, most of us have seen Federer every possible opportunity. While he may not be crowned GOAT in the game, Federer should remember something equally important: few players have changed tennis for the better in so many ways.
It made the game more attractive to watch. It made the men’s tour a friendlier place to play. He brought a new emotional openness, both in victory and in defeat. Help raise his colleagues’ wages. It has attracted millions of news fans. It showed that a hero’s reign should not end at 30 or even 35.
Federer has been with us for so long, some may not appreciate how much the professional game has evolved during his two-decade reign. In that time, he helped usher in the golden age of the 21st century, raising the bar on what we thought was possible in tennis.
Play the beautiful game
“I thought tennis was boring back then, it’s all about the serve, and here’s this guy who makes it cool again,” says longtime Federer fan Caroline Potter, reflecting on her first sightings of the Swiss in the early 2000s. XXI century.
Those words sum up why so many Fed fans have become Fed fans: It saved them from a future of service wars and power play, which is where men’s tennis seemed to be headed at the turn of the century. One of the rocket shooters, Pete Sampras, was leaving the stage, while the other, Andy Roddick, was entering. At Wimbledon in 2003, the 20-year-old American, who won at Queen’s Club the week before, looked poised to snatch the baton from Sampras. Federer also won the Wimbledon title in Halle, but Roddick’s sound serve, rather than Federer’s old prowess, seemed like the future.
The collision between them came in the semi-finals, and the referee was quick. In a winning streak, Federer permanently turned the Wimbledon crowd on with his elegant command of center court. With 17 aces, he held his own with Roddick’s serve, and was even better when the rallies began. A backhand with a winner’s shoes brought gasps from the crowd and a wry smile from Roddick.
Two days later, Federer dismantled Mark Philippoussis with the same varied arsenal to win the title. By beating the game’s two biggest servers on grass, Federer showed that the future of tennis wouldn’t be a long battle rock after all. His game was art, but no longer just for art’s sake.
“He had all the ingredients, and he could manage it,” Jim Courier says of Federer. “Tennis classics could maintain a relationship with him, because the genesis of the sport seemed to flow through his game.”
Not everyone will or can’t play like Federer. But he occupied space for touching, slicing, netting, a one-handed backhand, and a proactive tactical sense. Tennis didn’t have to be divided into power treadmills and basic treadmills; You can combine the best of both styles. Today we can see his legacy of exciting brand tennis in all the courts shown each week. This includes new player Carlos Alcaraz. The Spaniard hails from the same country as Rafael Nadal, but considers Federer a role model. You can see him in every topspin front drive, and accurate drop shot, that he makes.
Make a room at the top
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, fans longed for a return to the era of the bad boy, those wild western days when John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors yelled and spit their way to stardom. Animosity was what people wanted, right? This was the prevailing view when Federer began his first serious rivalry with Nadal. At first, Roger and Rafa seemed ready to play along.
By the time they first met, in Miami in 2004, defeat had rarely been in Federer’s texts. He was No. 1, and in the middle of a season of three major titles. But that didn’t faze the 17-year-old Nadal, who Vamos powered his way to victory 6-3, 6-3. Federer could see that there was something different and challenging about the “high bounce” made by the young lefty.
“This is a struggle I had today,” said Federer. “I tried to get out of it, but I couldn’t.”
For two years, Federer mostly failed to find a way out of Nadal’s trap. By the time they met in the final in Rome in 2006, the Spaniard was leading head-to-head 4-1. Federer confirmed that he was getting “a step closer” with each match, but admitted he still had to “change it up next time” and be more aggressive. Federer made good on that pledge in the five-hour, five-set Rome epic. He controlled the gatherings. He netted 84 times. Leading 4-1 in the fifth set, 5-3 in the fifth set tiebreak, and has two match points. However, he let Nadal escape with the final four points and the title.
Up until this point, Federer and Nadal had respect for each other. In Rome, Federer let his frustrations show. The handshake was as quick and icy as the match that had been long and hot. Afterwards, Federer called Nadal’s game “one-dimensional” and said he caught his uncle Toni “practicing a little but a lot again today”. The next day, Rafa fired back: “He has to learn how to be a gentleman even when he loses,” he said of Federer.
Were they going to repeat the feuds of tennis’ past? The Associated Press opined in the spring of that year: “It wouldn’t hurt TV ratings or the buzz factor if there was a little bit of hostility.”
Later that month, Federer and Nadal couldn’t avoid each other at the Laureus Sports Awards in Barcelona. Federer was nominated for “Sportsman of the Year” and Nadal for “Newcomer of the Year”. Both of them won, and they applauded each other. More importantly, that moment kick-started their rivalry, taking the men’s match down a new, more peaceful course.
