Why Federer can’t be judged purely by numbers

The news tennis fans were expecting, sooner or later, but didn’t dare comprehend, has finally arrived. Roger Federer will not play at the Grand Slams or regular tour events again. Next week’s Laver Cup in London will be the last time the Swiss star will be seen in competitive action.

At 41 years of age, Federer had gone far beyond when tennis players are expected to be relevant in the draws of big tournaments. But such is his aura, natural talent, track record and almost devotional fan following, that there always remained the hope of some magic from his racquet – which often turned into a wand in his hands – and a last flicker of the flame.

But after several knee surgeries and a long lay-off, Federer read the writing on the wall. “I have worked hard to return to full competitive form. But I also know my body’s capacity and limit. My body’s message to me lately has been clear. I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years. Now I must recognise when it is time to end my competitive career,” he wrote in his announcement on social media.

His last competitive outing was at Wimbledon 2021, losing to Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals, which included a 0-6 set loss. But it’s safe to say that it will not be the abiding memory when Federer or any of his countless admirers and tennis lovers will look back at his career and the legacy he leaves behind.

He will not catch Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, who have overtaken him in the race of Grand Slam singles titles. But Federer, on and off the tennis court, can scarcely be judged on numbers alone, awe-inspiring as they are. To watch him play was to see and realise what could be possible with a tennis racquet and a round fluffy ball.

Sensory delight

Add to it the playing style that merged athletic prowess with balletic grace, along with sportsmanship and articulation on a whole range of topics, and one gets a package that took the sport to a whole new dimension, beyond just hitting tennis balls back and forth.

When seen along with the retirement of another all-time great and icon Serena Williams, the sport has lost its last on-court connection with the 20th century. When Federer took the mantle from Pete Sampras in the early 2000s, the latter’s mark of 14 Grand Slam titles was considered an almost unbreachable mark. Cut to the present, and without any disrespect to the American great, he hardly features in any GOAT debates now.

Federer, and the subsequent rise of Nadal and Djokovic, took men’s tennis to unprecedented heights, often drawing the best out of each other. The debate over who’s the best among the three is destined to remain unresolved, but Federer was always the favourite with most of the fans, and by extension tournament organisers and television networks.
“Tennis has treated me generously more than I ever would have dreamt,” he reflected on his almost quarter-century-long playing career on Thursday.

At most venues around the world, especially Wimbledon where he triumphed a record eight times, Federer was cheered and backed vociferously – even in defeat – that got under the skin of many of his opponents, most notably Djokovic.
But fans may be forgiven. Even those who have been watching tennis for decades, including all-time greats like Rod Laver, have professed that they had hardly ever seen what the Swiss maestro brought to the court.

The graceful serve, the forehand – arguably one of the greatest weapons in the history of the game – which was a thing of beauty in itself, the silken volley, the drop and the lob, and several other shots that only Federer could conjure, prompt tennis lovers to log on to YouTube repeatedly. Those attending his matches in person were often left to gasp in awe at what they had just seen, which on many occasions seemed to defy the laws of physics.

The art of the possible

It is safe to say that tennis will not be the same again. The game today is dominated by metronomes trading powerful and accurate strokes from the baseline, who don’t venture to the net unless absolutely necessary, often only to shake hands. Most of them don’t have the vision to see beyond the advantage of pushing the opponent back behind the baseline and forcing them into errors.

Federer often tried the improbable, many shots which may be described as low-percentage ones which didn’t always come off, when the straightforward was the obvious option. But that was part of his charm – that winning and losing almost didn’t matter that much, the sensory delight that he provided being the most memorable takeaway from the match. There were many matches he could and should have won, if only he stayed on the conventional route and didn’t go for something outrageous. But that even made his losses fascinating.

The rare occasions when he let emotions get the better of him – like after losing to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open final, and once shouting at Djokovic’s parents during a match – only served to make him more human. Statistically, Federer won’t be the greatest ever. That accolade will be fought over by Djokovic and Nadal. But their greatness doesn’t quite catch the imagination as Federer’s does. The Spaniard’s game is based on grit and sweat, while the Serb is almost a mechanical marvel, a cyborg. The age of magic on a tennis court may, well and truly, be behind us.

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