By Siddhant Guru
Imagine you’re 15 years old, enrolled in a national academy for a sport, meeting your family only over weekends. One day, someone asks you, “So, what do you do?” You answer, “I am a tennis player.” The person then asks the inevitable follow-up question: “Okay, but what else?”
Sport is incredibly tough and equally rewarding. The journey to being the best is mired with questions like the above: “Is it really enough to just be a sportsperson?”, “What if I don’t succeed?” Now I implore the reader to think and imagine the strength of character and willpower it takes to go away from this nagging train of thought and give your best, knowing that unless you aren’t in the top 100 or so, your career is essentially done. Athletes are a case study in the capabilities of both the human body and the strength of the human mind. The best athletes, therefore, become household names. Now… What if I told you that the best tennis player ever actually lost his first match, 6-0 6-0?
Why do we watch the best athletes do their thing? They always bring us face-to-face with something magical that transcends our understanding of what we thought was possible. Even then, there’s something underneath all that – some sort of primal ecstasy that we get from top-level sport. Maybe we seek confirmation that the human body is capable of unimaginable things. Maybe we seek that euphoria of victory. Maybe we seek a release from our everyday life. And some athletes just make you feel all that. The ecstasy, the euphoria, the confirmation. All of it.
The most powerful opponent that any athlete faces is time. It inflicts a soul-destroying, slow motion euthanasia on them that leaves you watching, aghast. The result is always pre-determined and yet no athlete ever gives up. Until they absolutely have to.
Roger Federer’s 24-year career delivered all those moments.
It is difficult to know where to begin with Roger. Most people start with his 2001 victory over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. I digress.
I would like to point out Toronto in 2002. Federer’s coach Peter Carter had passed away due to an accident in South Africa around that time. Federer lost in the first round of the tournament.
2002 Cincinnati. Federer lost in the first round.
2002 Long Island. Federer lost in the first round.
Carter’s funeral was the first one Roger ever went to. It was a wound that never really healed. Federer’s career could have very easily gone off the rails after that. Except it didn’t. Federer’s commitment from then on, was extraordinary. There was an almost terrifying focus and self-belief in him. In the wake of Peter’s death, Roger won a title for the first time in 5 months, in Vienna. From then on, he won a scarcely-believable TWENTY-THREE finals in a row.
Before Peter’s death, the narrative and criticism around Roger was that he was far too inconsistent. The words went along the lines of, “he’s great to watch but nobody will watch him if he doesn’t win.”
It took Roger all of one year to get it all together. Once he did, the rest of the tour didn’t know what had hit them. What followed was the peak of “Religious Experience” (A line taken from a Wimbledon bus driver). Roger “solved” his main rivals of the day, so abruptly outmatching them that they didn’t have answers. Andy Roddick, when asked about what chance Haas or Gonzalez had vs Federer in the Australian Open final, famously quipped, “Slim”.
Roger compiled a 74-6 season winning three slams in 2004, the first time anyone had done that since Mats Wilander in 1988. Then he went 81-4 in 2005. After that, 92-5 in 2006. A lot of what he did in these years was surreal. It invited audiences into that trip to the deep forest with a mystifying force. It was new. It was revolutionary. For a while, Federer was unstoppable. He wore a cloak of invincibility with such natural grace that it almost felt wrong that he should ever lose. Yet he did lose. Rarely, but he did. Only one player managed to beat him more than once from 2004-06. That player was named Rafael Nadal.
My childhood years were mostly forgettable – study, play, eat, sleep, run a few errands for the family, all the usual stuff. One lazy summer evening, I was flipping channels on the television, and I found a tennis match. A lefty and a righty were slugging it out. The righty had this majestic grace to his movement — I couldn’t even hear him run and yet he was always there, in position, to hit his shot. The lefty was everything the righty was not – you could hear him desperately run to make a shot, you could hear him grunt when he hit the shot. If the righty won a point, there was virtually no emotion displayed – it was, as if, he was meant to win all the points. If the lefty won a point, he would fist-pump wildly, turning up the volume to his celebration. This contrast was quite fascinating to me. It was deuce in a game and very finely poised. At that point, my mom calls out to me to go run an errand in the nearby store. I came back, about 10 minutes later. The score was still at deuce.
