For several reasons, the past few weeks have been eventful in the world of sports. Magnus Carlsen resigned after making a single move in a chess match against Hans Neimann. Deepti Sharma’s decision to go through with the “Mankand” run-out of Charlotte Dean in the India vs England ODI Cricket series has been the subject of much discussion. Jhulan Goswami, a former Indian cricket captain, announced her retirement. Carlos Alcaraz, who won his first tennis major at US open a little while ago, is now the newly minted world number one — perhaps, the youngest male player to do so. Serena Williams bade farewell to tennis as did former England-midfielder Fabian Delph to football. Eventful, therefore, does not fully capture the essence of these developments.
Amidst all these, what had a profound impact on me was Roger Federer’s retirement. As much as I always knew this day would come, I dreaded it and almost wanted to believe that he’d never hang his boots. Federer, to me, has always been invincible — yes, even through 2010 to 2019 :)
Growing up, tennis was never part of my everyday. Aside from being an extremely expensive sport, tennis was simply never part of conversation or my imagination. Much like most Indian families, mine cared for cricket and football. I understood neither; I was indifferent to them. My love for tennis, something that I have nurtured over the 20 years or so, was triggered by accident.
I remember flipping through TV channels as a ten-year old, and suddenly stumbling upon Roger Federer playing. While the details of that match are blurry, I distinctly remember that it was not telecast live. Instead, it was a re-telecast of an ATP tournament from 2002. I remember his opponent grunting and huffing, while Federer moved like a feather, barely making any noise. The contrast stood out to me. Something about the way he was playing — something I am still unsure of — made me pause and watch intently. Despite being ignorant of the rules of the game, I decided to stay put and watch. It was at that moment, I’d like to believe, that a love for this sport, unbeknownst to me, bloomed. Though I never discussed tennis with friends or family at that juncture, I kept track of his career.
Athleticism aside, what I loved about Federer’s game was its inherent poetry — something many people have alluded to in the past. His game had a unique rhythm or metre, a distinct flavour and most importantly, an element of surprise. For instance, the SABR move (Sneak Attack By Roger) introduced in 2015 reflects exactly this. Roger throws off his opponent by moving up the court to receive the second serve and then proceeding to volley (of course, there are times he didn’t). Controversy aside, this tactic indeed transformed the game: One always had to guess if the move was in play or not.
Similarly, in his 2005 Tennis Masters Cup semifinal match against Gaston Gaudio, who was then World No 9, Federer “didn’t put a foot wrong”. Though Federer won the match 6–0; 6–0, the numbers do not truly show you the fight Gaudio put up. In the first set, for instance, after Federer broke Gaudio’s serve resulting in a 2–0 lead, the latter had the opportunity to break back in the very next game — the only break point Roger faced in the whole match. But, three crucial errors from his side meant that Federer not only held onto his serve but also managed to dominate the set. In that match, Gaudio managed to hit just 3 winners and save only 4 of the 10 break points he faced. The unforced error (UFE) statistics, however, is closer. Federer made 16 UFEs to Gaston’s 21. To say Federer glided through the match would be an understatement. As one watches the highlights of the game, one can’t but be enamoured by the precision of his shots (e.g., drop shots from behind the baseline), the aces along the T, and the angles he went for. Every shot was carefully crafted.
It is important to contextualise this particular match. The Masters Cup features the best players. Moreover, Gaudio is a Grand Slam champion — he had won the Roland Garros just the previous year, in 2004, after having saved match points. In other words, no one expected this match to be so one-sided and Gaudio was, by no means, an ‘easy player’. Federer’s game that day, in addition to showing how dominant he was, highlighted another important aspect: How to handle a victory after double-bagle-ing your opponent. He did not yell, pump his fist or clap. Instead, he walked to Gaudio shook hands and was expressed his joy in a subdued manner. To consider your opponent, while celebrating one’s victory isn’t always obvious to everyone. Federer has always shown that consideration — both in victories and losses.
In the years since then, people close to me would learn of my passion for tennis — a game I never learned to play — and my admiration of Roger Federer’s game. As I have stated earlier, to me, his game was art. He moved with unbelievable lightness and had a repertoire of shots in his quiver, which always managed to push the bar of the game higher. His on-court and off-court behaviour only made me appreciate him more. I remember as a 15 year-old watching the 2007 Wimbledon final with bated breath, and breaking down in 2008 when Nadal defeated Federer. To date, this is the only Wimbledon match I resist rewatching.
2008, for the first time, allowed me to see that Federer cannot always dominate men’s tennis. Despite being a tough season, he ended the year as World No 2, ceding the No 1 position to Nadal, thus ending his streak of staying at the top for 237 consecutive weeks. Moreover, Federer also took his total grand slam tally to 13, one shy of Pete Sampras’ record, and won the Olympic Gold for doubles (with Stan Wawarinka). Looking back, I wondered why everyone was so disappointed with what he achieved in 2008. But the era of Federer’s dominance was indeed waning. In 2009, he sure did bounce back: Not only by winning the once elusive French Open, where he defeated Robin Söderling, but also by breaking Sampras’ all time record by clinching his 5th Wimbledon title.
To limit Roger Federer’s career to the tenacity with which he broke records would be a mistake. Of course, he has been contributing to society whether as a Goodwill Ambassador or through his Foundation. But more importantly, there is much we can learn from his game — lessons that apply beyond the world of tennis. My personal favourite — a game I replay in my mind whenever I feel bogged down — is the 2001 Wilmbledon match against Pete Sampras. When the going did get tough for me — be it because I had to change schools once again, had to perform well in exams I thought were too tough for me, or even writing my doctoral dissertation — I approached them by emulating what Federer did in that game. In the fourth round of the 2001 Wimbledon match, Pete Sampras, who was the favourite to win the tournament, was defeated by Roger Federer in five sets. A four-time defending champion and ranked No 1 in the world, Sampras was supposed to have an ‘easy’ win. And for a moment, it did look like Sampras could potentially emerge as the winner. But, Federer prevailed. That match taught me how not to take odds seriously, how to continuously push yourself even when things seemed improbable and how to approach high-stress situations. I will never know what Roger Federer was thinking when he was playing one of tennis’s all-time-greats. But, what I saw inspired me. I learned the importance of composure. His game instilled in me a thirst for perfection and creativity, and to never take success for granted. Despite never lifting a tennis racket, tennis became a major part of my life. It influenced my thought processes and how I approached adversity.
Roger Federer, therefore, has been a major influence. Of course, he is not a one-man-army. He has a team that makes it possible for him to achieve what he has achieved: 20 Grand Slams, 103 career titles, 2 Olympic Medals, and more. While it is indisputable that he has inspired a generation of tennis players, it is also true that his influence has gone beyond the game. Though I find his retirement a moment of sadness — especially since I will now never be able to watch him play an ATP tournament — I also realise that this is the perfect ending for an illustrious career.
So, for one last time, “Allez, Federer!”.