Tennis Divinity, Reconciled with Sporting Mortality
By Sashank Rajaram, UG24 (Guest contributor)
It was 2009. There was a huge cheer followed by thunderous applause from my dad. Awoken by his ecstatic celebration, I saw a man holding a beautiful golden trophy and smiling at the hundreds of cameras around him.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“He’s Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player of all time,” my dad said, his eyes still glued to the television.
That was the first time I saw him. Little did I know then that over the years, I would become one amongst his millions of die-hard fanatics. But on the 15th of September 2022 at 6:49 PM IST, Federer shocked the world by announcing his retirement from competitive tennis after the Laver Cup that is scheduled to kickstart on Friday, September 23rd. Just like Don Bradman’s duck in his final innings, it was ironic that a player considered by many as one of best lost the last match of his Grand Slam career with a straight-set defeat, 6-0 in the final set. With Federer’s retirement, it would not be an understatement to admit that a long and beautiful chapter in tennis’s history has come to an end.
Unlike others, Federer was more than just a tennis player. He never allowed his fans to feel defeated even when he himself lost games that should have been won. Whenever I watched him play, I was enamoured by his style and elegance. His matches were a constant pleasure for the sore eyes that were tired of seeing rocket servers and baseline huggers rejoicing in their boring, systematic regularity. With graceful class, pinpoint accuracy, and deft touch, Federer first announced his arrival on the big stage at Wimbledon 2001 when he defeated Pete Sampras. Ever since then, his ascendance to the throne as a tennis legend was jaw-dropping. He owned every single shot in the book. A classy flick of the flexible wrist, a magnificent backhand, a majestic forehand, a smooth service motion that appeared to be fuelled by a magical lubricant, a pounce towards the net, a whisk on the volley, a relentless smash, a faultless overhead lob, and a cunning drop shot. He had speed, energy, accuracy, and seemingly effortless court coverage. To watch Federer was to watch ballet. As a player, he was solely focused on the task at hand, leading other souls along on a magical odyssey towards sporting nirvana.
Winning 11 majors out of 16 between 2004 and 2007 at his peak, he always carried the pressure of expectation. Federer was dignified in both victories and defeats and praised his fellow players wholeheartedly, irrespective of the result. His jovial personality and ability to speak in 9 languages won him fans across the world. As a global ambassador for the sport, he understood his responsibilities and stayed out of controversies and came across as a caring son, doting father, and loving husband. His calm demeanour during matches as well as at press conferences made him an ideal model to emulate for all who witnessed him.
Federer was so immensely talented that at the initial stage of his career, he seemed to tower over his opponents in terms of skill and proficiency. He needed a rival — one who was equally gifted and would push him to his absolute limit. Enter Rafael Nadal. As a 17-year-old who defeated the then World No.1 Federer, Nadal’s ascendancy was the beginning of one of the most memorable rivalries in tennis history. His hard baseline gameplay, powerful groundstrokes and inside-out forehands made the artistic beauty of Federer’s play appear like fragile art. Nadal’s clay court prowess proved too much for Federer who lost three consecutive finals at Roland Garros. Their 2008 Wimbledon Men’s singles – often dubbed as one of the greatest matches of all time – was an exhibition of Federer’s pure aesthetic splendour and immaculate shot-making against Nadal’s brute force and staggering athleticism.
As the Federer-Nadal (fondly called Fedal) rivalry burgeoned, there was another shot in the arm. With remarkable fitness and unmatched elasticity, Novak Djokovic’s entry ushered in a new era of domination in Men’s Singles like never before. As the Serb began to mark his presence, the Federer-Djokovic rivalry was an inevitable outcome. If Federer dominated the opening act, the serve, Djokovic was the master of the second, the return. During Wimbledon 2019, where the Swiss choreographed his play like a figure skater and was one point away from winning the title, Djokovic held Federer at bay with every blade of grass he could find to defeat him in what later became the longest Wimbledon final in history.
But after four-and-a-half years of a Grand Slam drought between 2012 and 2017, the doubts began to creep in. Was he scarred by the earlier defeats? Was his age catching up? Had he lost his magical touch? Yet Federer’s decision to change to a bigger racket to counter the relentless attack against his one-handed backhand yielded the desired result. When fans and analysts wrote him off in 2017, he scripted a stellar resurgence. Federer won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and became the oldest World No.1 in the modern era. Throughout his professional career, it was this willingness of his to reconcile with his losses, revise his technique, improve his fitness, and still challenge the title that ultimately defined him.
Now, with Federer's retirement, Djokovic’s stubborn stance on vaccination and Nadal’s plaguing injuries, the timing of a generational transition could not have been more symbolic: Iga Swiatek won her third Grand Slam aged 21 and Carlos Alcaraz clinched his first at the US Open aged 19. While Swiatek, the numero uno since March, became the first woman to win two Grand Slams in a single calendar year since Angelique Kerber 2016, Alcaraz became the youngest World No.1 since the computerised rankings began in 1973. If both could raise their all-surface play and continue to excel, tennis could just as well thrive as it did under the Big 3.
As the previous generations take the back seat, it is now time to pass the baton and embrace new champions. Yes, Roger Federer will retire after the Laver Cup. But guess what will never retire? The sweet sound of that incredibly well-timed, single-handed backhand shot, placed agonisingly beyond the reach of the opponent, followed by the four magical words: “Game, Set, Match, Federer.”