That is my earliest memory from watching a Federer-Nadal match.
The hold that these two players kept over men’s tennis is best displayed by one statistic: the first EIGHTEEN of the 22 matches between the pair was contested in a final. Nadal’s role in growing the legacy of Federer (and vice versa) has been pivotal – the two elevated tennis to never-before-seen heights. It was box office and it all hit a crescendo in THAT 2008 final at Wimbledon — hailed as one of the greatest matches ever played — a trilogy of French Open and Wimbledon finals ending in Nadal finally triumphing over Federer on grass.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now circle this moment as when Federer stopped being the best player in the world.
Federer did return to the top of tennis rankings a year later but it was increasingly clear that he was, now, second-best to Nadal. For eight consecutive years, Federer ended the season in the top two. In five of those years, he was the best player in the world.
The 2010s was a period of… vulnerabilities and mind-blowing uncertainties for Federer. He changed coaches, beefed up his serve, changed racquets, all in order to compensate for a physical and maybe shotmaking decline. For instance, he invented a whole array of return triggers to shorten points – from a modified version of chip and charge, which he famously called SABR, to just hitting over the return from the baseline, in contrast to the slice and dice tactic in his prime. The result was a combination of the tragic and the sensational. Federer was still elite in his thirties. He conjured up a stream of nearly-but-not-quite moments as Nadal and Djokovic managed to thwart him, almost every time. Even in those defeats however, Federer reoriented what was known about longevity in tennis — he was always there, waiting for Nadal and Djokovic to slip up. It’s also a testament to the greatness of those two that they never did slip up. They remained the only players to have beaten Federer more than twice in Grand Slams in the 2010s. Federer resisted for a long time, his own competitive spirit kept him fighting against them — he even produced one of the most brilliant phases of low-margin aggressive tennis in 2017, beating Nadal four times that year (three of them, in finals and three of them in straight sets), ending with a 52-5 record, aided by putting up what was statistically one of his greatest backhand years. He returned to the top spot in the rankings in February 2018, at the ripe young age of 36. His 17-0 record to start the 2018 season was his best ever start to any season. Even in his twilight years, Federer was pushing the boundaries of even his own excellence.
Nadal and Djokovic have managed to show that Federer’s terrific thirties is indeed repeatable. But Federer showed that it was doable. That, in my opinion, is one of his biggest contributions to the sport.
Brian Phillips, very beautifully, captured the stages of a top athlete’s career. He says that every athlete has a “fast” phase and a “slow” phase. The top athletes have a “still fast” phase where you know that they’re not the force they once were, but you can’t help but admit that they’re still performing close to their best.
It seems Federer never left the “still fast” phase until his knees finally collapsed. Any assessment of Federer’s legacy needs to capture this phase of his career. Federer won 42 titles from 2004-07 – that’s roughly 11 titles every season. From 2008-2019, he won between 4-7 titles every season with the exception of 2013 and the injury shortened 2016 season. It’s easily the longest “still fast” phase that any top athlete has ever had. Federer revolutionized the true test of longevity in tennis.
The Laver Cup was the perfect send-off for Federer — the immensely powerful image of Nadal in tears over the retirement of his greatest rival, was stark proof of the impact that Federer has had on men’s tennis. It keeps throwing up a fascinating alternate reality (and purely academic) questions: If Federer wasn’t Federer, would Nadal would be Nadal? And then, would Djokovic be Djokovic? The fact that those two are still pushing each other so hard stems from their initial desire to dethrone Federer.
It really has been the greatest era of men’s tennis. Roger Federer started it all.
P.S. After winning a 6th ATP Finals title in 2011, Federer was asked about his thoughts on beating Sampras and Lendl’s record. His response? “I still don’t feel like I am better than them. I am just happy to be compared to them.”