Roger Federer has been doing a slow, gentle fade for so long that it seems unfair he should now absent himself entirely.
If he wasn’t the greatest tennis player in history in terms of grim statistics, he was certainly the greatest tennis presence of our lifetime. Federer altered the way we think about tennis and, in turn, all sports.
When Federer played, it wasn’t just a very fit person running around after a ball. He turned sport into physical art. His court choreography, his seeming effortlessness and, most of all, his grace. In retrospect, his closest contemporaries weren’t the Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovics of the world. They were Martha Graham and Rudolf Nureyev.
Federer, 41, announced his retirement through a social media recording on Thursday. He’ll play in the next week’s Laver Cup – a jumped-up tennis exhibition – and then go.
Unlike Serena Williams’s recent game of ‘will she or won’t she?’, there were no outs in Federer’s announcement. He isn’t “evolving” away from the game. The coming tournament “will be my final ATP event.”
Federer did say he will continue to play tennis, but not for elite stakes. He specifically ruled out any return at a Grand Slam.
So that’s it.
It’s only when a great athlete leaves that you realize what they represent. It isn’t entertainment, or, at least, not just that. It’s an era. Federer wasn’t a tennis player. He was a time and a place.
He was at home nowhere and everywhere. If the best professional athletes are now global brands as much as they are people, Federer did that first.
Unplaceable in any specific national context – no one sees him and thinks ‘Switzerland’ – he became a citizen of whatever country he was in that week. When Federer was at Wimbledon, he was an honorary Brit. In China, an honorary Chinese. In the midst of any big city in the world you knew that if you looked up, you would see his face on a billboard.
He was supportive of all good causes in general, and of none specifically. At a time when it was still possible, he made capitalism cool and marketing easy – win Wimbledon, then slip on your Rolex.
Unfairly perhaps, he was the great athlete of the neo-liberal ascendence. You might call him the Barack Obama of tennis. Or maybe it’s the other way around?
That was down to his time. Federer rose in that untroubled moment between the end of the Cold War and the start of whatever war we’re in now.
He debuted in 1999, just as the internet was becoming omnipresent. Now intimately connected to six billion neighbours, people were looking for things to talk about that we all had in common. Sports was the obvious one. There aren’t many games that are understood and enjoyed everywhere. After soccer, there’s tennis.
Comes the moment, comes the man – has this ever been truer than in Federer’s case?
Sports was the lure, but it was Federer’s way in the world that hooked people. Call it a pleasant suavity; 007 with a racquet and a smile. If you wanted Federer to be your favourite athlete, then you could just tell he wanted to be that for you.
Wherever space he occupied, he always seemed the most at-ease person in it. You would watch him in news conferences after a crushing loss and could tell that he was enjoying himself. Having said it in English, he would happily say the same thing again in three or four other languages.
This air of general contentment never slipped. He never whined or played the victim. Over nearly 25 years, Federer never had a truly cross word for anyone.
Nowadays, many athletes cultivate this image of slightly detached cosmopolitanism. It’s work and that shows. For Federer, it came naturally. He was born to be observed.
Of the athletic ability, what else can you say? He didn’t reinvent tennis, but only because no one can play the way he did.
“I’d like to be in his shoes for one day to know what it’s like to play that way,” seven-time major champion Mats Wilander once said of him. You knew Federer was the greatest because all the best players, past and present, kept grabbing you by shoulders and insisting it was the case.
Don’t go where the puck is. Go where it will be. Federer brought that philosophy to his own sport. The difference between hockey and tennis is that Federer was the one deciding both things – where it is and where it will be three moves from now. A few opponents were his physical equal, but none was anywhere close to him strategically. The last few years of his career, as his body broke down, were a demonstration of just how much.
Some of this was also luck. Federer didn’t just get the right time. He also got the right company.
He replaced a king upon arriving (Pete Sampras). Then he had someone emerge who was nearly his equal (Nadal) to pace him through the rest of his career. Djokovic showed up in the second half to show you what Federer would have looked like with all of the talent, but none of the charisma.
In the end, when someone of Federer’s stature leaves, it isn’t about them. It’s about you. How you felt during the time they occupied. How they shaped that feeling and reflected it back at you. They were part of your life. Not the major part, but the soundtrack that plays in the background. When they go, it’s time to find some new music.
That’s why it’s so inexplicably sad. You don’t feel you’ve changed, but the world is changing around you. In this specific instance, probably not for the better.
Roger Federer had the enormous good fortune to be of a time of unparalleled calm and hopefulness. We were fortunate to have had the luxury to enjoy it through him.