Imagine these :
Scenario 1 :
Roger Federer serving to the ad side : he serves a flat serve out wide. The returner stretches out to his backhand side and somehow manages to get the return back in play. The return lands somewhat midcourt heading towards Federer’s backhand side with the angle. Federer skips forward and to the left and within a couple of steps he is in position to hit the forehand. He holds the forehand just a moment and
Scenario 1.1 :
The opponent starts moving to his right and Federer accelerates on the forehand hitting a perfect inside out forehand winner behind him.
Scenario 1.2 :
The opponent holds his ground and Roger guides an inside in forehand into the open court for a winner.
Scenario 2 :
Roger Federer is engaged in a baseline rally. He gets a decently hit ball a couple of metres to the left of the centre line as his opponent is looking to rally to his backhand. It is a decent ball but not quite hit with massive pace or depth. Quick as a flash, Roger skips to his left running around the backhand and unleashes a big inside out forehand. The opponent scrambles to his left and somehow manages to get a racket on the ball. The ball loops back to the other side. Roger, who was already closing in on the net, takes it mid-flight and hits a drive volley winner into the open court. In a flash, the point is over with a lightning quick two shot combo.
If you are like me, the above scenarios would have played out vividly in your head. You probably would not have even needed to read the entire thing to fully visualize it. You have seen it happen over and over again, and it is deeply imprinted in your memory bank.
I am not sure exactly how to quantify the “if you are like me” statement above. But just for reference, I am an ardent Roger Federer fan and have been for about 20 years.
This is not going to be the most nuanced or professional article I have ever written. I am not writing this as a writer/journalist/content creator, I am writing this as a fan. Usually, before writing an article, I have a clear mental (sometimes illustrated) roadmap of exactly how I want the article to go. Not today! I have a platform where I can freely express my thoughts, and I just felt the urge to take advantage of that.
I followed tennis casually for a while in the early 2000s. It was Federer’s ascent to the top of the game, Federer getting to the business end of every tournament that quickly transformed me from a casual to a hardcore follower of tennis.
A few hours ago, Roger Federer announced that he would retire from professional tennis after the upcoming Laver Cup. Since then, scenarios like those I’ve described above are just flashing back endlessly in my mind – and with incredible clarity. I could easily describe maybe 25-30 (maybe more?) such examples. For someone who was known for his incredible variety and versatility, Federer sure had nailed down some extremely repeatable and recognizable patterns of play.
Yes, my mind has been on an endless montage of Federer serves, forehands, backhands, slices, returns, volleys, drop shots, lobs, tweeners – all in vivid clarity. And yes, it is absolutely frickin beautiful – that silky smooth service motion, the short sharp steps to get into position for a shot, the little wrist lag before he accelerates on his groundstrokes! Everything is as graceful as it is lethal.
I have also been visualizing the different versions of Federer – the early career more upright service motion, and the later career version with more knee and back bend; the super intense lightning quick footwork of the earlier years, and the bigger hitting more stand-and-deliver style of the later years! I have witnessed it all, I have fallen in love with it all, and I will forever remember it all.
While I was making my lunch, in my mind Federer was blocking back a massive Andy Roddick serve as if it was me serving; he was bringing in his opponent with a short slice and then unloading on the next shot with a big deep forehand; he was catching his opponent completely unawares with an incredibly disguised inside out forehand drop shot… Ok, you get the point.
To be fair, I am not in a state of shock or anything of the sort. Seeing his struggles over the last few years, I think we all expected or at least recognized it as a real possibility that this moment was coming sooner rather than later. Of course, I am sad today. Any tennis fan would be, let alone Federer fans. But more than that, I am grateful and content, and I have been for many years. I have received unadulterated joy at watching this incredible sportsperson whom I have grown to love for longer than I would have thought possible. I have seen him achieve an unprecedented level in tennis during his peak years. And I have seen him stick around until the ripe old age of 41, competing and holding his own against younger players, fighting through injuries and obstacles and staging comebacks that no one ever believed possible – sometimes including himself. I could not have asked any more of one man.
