It started with the name. Fe-de-rer. As an eight year old I thought it was weird with all the E’s and R’s in it. There were two other players back then with somewhat similar names – [Juan Carlos] Ferrero and [David] Ferrer – and it made things confusing. Until I finally thought of the name, I kept it simple – just look for the guy with the bandana and ponytail, the beads around his neck, the Wilson racquet, the Nike gear, and so on the one-handed backhand.
My first tennis hero was Pete Sampras after my parents introduced me to the sport at an early age. The American’s sluggish game was fascinating, but it was his dominance at Wimbledon that drew me. The spotless grass, the all-white clothing, the heritage, the style, no branding on the pitch and that beautiful men’s singles trophy… Wimbledon remains one of the finest sporting events unique to date. And Sampras’ record there set him apart.
Roger Federer had a few obvious similarities to Sampras – the Wilson racquet, the Nike gear and the one-handed backhand. For a child of an impressionable age, those little things mattered. I wanted to see him play and I was still trying to sort his name out in my head before finally that day in 2001 came. Federer, the guy with the pearls, had beaten Sampras at Wimbledon and right there I had a new hero.
Growing up with Federer enriched you with two things – the joy of seeing him in action and the many learnings from the way he went about his business in the glare of the constant spotlight on and off the pitch. And together they brought to life a journey that will leave you forever grateful.
Joy to watch Federer
When Federer was in the zone, he provided an unparalleled thrill for his fans. All of this success, based on a seemingly exceptionally simple playstyle, proved to be a heady mix. He was the rarest of the rare players who didn’t need a strong opponent to make a match thoroughly entertaining. His game was such that he didn’t need to be pressured to play his best. He simply blinded himself.
That big, booming forehand down the line, inside-out, inside-in, around the net post. That silky backhand with the devastating slice. That stylish serve movement and the consistency with which he found his places. The stunning volleys. The angles he created. The leisurely but incredibly efficient movement. It was all captivating.
There wasn’t an aspect of Federer’s technique that wasn’t beautiful. The fact that he complemented this with an aggressive playing style – taking the ball early and not letting himself be pushed back off the baseline – and his stoic demeanor made his games absolutely compelling.
Of course, there were a whole lot of those ridiculous shots too. Like the Lob winner in Dubai 2005 that left Andre Agassi quite upset, the slice/smash in Basel 2002 that made Andy Roddick throw his racquet over in disbelief, the drop shot in Miami 2017 that left Tomas Berdych so heavy on the wrong foot Some say he’s still standing, this tweener at the 2009 US Open against Novak Djokovic and the SABR. The list is long and you get the drift.
But that’s not all. There were the other little things about Federer on the pitch that were the icing on the cake. He loved hitting a tennis ball and had a penchant for artistry, so he combined those and often randomly tested the ball kids. He hit balls to the kids kneeling at the side of the net or even at the other end of the court, they smiled either way after catching or dropping him and the crowd applauded. It was the simplest thing, but added so much to its charm. Remember, he also started as a ball kid in Basel.
Then there were the interviews and the tears. His on-court interviews with Jim Courier at the Australian Open have a fan base of their own. No matter how tired he was after a game, he always stood there trying his best to keep up with the American’s incredible wit. And again, viewers were left with a blissful smile. Of course, there was also his inimitable grace, like at the 2017 Australian Open where he said he wouldn’t mind sharing the title with Rafael Nadal.
Tears have also been a constant, from his first major title in 2003 to his last in 2018. Tears of happiness, tears of sadness… just tears. Whether it was at the Australian Open in 2006, struggling to thank Rod Laver for the winners’ trophy, or three years later at the same venue when he was ‘killed’ with the runners-up trophy, he always wore his heart on his sleeve . It further humanized him and made his connection with the audience even more personal.
The many lessons learned from Federer
It’s impossible to imagine that Federer’s unparalleled popularity would have lasted so long if it was all about the heroics on the pitch. Over the years and decades of his professional career, perhaps the deciding factor was the class with which he performed.
One of the biggest lessons Federer taught in his career was how to deal with heartbreak. His thirst for victory was insatiable, there’s no denying it, 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 was the most nervous of the Big Three at crucial points. But that never deterred him. He mostly took the sport for what it was – just a sport. He kept coming back 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 put it on your chin, you keep going. You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There are just tons of them. Sort of like 2008 maybe, I’ll look back on it and think, well, it’s not that bad. It hurts right now and it should, like every defeat here at Wimbledon. I think it’s a mindset. I’m very strong in being able to keep going because I don’t want to be depressed because I really have a great tennis match.”
Another inspiring aspect of Federer’s personality that probably doesn’t get enough credit is how he’s divided his life. Be it tennis, fashion, brands, philanthropy or concern for his mental health.
He played game after game and never retired, but he also knew when to take breaks and regenerate. He had the most attractive game, but he was keen to make his attire attractive on the pitch too – from the jackets at Wimbledon to the all-black Darth Federer at the US Open. He backed a million products and carefully built his brand, which also allowed him to do great charity work from a young age. He founded the Roger Federer Foundation in 2003, which helps children in Africa advance their education, and his brand equity has played a crucial role in the growth of the sport of tennis over the past two decades. The gratitude he received from the tennis community after announcing his retirement is a testament to that.
Finally, there was the immense respect he had for the sport. From his early days on tour and at the dizzying heights, he never missed an opportunity to celebrate the sport’s rich history. He has cited Rod Laver, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Sampras countless times as his inspiration. He loved tennis and it was important to him to be a good role model. It was even reflected in the way he interacted with his peers, his juniors and the media. No matter how brutal the match or how poignant the question, he would provide measured, thoughtful answers. There was hardly any ego.
“I think everyone realized what a great tennis player he is, but I want to share a short story,” the former said said American player James Blake after the Indian Wells 2006 final. “About a few years ago I was injured in a hospital in Rome. It is at a time when everyone else is concentrating on their tennis and playing their best and I received a message in this hospital room from World No. 1 Roger Federer wishing me well.
In an increasingly divided world, Federer was a force that mostly only united. For his humility, the respect he showed for his sport, the efforts he made to be a great role model, the kindness he exuded throughout his career – he deserves to be celebrated forever. There will be new champions and of course life goes on. But every time there’s a discussion about the greatest or most influential athlete in history, I’ll go back to that name. And rest assured, I won’t fight to remember it anymore. His name is Roger Federer.
Thank you Roger Federer for a tennis experience that will last a lifetime
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