Ballboy to Legend: A tribute to Roger Federer

“You are the most beautiful player I have ever watched.”

—John McEnroe, Tennis Legend and Commentator

ON SEPTEMBER 15, Roger announced to the world that he would retire from competitive tennis after the Laver Cup. Tributes from fans to legends quickly poured in on various social media platforms after the breaking of the news. On September 23rd, 17500 fans turned up at London’s O2 arena to witness Federer’s last game. And Roger Federer saved his last dance with his friend and rival Rafael Nadal in a doubles match against the American duo Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe. They lost the match, but the result didn’t matter. As the moment dawned Roger couldn’t hold back his tears, neither could Nadal, nor so were many fans. It was an emotional farewell in that jam-packed O2 Arena as fans, family and friends cheered and clapped to the tune of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.

Roger Federer has been not only an icon of the Tennis sport—winning  the Sportsmanship Award a record 13 times and the ATP Fans’ Favorite award for 19 consecutive years—but is also one of the most popular athletes in the world, winning the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year award a record five times.  And not only has Roger Federer inspired many tennis players by his excellence and greatness, but the aesthetic beauty of his game has also elicited paeans from tennis legends, journalists and writers like David Foster Wallace, who called him a “genius, or mutant, or avatar”. In another, Gareth Andrews writes, “To try to describe the way Federer plays tennis is like trying to describe how Rudolf Nureyev danced or Jascha Heifetz played the violin. Common words or images do none of them justice.” Or as Tracy Austin puts it, “a symphony in tennis whites.” Or as others described: “a poetry in motion”. This tribute is for the tennis fans out there and also for the non-tennis fans who never liked the sport and never watched the Swiss Maestro play live on screen and so have missed the boat, as the founding father of the Golden Era of tennis called it a day.

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Roger Federer, the second child of Robert and Lynette Federer, was born on 8 August 1981 in Switzerland’s second largest city, Basel. He came from a modestly affluent family, whose parents played tennis as a hobby. Federer, who then started as a ball boy in his hometown Basel would go on to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time, winning Juniors’ Wimbledon in 1998, his first major men’s singles title at The Championships in 2003 at age 21, and amassed 19 more trophies—the first man to do so. In his 24-year-long illustrious professional career, Roger won 1251 matches out of 1526, 103 career titles; finished 5 times as year-end no. 1, with a total of 310 weeks at No. 1 and a record 267 consecutive weeks as No. 1.

What separates the big three—Federer, Nadal and Djokovic—from the rest is their consistency (that’s largely missing among the Next Gen).  Federer’s statistics in his peak years are just insane. Wikipedia informs, “Between 2003 and 2009, Federer made 21 out of 28 major singles finals. He won three of the four majors and the ATP Finals in 2004, 2006 and 2007 as well as five consecutive titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open.” From 2004 to 2007, he was about as unbeatable as any tennis player has been—compiled a 247-15 (94%) record; won 24 consecutive finals in 2003-2005 (ahead by 10 wins to Nadal who stood second at 14), made it to 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals in the period 2005-2007, was 111-2 (win-loss) on Hard Courts between 2005-2007, and remained unbeaten for 41 matches between 2006-2007.

Federer’s got one of the best serves on tour that often was impregnable. Opponent players say his serve is one of the most difficult to predict. His forehand strokes are menacingly accurate and his exquisite one-handed backhand slice could be damaging. With so many shots up his sleeves, Tennis legend Billie Jean King (and others like Borg) remarked that Federer is the most complete player. Such was Roger Federer.

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The beauty of Federer’s game has been described with such adjectives as ‘elegant’, ‘effortless’, ‘gracefulness’, ‘magical’, ‘fantastic’ , ‘unbelievable’ and so forth. One of his unique assets is his footwork that makes his shots look effortless and easy. Federer’s graceful and artistic footwork is compared to that of a “ballet star”, as he glides and dances away in the court. And when he moves unbelievably well, there’s no way he was going to lose the match. Always the best dressed man on tour, he dons the best outfit among the players in any tournaments. Coupled with his calm attitude and cool composure, he looks gentlemanly on the court.

One of my most frustrating moments with Roger’s game was his Wimbledon final match against Djokovic in 2019.  Federer came very close to winning Grand slam no. 21. He had a few match point chances but couldn’t convert them against the relentless Djokovic. You can say that is one of Federer’s weaknesses—not that he’s weak, but had he been mentally tougher, the golden trophy would have been his. Although mellowed, I still get upset when I think about it. One of my favourite memories of his career is the 2017 Australian Open Final against Nadal. The match was pushed to the fifth and deciding set, with Nadal having broken Federer in the early game and leading the set by 5-3 when Federer made a stunning comeback and went on to win the title. It was just incredible.

As Roger Federer hangs up his racket, my greatest regret that’s going to go down the memory lane for a long time would be not seeing him play live when he came to Delhi in 2014. The problem was I couldn’t go alone and I couldn’t pay for two tickets either that would cost me Rs 7000. But also I made a pass that year because I confidently presumed he would show up again the next year and so plan accordingly and not miss the next time around. Sadly and regretfully, that was never to happen. So if I ever write my memoir, it sure is going to be accounted as one of my biggest regrets in life!

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In concluding his retirement-announcement letter, Federer shared: “When my love of tennis started, I was a ball kid in my home town of Basel. I used to watch the players with a sense of wonder. They were like giants to me and I began to dream. My dreams led me to work harder and I started to believe in myself. Some success brought me confidence and I was on my way to the most amazing journey that has led to this day. So, I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart to everyone around the world who has helped make the dreams of a young Swiss ball kid come true.”

Indeed it has been an incredible journey. Thanks to you too, Roger, for what you have given to the game of tennis. It has been a privilege and pleasure to watch you play. You will be sorely missed.

T. Shatsang is a freelance writer and tennis aficionado.

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