By Zach Schiller
Wednesday, September 15th, 2022 will forever go down as a somber day in the tennis community. In a video reminiscent of the grace, humility, and class he showcased on a tennis court for two decades, Swiss superstar Roger Federer told the world that he was retiring from professional tennis following the conclusion of the following weekend’s Laver Cup held in London. While not entirely surprising, given the injuries and surgeries that had marred Federer’s career over the last three years, his announcement nonetheless sent shockwaves throughout the tennis and sporting communities globally as countless players, analysts, and fans paid their respects to a man that undeniably left an indelible impact on the game he loved so dearly.
Federer’s beautiful flowing technique and laundry list of achievements that he garnered throughout his career have naturally been the subject of a plethora of articles and social media posts since his retirement announcement, attempting to recapture and reintroduce the magic of the Roger Federer experience to the world. Sifting through the deluge of physics-defying highlights the last several days has simultaneously filled me with a sense of wonderment and regret. The regret stemming from the way I had viewed Federer throughout his career: The chief foil to Rafael Nadal.
As a young child, I was indoctrinated into the fandom of Nadal by my maternal grandparents. Rafa’s raw athleticism, physicality, and unwavering determination, combined with his humility and refinement, captivated my grandparents and thus captivated me. I wanted nothing more than to watch Rafa climb to the top of the tennis world and shatter every record that stood in his path on the way to becoming the greatest. In order for this to happen though, Nadal would need to overcome the best player in the world who soon morphed into the man many considered to be the greatest player to ever step foot on a tennis court: Roger Federer. Every Nadal versus Federer encounter, particularly their magnificent major matchups, felt as if tennis’ history and legacy were being decided with every breathtaking stroke of the racket. Moments permanently etched in my mind include their colossal clash in the 2008 Wimbledon final, where Nadal finally edged out Federer on his beloved Centre Court in a five-set thriller as the sun poetically dipped beyond the horizon. I hate to admit it now but I belittled Federer for crying at the trophy ceremony on the court (in his iconic garb from that year) following his gut-wrenching loss. On the other side of the spectrum, while most of the tennis world delighted in Federer’s return to glory, conquering Nadal on the hard courts of Australia in five sets for his first major title in nearly five years, I was sick to my stomach and will forever remember the fact that Rafa was up a break 3-1 in the fifth before Federer charged back to win the final five games.
Rooting against Federer as a Nadal fan during their matchups seems justifiable given that Federer was in fact playing against my favorite player. However, my cheering against Roger Federer extended beyond his encounters with Nadal. Instead of appreciating the gifts Federer gave to the tennis world, I chiefly saw him as Nadal’s rival who needed to be stopped at any cost possible. I cannot remember a single time when I wanted Roger Federer to win when he stepped on a tennis court. Let that sentence sink in. I actively cheered against or at the very least had no positive feelings every time one of the greatest sportsmen the world has ever seen laced up his sneakers. This feeling extended all the way to what turned out to be Feder’s final tournament at last year’s Wimbledon, where he bowed out to Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets; I am fairly certain I am one of a select few non-Polish people who rooted for Hurkacz.
A month after his quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon, Federer revealed in a video he posted to Instagram that he would be undergoing a third knee surgery in 18 months in order to “feel better for the medium to long-term,” and have “a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.” Given his age of 40 at the time, the number of surgeries he had undergone, and the melancholy tone Federer delivered his message, fans around the world wondered whether or not the Swiss maestro would ever grace a tennis court again. However, those worries were seemingly put to rest when Federer announced in late April that he planned on returning to professional tennis for the Laver Cup in late September (an annual team competition pitting top players from Europe vs. the rest of the world that Federer helped create) and an indoor hard court tournament hosted in his hometown of Basel.
Upon hearing this news, I felt an emotion I had never felt before: a longing for Roger Federer. Although quite the cliche, the old adage of you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone certainly rang true for me. Despite the massive influx of promising young talent into the men’s game as exemplified by this year’s U.S. Open, reality had set in that the void created by Roger Federer’s absence could not hope to be filled. As the possibility of a tennis life without Federer began to cross my mind before this announcement, a wave of regret would wash over me from time to time, acknowledging that my allegiance to Nadal had blinded me from appreciating Federer in ways that I should have. I vowed that once Federer returned to the tour, I would not take any one of his scintillating steps or ferocious forehands for granted.
Unfortunately for me and the rest of the tennis community, the dream return of Federer to the tour did not materialise. Though it was a once in a lifetime scene at the Laver Cup this past weekend watching Federer team up with his longtime rivals (especially all of the incredible Big 4 content that was produced) and end his professional career crying alongside longtime-rival-turned-doubles-partner Nadal, the sad reality is that Federer’s name will never again appear in the draw of another ATP or Major tournament. I – along with the rest of the tennis world – will forever be left wanting. Once again that feeling of regret washes over me, although this time it is far more pronounced knowing that the end is not a possibility, it is certain.
Rather than simply serving as a way for me to wallow in my regret, I hope that I can pass along some advice that transcends beyond tennis to all sports so that my mistake is not tragically repeated by others. Before getting on my high horse though, I acknowledge that a certain level of dislike, animosity, or vitriol towards a rival player or team adds depth to sports fandom and some even consider it an integral part of the fan experience. Believe me, I certainly harbour some unkind thoughts and feelings towards a certain football team from Dallas and an obnoxious hockey team from Boston. Sports are also naturally zero-sum games. Not everyone can come out victorious, so it is natural to want others – particularly your favourite player or team’s biggest rival – to fail along the way. With that being said though, when your favourite team or player finds themselves locked in a rivalry with an all-time great, a once-in-a-lifetime player, be wary of letting your rooting interest cloud your ability to fully appreciate their greatness.
Otherwise, you will end up just like me: a regretful fool.Embed from Getty Images