Roger Federer – Talent, Icon, Hero
Federer’s professional tennis career was dynamic – constantly shifting, altering, and accruing over time. But does his evolution reflect our own perceptions of the great man?
Three months after Roger Federer ceased being a professional tennis player, I have come to write about it.
Immediately giving any real or penetrative thought on the subject didn’t feel natural. Beyond stating the obvious – that he had retired – there didn’t seem much else to say.
What else was there to say? The metaphorical death of his ATP and grand slam circuit life upset me. In just a few weeks, a man I had seen only through clips and videos as someone to emulate on the court while I busied myself with my matches had quickly become a role model.
And yet, in that short space of time, the psychological journey of how I viewed Federer mirrored his career.
At first, he was observed as a prodigious talent, a rare player whose abilities might come once in a generation. He was crowd-pleasing as he was unique, curating a brand of tennis that spanned his volleying predecessors to the Agassi-era of baseline hitters.
During the construction of a powerful hegemony over Wimbledon in the first decade of the century, tennis and Federer started to become inseparable – a physical embodiment of the game itself; Roger was transfigured into an idol of the sport to which he dedicated his life. In the end, with the almost impossible feat of his 2017 comeback, Federer became a hero.
He was a skilled and elegant player who executed the best tennis on the planet and rose above dangerous forces threatening his permanent exit. Winning three more majors after four years consolidated the mythos and fervour that surrounded him.
By then, whatever he did after that was immaterial – Federer had already gone down as one of, if not the greatest of all time.
Technically, Federer’s tennis was exquisite. From an early start, his trainer Pierre Paganini instilled the finest details into Roger’s footwork, meaning he could take tiny steps incredibly quickly, timing his strokes to perfection.
Earlier at Federer’s teenage training base of Ecublens, his coaches noticed no apparent weaknesses. He naturally had a complete and all-round game on the serve, return, volleys and groundstrokes.
Later at grand slams, his endless abilities became a puzzle for his rivals. Federer’s complete game meant he could defend against any attack while seeding doubt in opponents’ minds about which strategy he would deploy next.
Stopping Leyton Hewitt, a fellow Wimbledon champion, from winning the US Open in 2004 cemented Federer as a player apparently impossible to beat and dominant from the baseline or forecourt.
Federer vs Hewitt, 2004 US Open Final
Federer’s appetite for risk and creativity meant he would aim for lines or corners with little margin for error. Match after match, what was risky to most players was commonplace for Federer. High-percentage points were magically changed into reliable winners.
Mentally, Federer assumed victory, an assured confidence that was paradoxically calming and relentlessly bullish simultaneously. Don’t bother trying to put Federer in a tight spot during a rally – a flick of the wrist or a playful trick shot would restore his dominance instantly.
Federer’s run of five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 2003 to 2007, and his sixth in 2009, transformed him from a talent and key player to an icon.
Where else but Wimbledon, the archetypal setting for lawn tennis, would Federer become most associated with the sport? It wasn’t just that Federer played well but that he fitted into all the milieu Wimbledon had to offer.
His natural Swiss charm and ease were not a million miles away from the English gentility and tradition of SW19.
If tennis was a gentleman’s sport, Federer was the ultimate competitor, releasing an aggressive game of power and risk confined to a pristine, sun-drenched court. Here, Federer was most at home, being able to serve and volley while having robust baseline exchanges if he wished.
His repeated success at the tournament left no doubt to many that he was now the greatest of all time, at least on grass. Even losing to Rafael Nadal in the 2008 final did not dim his standing at that place.
As camera lights flashed in the London gloaming during the trophy presentation, Nadal had equalled but not supplanted Federer’s brilliance that year.
Later in 2009, the Swiss’s ousting of Andy Roddick in the final was destructive as it was frenetic.
Federer vs Roddick, 2009 Wimbledon Final
The fast court and hot weather made him hit with zest. Meaningful, too, was the statistical relationship Federer now had with tennis.
His 2009 Wimbledon victory surpassed Pete Sampras’s record major count of fifteen. Earlier that year at Roland Garros, Federer had completed the career grand slam, winning at least one of all four tournaments.
At the ATP Finals, Federer was anointed, again and again, year-end number one for 2004 to 2007 and 2009. His track record and his successes at Wimbledon had inextricably bonded tennis to Federer, becoming a human facsimile of the sport.
Yet the sweetest aspect of Federer’s career evolution would have its origins in defeat. After his 2012 Wimbledon victory against Andy Murray and a succession of grand slam final losses, Federer did not win another major for four years.
Prematurely, commentators wildly conjectured about retirement while Federer nursed a knee injury and underwent surgery following a 2016 Wimbledon exit against Milos Raonic.
In a stunning comeback, Federer used the time to improve his backhand, taking the ball on the rise, hitting it flatter and with more power.
Confused and confounded, well-practised opponents found themselves on the receiving end of Federer’s genius. One after one, he arranged for their departure at the 2017 Australian Open, having not played for six months.
Federer vs Nadal, 2017 Australian Open Final
With Nadal on the verge of beating Federer in the final, at 3-1 in the fifth set, the Swiss master had his back against the wall.
With the resolve and grit that lay just beneath his grace, Federer heroically danced around his backhand and hit powerful inside-out forehands that stunned Nadal.
In the air of a New Testament miracle, Federer had tricked defeat, delivering himself a fantastic victory. Serving his way to set up match point, he won his eighteenth grand slam title.
Such was Federer’s journey through the sport that my view of him altered along the same path. What started by looking at him as someone to learn from and improve ended up looking to him as the definitive role model and hero.
His 2017 victory in Melbourne is the ultimate source of encouragement and determination. No matter the situation, and even in the face of defeat, we only have to give our all to succeed.
What has your relationship with Federer and his career been like? Has he been a role model for just tennis or other areas of life? Leave your comments below.
I first saw Roger in1998 Wimbledon. Started following his 2002 and in 2012 went to all his matches around the circuit. I was there for his last match last September and cried like a child
RF ALWAYS AND FOREVER ❤️ 💓
Heroic roll model indeed. We are lucky to have witnessed such consistent elegance at the peak of performance. To have done so with skill and psychological self-mastery is the gold of a legend. We all come away as better people because of his existence.
The one and only to make me set watching tennis first of my importants
Jonathan, There is a really annoying banner that shows up now and blocks my ability to read on the iPhone. It says “Do not sell or share my information.” Can this go somewhere else please. Thank you Stuart
Can you send me a screenshot as I’m not sure what you mean…
Well written piece. It’s strange without his matches to look forward to, draws to look at , and so on. I like what you wrote about the fact he went for the lines all the time. That 2017 AO finals is the crowning highlight (the IW and Miami straight settings of Nadal were pretty good too).
I wish the 2017 Federer had a chance to play Djokovic . He couldn’t really solve him on hard courts that last stretch of years, apart from London 2019 in the round robin.