By Nick Carter
This was originally published on Nick Carter’s “Grounds Pass” blog back in April 2022. It has been edited in light of Roger Federer’s retirement.
I’m not exactly sure when I first watched Roger Federer play tennis. It would have been one of the Wimbledon finals he won in the 2000s. I remember being aware of his first two championship matches against Andy Roddick and then suddenly this other player called Rafael Nadal emerged as his rival. Before I was 13/14, I didn’t really ‘get’ tennis, other than I knew I wanted to have a go at it. I was more interested in pretending I was playing than actually watching it. I didn’t really know many players outside of the big names. To me though, Roger Federer was the coolest one. I was sold on his brand: sophisticated, traditional, graceful. He won the old-school way, and had this ability to outplay anyone at any given time. If I did watch him, it was at Wimbledon as I didn’t discover other majors until the 2007 French Open (where I was shocked to discover Nadal could outplay him). Because of my Wimbledon bias, to me he was the ultimate player in men’s tennis. None could compare.Embed from Getty Images
Off court, but more importantly on court, Federer just oozes smoothness. His forehand and single-handed backhand motions always seem so perfectly executed when he is completely dialled in. His serve is devastatingly accurate, hard for even the best returners to get a handle on. He is also just so fast across the court; blink and he’s already covered so much ground. Yet, he seems to do it without any obvious effort, unlike the charging bull of Nadal or the elastic stretches of Novak Djokovic. I guess the idea of precision and clear thinking in excellence have always appealed to me more in sports players. I also admire Federer’s steeliness on court. He shows little emotion, other than a desire, no, expectation that he will win. He can win by outthinking his opponent, finding something more within himself to achieve his goal, or just by playing well enough that he can wait for a mistake and then force his way through the opening. Of course, it was some time later before I realised his great rivals could also do the same.
My perception of Federer has changed over the years. It started with my acceptance that he could lose. This was forced by what was, in my teenage eyes, a ‘sub-par’ 2008 season – if a year where winning a major could possibly be sub-par! He lost to Djokovic in Australia, and was demolished by Nadal at Roland Garros. I reasoned this as the after-effects of Mononucleosis i.e., Glandular Fever. I couldn’t really say this after he lost an epic Wimbledon final that year to Nadal, in what many now describe as the greatest match of all time. Shamefully, I did not watch the whole match as, in teenage petulance I refused to watch when Federer was in a losing position. I did watch that final set though, or at least the end of it. It’s on my long to-do list to go back and rewatch that match. Whilst I have grown to accept that on that day, Nadal was marginally the better player, it was very satisfying to see Roger avenge this in the 2019 Wimbledon semi-final. And, it is something to say that Federer’s performance that day has added to his status in tennis history, even if he lost.
It’s frustrating to me that I only really got into tennis as Federer fell from his peak dominance. Even though he was the best player in 2009, the final time he was year-end number-one, it wasn’t convincing. There is only one season where I have watched him play where I felt like I was watching the definitive best player in the world, and that was his renaissance year in 2017. As he aged, he found his peak less consistently than he did in the 2000s. I’ve gone back and watched a couple of his matches from that period and it is so interesting seeing him clearly be the best player on that court, and it feel like the norm. Now, to be fair, it was still happening on a regular basis up until 2020. He still went deep into tournaments and was still on his day a match for Djokovic and Nadal.
As I’ve tried to understand the technical side of the game more, I finally understand the secret of Federer’s success. For all his apparent grace and smoothness, his game is based on relentless aggression. He will find any way to win the point, and as he has aged the desire to end it quicker has grown. If he sees a space to hit a winner, or can get into position to perfectly strike an unplayable shot he will. If he needs to come into the net, as he would have done at the very start of his career, he will. If he can hit a pinpoint accurate ace, he will. When he needs to be patient and extend the rally, he can do this, biding his time until he sees an opportunity. But he’s not interested in grinding an opponent down like prime Nadal or Djokovic. Federer is waiting for that moment to land a killer blow.
I have some great memories of watching Roger Federer play tennis. You’ll notice all my choices are from the majors, particularly Wimbledon, as for most of my life I haven’t been able to watch much of the ATP Tour due to it being on pay TV in the UK. I have hazy memories of watching the 2007 Wimbledon final where he fended off Nadal in five sets. Its not remembered as one of their all-time best clashes, but it’s still one of the six times they went the full match distance in their legendary rivalry. Another one for the rewatch list one day. Federer’s victory against Djokovic in the semi-finals at Wimbledon 2012 was pretty sweet at the time. Djokovic was clearly the best player in the world at that point, so it was a bit of a surprise to see Roger beat him, but a welcome one. He was clearly better that day. Similarly, at Roland Garros in 2011, Federer was the one who ended Novak’s unbeaten run that year with an incredible performance. In fact, most of my favourite Roger memories were in semi-finals. These include the aforementioned Wimbledon 2019 clash with Nadal and him reaching his unstoppable peak against Andy Murray on Centre Court in 2015. Usually when Federer and Murray play, I feel a little conflicted (as I did in their final clash in 2012), but here I just had to marvel at the unbelievable performance the Swiss was putting on.
