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The Reliable, Graceful and Fallible Roger Federer

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Roger Federer is probably the most famous living citizen of Switzerland.

“It’s not even close,” Nicolas Bideau, a Swiss official in control of promoting the country’s image abroad, once told me.

But though the Swiss have long adopted neutrality, Federer has played at home nearly everywhere in the world.

Pity the Frenchman who faced Federer at Roland Garros, where his command of French and forehand made him a perennial crowd favorite.

Pity Juan Martín del Potro, a tower of power from Argentina, who faced Federer in a 2012 exhibition within the suburbs of Buenos Aires and unexpectedly felt just like the road team.

Pity Novak Djokovic, the Serbian megastar, who faced Federer within the 2015 U.S. Open final and needed to cope with roars of approval for his double faults by forcing himself to assume that the group was chanting his name as an alternative of Federer’s.

So it went so often during Federer’s future near the highest of his game, and once I researched and wrote a biography of Federer after 20 years of covering him for The Recent York Times, one among my objectives was to completely comprehend what lay behind that deep reference to so many various cultures.

I finished with 4 big reasons:

First and most evidently, there was the fantastic thing about his game, something closer to bounce than tennis along with his feathery footwork, flowing stroke production and something even closer to improvisational dance in that Federer, happily for nearly all involved, often strayed from the choreography: leaping or lunging to intercept a ball and create some fresh move with a flick of the wrist and barely a sound.

His sleight of right hand sometimes left opponents dumbfounded: see Andy Roddick’s expression in 2002 after being Federered in Federer’s real home city of Basel. Above all, Federer’s game was an immersive viewing experience, one that might transform even a rout right into a happening due to the aesthetic quality of the drubbing. The rating sometimes seemed irrelevant. You probably did not have to be a tennis fan to understand Federer’s art, but his art could actually make you a tennis fan, which is a component of his legacy as he retires next week from competitive tennis.

Second, Federer endured while excelling, remaining highly visible and relevant with none dramatic dip in results or appeal. For 20 years, he was a reliable on-screen presence: on television when he first emerged within the late Nineties and on all manner of devices by the point he played his last major tournament at Wimbledon in 2021. His record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles has been passed by Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, but his record of 23 consecutive Grand Slam singles semifinals may never be beaten. After which there’s the pièce de résistance of his statistics: Federer never called a halt to any of his 1,526 profession singles matches or 223 doubles matches due to injury or illness. Jimmy Connors, the one man to have played more tour-level matches than Federer, retired from 14 tour-level singles matches. Djokovic has retired from 13; Nadal from nine. Federer’s tennis was not only pretty. It was gritty.

Third, he conducted himself, on and off the court, with class. After a shaky start, stuffed with tossed rackets and shrieks of frustration, Federer became something much closer to a Zen master by the early 2000s. That was partially because he realized, as he rose in prominence, that he didn’t need to project a temperamental image to his public but in addition because he realized he played higher under tight control. That the discharge provided by bemoaning the injustice of all of it was seriously outweighed by the precision and focus acquired by mastering his emotions even when that old fire, as he once told me, still burned intensely behind the fashionable facade.

Off the court — with the sponsors, the news media, the general public and his family of six — he put the emphasis on being within the moment and present (and that doesn’t consult with social media presence). He arrived on Instagram and Twitter relatively late in the sport and posted cleverly if infrequently. He at all times appeared to prefer the face-to-face, undistracted approach, which made him old-school at one stage after which surely ahead of the curve. An interview with Federer, be it over a meal or within the back seat of a courtesy automotive, was often closer to a conversation. “The rationale Roger is so interesting is because he’s so interested,” his former coach Paul Annacone once told me.

That rings true. A people person, he was, unlike a few of his predecessors comparable to Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, an extrovert who gathered energy from interaction. But Federer also knew his limits: sensing when he was near saturation and taking a well-timed, often private break.

The principle, and that is something that individuals without extraterrestrial tennis skills can learn from, was to search out pleasure or at the very least minimal displeasure within the obligations that went along with his job and standing: be they post-match interviews in three languages or meet-and-greet events for his myriad sponsors. His world, as Roddick aptly observed, has long seemed to be low-friction, but that just isn’t just because he can fly private and stay in probably the most luxurious of resorts and abodes. It is due to attitude and a real love of discovery and the road, just so long as he can return to low-friction Switzerland every now and then to regroup.

Finally, and this is probably probably the most intriguing element of the recognition equation, Federer was a serial champion, probably the most prolific in the sport’s long history, but he was also a giant loser.

You’ll be able to argue quite convincingly that Federer didn’t seal the deal in two of his three biggest matches: losing the 2008 Wimbledon final within the gloaming to Nadal; winning the 2017 Australian Open over Nadal to start Federer’s surprising late-career renaissance after which, most poignantly to those that call Federer home, losing to Djokovic within the 2019 Wimbledon final after holding two match points on his own serve at age 37.

True Federer fans (and Djokovic fans) can replay those two missed opportunities of their heads: the marginally off-balance forehand error off a deep return followed by the crosscourt forehand passing shot winner from Djokovic off an unconvincing approach shot.

In a few minute, what would have been probably the most remarkable triumph of his profession had slipped away on his favorite patch of grass, the theater which suited his balletic game best and where he had won a men’s record eight Wimbledon singles titles.

For all his talent, sagacious planning and love of the sport, he still faltered when it mattered: rarely over 20-plus years but actually enough to humanize him.

Then there have been the tears, which got here in victory and defeat and got here, it seemed, more often early in his profession than late. Such public sensitivity from a superstar male athlete once would have been derided as soft, but Federer’s timing was right, just because it was right so often on his rhythmic serve and full-cut groundstrokes tight to the baseline and straight off the bounce.

His game was a visible feast, suitable for framing, however the player was flesh-and-blood vulnerable and all of the more relatable for it despite all of the tens of millions within the Swiss bank.

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