When I sat down to write this, the one thing I knew is that I was not going to harp on his records and numbers – firstly, don’t worry, there will be a lot of content discussing those in the coming days. The ATP has already posted a reel, an infographic and an article discussing them. Maybe I might get in on the act too on a separate article. Or maybe not, I do not have any plans yet. But more importantly, Federer touched me deeper than that. In many ways, that is the beauty of sports – while you chase the destination, what impacts you more is the journey. When everything is said and done, the passion, the moments, the memories embody greater value than the entries in the database. While my mind is flitting through memories of Federer, it is hard to even think about numbers and records right now. Of course, those entries have their value, and the name Federer will always be present in the tennis record books – from records where he stands alone and it is hard to see anyone coming close to in our lifetimes, to ones which he narrowly missed out on, to ones which he held and has been subsequently pushed down from the top spot. But these records are far away from the most important thing.
Speaking about the journey, Federer has led his fans on a long, wonderful and rewarding journey. During his best years, there was a level of confidence I have not felt consistently – tournament after tournament, year after year – in any other athlete before or since. As an example, I remember the Australian Open 2007 was advertised on television back home as “Can anyone stop Roger Federer?” The scary thing was not just how unique that is, but the confidence with which we (at least, I) knew no one could. In the semifinals, he destroyed an in-form Andy Roddick in what I consider the single greatest display of tennis I have ever seen. The final was against the mercurial Fernando Gonzalez, who in that tournament was peaking in a way few players have ever peaked in a tournament. And I could not watch the final because of other commitments. But I still remember how calm I was about the final – I did not worry about the result for even a moment. I came back home, and checked the scores, and Roger had won in straight sets – he won the whole tournament without dropping a set. And it was no big deal – nothing out of the ordinary.
10 years later, at the same venue, but on a very different court and under very different circumstances, Roger lifted the trophy again. This time he was 35 and had just come back from a 6-month injury lay-off following knee surgery. He was not even considered a contender here. Before the tournament he had stated that he would consider a R16 appearance a successful appearance. He came through three five-setters in a famously difficult draw, becoming the first player ever to beat 4 top-10 players to win a slam, the final being a 5-setter against arguably his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal. This was unexpected, this was unprecedented. I was not as calm this time as I was 10 years ago. When the TV screen showed the final hawk-eye challenge land in, I instinctively jumped up from my sofa hitting my knee on the handle sofa in front of me (yeah the sofas were arranged in a kind of L shape). My knee hurt for the next one week. I did not mind.
It’s the game that first attracts you to a sportsperson. Federer had the most attractive game I had ever seen; I was clearly hooked. But once you start following a player more and more, other factors also start coming into play. You start to notice how they carry themselves, both on and off the court. You listen to their speeches and press conferences. And I am sure I am not the only one would say that Federer’s personality, charisma, on- and off-court behavior only served to make me an even bigger fan. 13 Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Awards and 19 straight ATP Fans’ Favourite awards (every year since 2003) suggest that fans around the world and his fellow professionals are on board with that statement.
I am personally not a huge fan of the “larger-than-life” vibe. I tend to gravitate towards people – even if they are celebrities – that I can personally identify with. Of course, I know that Federer is the very definition of larger-than-life. He is the biggest celebrity that tennis has ever produced, and tennis will forever be grateful for that. But when you see his demeanour, see him move about, hear him talk, it does not come across that way. He is just a normal guy with extraordinary tennis skills.
Roger seems like the kind of person I would love to have as a friend. I would love to sit down for a drink with him for a couple of hours and talk about anything and everything, including but not limited to tennis. I would love to exchange silly jokes with him. And he seems like someone who would be a very good friend to have to count on in difficult times.
One more thing that really helps me identify with Federer even more – he is a consummate tennis fan. Of course, he is a professional who has done it for a living. But he seems to love everything about the game, he follows everything that is going on, not just his own matches, gets excited by young players coming up and genuinely wants to see good tennis being played even when he is not playing. Yeah, he comes across as someone who would be great company to watch a tennis match with.
Listening to his retirement announcement, I could feel his emotions coming through at different points. It was sad at times. But overall, the retirement announcement was one that resonated with me, a content and extremely grateful fan. “I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on Earth. I was given a special talent to play tennis, and I did it at a level that I never imagined, for much longer than I ever thought possible,” Federer said. There is comfort in knowing that he is also content and is retiring without major regrets.
Of course, I will be following the Laver Cup to get one last glimpse of this great man that I have grown to love, admire and care about mostly from behind a television screen plying his trade for one last time.
And even after he is gone, I will be there behind the screen – and sometimes at stadiums – watching future generations of tennis players battle it out. Federer made me truly fall in love with the game. It is too late to quit now. But as I write this, I do wonder:
Will any other tennis player ever make me feel the way Roger Federer made me feel?