What about finals though, what trophy lifting moments do I most treasure from Federer? Well, since that Wimbledon final in 2007, he went on to win nine more majors. Of those, I wasn’t able to watch his last two US Open titles in 2007 and 2008. All his Wimbledon titles after 2007 are good memories, don’t get me wrong, they just aren’t my favourite. I don’t really remember his 2010 Australian Open title other than it was fairly straightforward. Whilst I like to see Roger win, it’s more special when he has to fight for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t watch much of his final major title at the 2018 Australian Open, as I didn’t have access to the television channel it was shown live on.
Roger’s 2009 Roland Garros title was very cathartic to watch at the time. Finally, he had won the one major trophy that Nadal had kept from him for so long. It was a very stressful road to that final, but once he was there, he showed that he deserved it. So, that’s a very happy memory for me. However, my favourite title that he won has to be the 2017 Australian Open. For us Federer fans, he was coming back after surgery and was aged 35. By that point for most players before and since, their successes are over and retirement is looming. Roger however came out looking better than ever. He won three five set matches in his run to the title, beating some of the biggest thorns in his side including Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka. It was his victory over Nadal in the final that was his crowning glory. Purists will say it wasn’t a great match, I don’t know as I haven’t seen all of it yet. Due to other commitments, I missed the final live and had to catch the highlights later. However, they did show the final set, which was an awesome comeback by Roger from a break down to win 6-3. For me, it will always be the best match of that year just for the great narrative of that final.
I also have great memories of seeing Federer play in person. In 2011 and 2012, I went to the O2 Arena in London to watch him take part in the ATP Finals, which was an awesome experience. I don’t have many solid memories of the matches, other than he seemed assured to win even though they went three sets. In 2011, he was playing Mardy Fish, in 2012 I saw a match against Janko Tipseravic. I guess the best memory of those days is the atmosphere of the stadium and the moment he won the match as he did his standard satisfied fist pump in celebration.
Federer was my favourite player for two reasons. Firstly, he still is one of the coolest athletes I’ve ever watched on multiple levels. Cool in demeanour, but also cool in some of the incredible shots he can produce. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is his ability to improvise any shot, even ones that I don’t think anyone has ever hit before. He is still absolutely breath-taking to watch when he is in form. Secondly, he is more of an underdog now as he’s got older. He’s definitely not been able to challenge Djokovic as much as he would have liked over the last 10-11 years. Nadal frustrated him for many years until that 2017 match in Melbourne turned things around. He’s more vulnerable to upset and injury now. Every major has become a journey for Federer, and the drama is always gripping. I’m invested in seeing if the ‘old man’ can win big one last time.
With Roger being my favourite player, you might assume that I believe him to be the greatest player of all time. Here’s what I will say on that subject. Statistically, he is no longer the most successful player of all time, at least in terms of number of titles on the biggest stage. He is now behind both Nadal and Djokovic. He’s also behind in the head-to-head with both of his rivals as well. Now, with Nadal you can put some asterisks in there as a lot of the results are surface dependent, whilst with Djokovic their peaks never really coincided. Federer is definitely the greatest player of the 2000s (the decade not the century) given his dominance during that period. Only Nadal fans might argue with that point. He also set the bar for the other two to reach for. He was the one whose records they were chasing and he was the one who set the required standard for them to join him in dominance. Arguably, Federer is probably most widely recognised by non-tennis fans, at least for positive reasons. If you transcend your sport, that is an obvious sign of greatness. Look at how many non-tennis personalities commented on the news of his retirement as proof of this. It will be interesting too what kind of response Nadal and Djokovic get when they stop to really see their impact.
Whilst it’s over-the-top to say Federer has been a role model to me, he has been a source of inspiration. When I finally started playing tennis, I wanted to play an attacking game with a single-handed backhand. It became very clear that I lacked the skill and control to pull that off, and I am very glad my coach trained me to have a solid double-hander (although I can pull off a killer cross-court single-hander if needed). Federer was also the subject of my first piece of tennis writing. About ten years ago, I wrote a piece documenting his career and arguing that his decline was inevitable and he should retire whilst at the top of the game. Thankfully I never put that online and the original copy is now lost somewhere. I was completely wrong, and I’m so glad he carried on and exceeded expectations for an athlete in their 30s. However, I enjoyed writing that piece and that desire to cover tennis stayed with me until I finally started to post my work online last year.
It seems a shame for me to be writing this knowing Federer will only play one more time at the Laver Cup, an event he helped found. I would have preferred the end to come with a farewell tour, finishing with Wimbledon, New York or perhaps Basel, where it all started for him as a ball boy. Given the fact he was entered into Basel in 2022, this might be a very recent decision to end his career because his body wouldn’t allow it. He is 41 years-old and we all knew the end was coming soon. If that’s the case, I can accept a sudden goodbye but it still seems lacklustre. That could be coming from a lack of respect for Laver Cup on my part, given the controversies around the existence of the event (the one blot on Federer’s copybook in my view).
So, I’m still coming to terms that the weekend of September 23rd-25th will see the final match of Roger Federer’s career. I had hoped to see him play for a third and final time at Wimbledon in 2023, the place that he is automatically associated with, especially in Britain. Still, we will see him play one more time, and we should make the most of that and enjoy it together. Especially as he will still be the coolest guy on court.Embed from Getty Images