“We sat at the same table with the Princess of Spain between us, and we noticed it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Federer said.
Nadal always knew how good Federer was; Now, after Rome, Federer knew Nadal wasn’t going anywhere. He also knew there was room for these two very different people at the top. Tennis only became stronger because of him.
Get away from the court
Before Federer, winning first place and winning the ATP Sportsmanship Award was difficult. McEnroe, Connors, Borg, Sampras, Lendl, Agassi, Hewitt: none of them claim this honor. By contrast, since 2004, Federer has won this award, which is voted on by players, 13 times. Perhaps most important is how Federer uses his popularity.
When he joined the players’ council for the tour in 2008, he was elected Chairman, a position he held until 2014. It was an eventful period. During the near-disastrous and rain-soaked 2011 US Open, long-simmering complaints about scheduling, safety, and prize money erupted. Federer responded by mustering the influence that he and his fellow Big Four members – Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – had gained over the previous half-decade.
Together, they helped negotiate significant increases in prize money, from first round to final, in the major leagues. They pushed the US Open to build a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, and switch to a fairer schedule. In 2013, Federer commented that drug testing was being done less frequently than in the past, and called for bio-passport testing and storage. It was introduced by the ITF shortly after.
“I think we were able to smooth things over a bit, because things were really hectic when I joined the council,” said the Swiss diplomat. “Stability was very important to the leagues, to the players, to the board, and to the board. It just felt better to work that way.”
Since 2014, Federer has continued to use his status for the sake of tennis. He teamed up with Bill Gates to organize six “Matches for Africa,” which raised millions of dollars. He started a new agency, Team 8, which represents Coco Gauff, among others. He toured South America to gushing crowds with Juan Martin del Potro, and played Alexander Zverev in front of a record crowd of 42,000 in a bullring in Mexico City.
Finally, there is the Laver Cup. For years, people around tennis have asked why the sport couldn’t stage its own version of the Ryder Cup golf. Starting in 2017, Federer and his agent Tony Godsick have achieved just that. The Laver Cup accomplished the seemingly impossible: It brought diverse A-list ATP teams together in an untested event, showcasing their personalities in a fan-friendly format. It was an instant success and a testament to Federer’s standing with the fans and fellow players.
“His affinity for optimism could have led him astray by encouraging him to avoid the thorny aspects of being a professional,” says Christopher Cleary, author of The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer. Instead, he took it all in and learned to find pleasure in areas that might not have been his natural forte.
“Federer wanted to be free in all aspects of the game, and I think he came to enjoy the game more.”
Keeping daddy’s time at bay
The rally started the way so many have between Federer and Nadal over the past 13 years. Rafa sent a high forehand to Roger’s backhand. This time, however, instead of backing him up, Federer responded by pushing Nadal behind the baseline with a twisting backhand of his own. Then he moved forward, took the next backhand on the upswing, and sent it in with the cross for a glowing, game-changing winner, ultimately reviving his career.
“I asked myself to play freely,” Federer said. “Be free with your head, be free with your shots, and go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.”
Federer was rewarded with a break of serve in the fifth set, and four matches later, with his long-awaited 18th Grand Slam title, at the 2017 Australian Open. He was 35, returning from knee surgery, and hadn’t won a major in five years. , and he has yet to beat Nadal in a grand slam in 10. But rather than bow to father’s time, Federer used his time to develop a firmer, backhand. This will help him achieve three more wins over Nadal, the Wimbledon title, and a 51-4 record in 2017. The following season, he will become the oldest male Grand Slam champion in the Open Era, and the oldest male ATP No. 1 champion.
“It shattered any fears we had, and it completely reset the level of what might lie ahead,” Darren Cahill said of that Australian Open.
Federer also broke the age ceiling for male tennis champions. He showed his peers that they can keep winning and improving well into their 30s. Before Federer, we were fortunate to see our favorite players at their peak performances for 10 years. After Federer and his recently retired co-stars, Serena Williams’ two-decade career may be the norm.
In his twenties, Federer’s accomplishments are a result of what a truly unique athlete and athlete can do. In his 30s, his story is becoming more global. We can all relate to an aging hero, and we can all learn from someone who turns that process on its head and reveals new elements of their talent that they may not have known existed. Rather than a story of inevitable decline, Federer’s later years were more about the odds that can come with age.
However, even 41-year-old Federer, after three surgery-filled years, has had to raise the white flag in 2022. From now on, we’ll see him in full flight only in the highlights; Fortunately, he gave us 20-year-old Federer clips to choose from. So I’ll close by repeating David Foster Wallace’s advice: “Just look at it below. Look at that.”
Federer, just like the rest of us, is going to grow up. But the way he played the game would never do that. –Tennis.com