We are living in a time when the expected surprised. In life there is always an end. Still. We know it. We anticipate that. We try to prepare for it. But when the passage of time inevitably forces a chapter to close, the reality of it all still stuns like a thunderbolt.
Roger Federer was not going to play tennis forever. Aged 41 and injured one after another in recent years, the sand was rapidly falling to the bottom of the hourglass. Even great champions are retiring.
But, like Serena Williams, Federer had altered the expected arc of a tennis player’s career. Over their four decades, they continued to rack up titles and break records, cementing their greatness. In their five decades, they were both, incredibly, ever present.
If their longevity allowed us to appreciate their talents, to savor each tournament and each passing year, it also lulled us into a false sense of security, to believe that they would always be there, even if the injuries caused extended absences in subsequent years. They would be back. They always came back.
Federer won his first of 20 Grand Slams in 2003, a time when people were excited about the latest Nokia phone, and before the US and UK started a war in Iraq. A professional career that spanned 24 years, Federer had become a constant in our sporting lives. As we all grew older – quietly and slowly – Federer was still playing, still winning, still defying time, making us believe that neither the world nor we had changed. this a lot.
But on Thursday – two weeks after Williams played what should be his last professional game – we were forced to acknowledge that we were entering a new era.
“I have to recognize when it’s time to end my competitive career,” Federer said as he announced he would be ending his career after next week’s Laver Cup in London.
“I worked hard to get back to full competitive form. But I also know the capabilities and limitations of my body, and its message to me lately has been clear.
The Swiss hasn’t played competitively since Wimbledon last summer, after which he underwent third knee surgery which finally forced one of tennis’ most incredible careers to end without the shine it perhaps deserved.
Federer was the first man to accumulate 20 Grand Slam titles. Yet no other man has won as many of his eight Wimbledon titles, played as many (429) or won as many Grand Slam matches (369). He leaves the sport with 103 titles, second only to Jimmy Connors in the open era, and over $130 million in prize money.
During a five-year span at the turn of the century, when he won 12 of 18 Grand Slams, Federer redefined the meaning of tennis brilliance in the men’s game.
Many of the outstanding records he set were broken by Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, the other outstanding talents who then rose to prominence to make the last 15 years the golden age of the sport.
Federer had spent 310 weeks as world number one; Djokovic surpassed this feat. Nadal now has 22 major titles, Djokovic 21.
It’s likely that all of Federer’s records will one day be broken, but the numbers only reflect a fraction of Federer’s genius. A Google search of its stats doesn’t explain its greatness or appeal. He is a man who has won the fan favorite award at the year-end ATP Awards for 19 consecutive years.
Federer is praised not only because he won, but for the way he won, for the way he played. No one has graced a court like him. Will we see his fellows again? Maybe, but he would be a player.
Has there been a better forehand in the game? A softer reverse? A more efficient service? In the men’s game at least, as Williams’ serve is widely considered the best there is. Has anyone played a sport with such beauty?
“It’s like a symphony”, is how former Williams coach Patrick Mouratoglou described Federer’s style a few years ago.
“No one will ever play tennis like that, impossible. It’s just perfection. The movement, the timing, everything is perfect and it’s amazing.
Acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, in his 2006 New York Times essay “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience”, described Federer’s forehand as a “big liquid whip”. Federer’s game genius, Wallace explained, was lost on television.
Federer was a young man when the essay was written, but already, at 25, people were talking about the greatest who ever lived, and not just Wallace.
There were good players on the circuit, sure, but no one could live consistently with Federer’s shooting and his intelligence on the pitch. He was so good.
Six years before Wallace’s essay was published, no one thought Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles would be broken – then along came Federer, who was later joined by Nadal and Djokovic to form the ‘Big Three’ “.
Now, of course, there are those who will say Nadal turned out to be the greatest of all time, or that Djokovic is a better all-rounder. Maybe maybe.
The balance of power may have shifted, but what’s undeniable is that neither Nadal nor Djokovic are as aesthetically pleasing as the Swiss.
Watching Federer play in 3D is – and there’s still time to talk about his style in the present tense – to be mesmerized. It was, sorry, it’s special, a I was there moment that can be told, and told again, to the grandchildren or to whoever wants to hear it. No one has made playing sport at the highest level so easy.
The annals of sports history will place Federer alongside Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and, of course, Serena Williams. Game changers all who have transcended their sports, who will be talked about for years after retirement, inspiring one generation after another.
Tennis is entering a new future. Federer will soon be retired, Nadal, at 36, is unlikely to play at the same age as his friend and rival, such has been his injury history, and Djokovic is 35, still capable of racking up more major titles but aging nonetheless. .
We knew one day it would happen. But, as we know, it takes time to adapt to change.