The transcendent, history-making legacy of Roger Federer

Sports

ROGER FEDERER HAS been asked about retirement for 13 years.

The first questions came after he beat Robin Soderling at Roland Garros in May 2009. With that triumph on clay, he became the sixth man in tennis history to complete the career sweep of Grand Slam events.

Reaching that milestone could have triggered complacency. He had just married and was about to become a dad for the first time, too. What more did he have to achieve?

A month later, Federer won Wimbledon for the sixth time, and in the process moved one ahead of his hero Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Slams. As he talked about his victory afterwards, the slogan on his T-shirt read: “There is no finish line. Far from done.”

Since then, he has added five more Slams to sit alongside his six ATP Finals wins. He holds an array of incredible records: His total of eight men’s singles titles from Wimbledon sits out on its own, while his 369 victories in Grand Slam tennis are a record too.

But now, at 41 years old, his body is no longer answering his mind’s on-court expectations. He has finally reached the finish line.

“I know my body’s capacities and limits, and its message to me lately has been clear,” he said Thursday in his retirement statement. “I have played more than 1,500 matches over 24 years. Tennis has treated me more generously than I ever would have dreamt, and now I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career.”

His legacy is far more than the 20 Slams he won, though — without the annual joy of seeing him at home on Centre Court at Wimbledon, tennis feels different. And a little empty.

We have seen Federer transform from a hot-headed teenager into a player who has made history and transcended the sport. He has millions of fans all over the world. He’s a style icon, a philanthropist and the face of Switzerland’s tourism. He’s a husband and a father of four. And to many, his surname is superfluous: He’s Roger.


TO UNDERSTAND ROGER Federer is to capture sports harmony. He talks about his strategy of fire and ice: combining the burning desire to succeed and the coolness to keep his composure. His career has been a tale of mind and body working together like clockwork, to create an aesthetically delightful state of tennis — and also a method which has led to incredible success.

There were key moments of serendipity throughout his career, stretching back to when he grew up near Basel, Switzerland, near the France-Germany border. Amidst the tennis trophies of his youth were posters on the wall of Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan. He loved basketball and was also a capable soccer player, supporting his local club FC Basel. But there was something about the solitary nature of tennis, and self-accountability, that appealed to him.

Winning Junior Wimbledon in 1998 propelled him into tennis’ consciousness, but back then he had a reputation of losing his cool: He’d frequently smash his rackets, scream at the sun, and berate himself and others as things failed to go to plan.

He grew up idolizing Sampras, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. He would try and try again to emulate their shot selection, but it didn’t quite click. He would lose himself in the moment during matches and later regret decisions and shots he played.

He used to battle with homesickness at the national tennis center in Ecublens (105 miles away from Basel). He’d cry for half an hour after defeats. He was lonely. His father, Robert, encouraged him to keep on going, knowing there was talent there. He gave Federer the goal of being a top-100 player, so that he could earn enough in tournament winnings to cover his own travel.

Those experiences were formative moments for the young Federer. He was a talented player, but at this point, the teenager was deemed to have a dodgy backhand and a tendency to capitulate if a match went over two hours. He hated talking to the media, fearing what they’d say about him.

Federer says a eureka moment happened after a disappointing defeat at the Hamburg Masters in May 2001. He lost an opening-round game to Argentinean Franco Squillari 6-3, 6-4.

“My behavior was so bad that I was upset with myself, and that’s where I decided to keep myself calm, and I did it,” he said in a postmatch interview. “I would say I became too much calm, which is why people were looking at me as a noncompetitive guy. I did not know how to find a balance between the two mental states: the anger and calmness.”

He had another breakthrough moment at Wimbledon a month later. He defeated Sampras in the fourth round, his first match ever on Centre Court. He kept his composure, but still lacked consistency overall, and was knocked out in the next round in four sets by Tim Henman.

“I realized, I want to be back on that court one day, I’d love to compete with these guys on a regular basis, I’d rather play on the bigger courts than on the smaller courts. … And all of a sudden it started to make sense,” Federer later said. “Why you’re doing weights. Why you’re running. Why you arrive early at a tournament. Why you try to sleep well at night. We just started to understand the importance of every single detail. Because it makes a difference.”

Then a year later, in August 2002, his mentor and former coach Peter Carter died in a car crash in South Africa. From that point onward, Federer shifted his mentality away from the racket-smashing teen, to one who was far better at managing his emotion. In 2019, Federer said of Carter: “I guess he didn’t want me to be a wasted talent, so I guess it was somewhat of a wake-up call for me when he passed away, and I really started to train hard.”

Federer worked on his fitness and strength with longtime coach Pierre Paganini, and he spent time speaking to a sports psychologist. Those shots that he used to emulate were suddenly finding the right areas of the court. The harmony between mind and body saw him realize potential, and turn himself into someone capable of winning multiple Grand Slams.

The first of his 20 wins came at Wimbledon in 2003 as he defeated Mark Philippoussis in the final 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3). As Philippoussis struck a backhand into the net on match point, Federer fell to the Centre Court turf in floods of tears.

He spoke afterwards of how his 2001 defeat caused him to ask himself whether he’d missed his chance. Instead, he vowed to learn from the experience. “It showed me how important a positive mindset was,” he later said.


THERE’S A SCHOOL of thought that Federer’s greatest spell came between 2004 and 2010. He was world No. 1 for a record 237 consecutive weeks between February 2004 and August 2008. During that spell he made 18 out of 19 consecutive Grand Slam finals. He won 12 of them.

And then, that summer of 2009 that was pivotal in Federer’s journey.

It was the fourth round of Roland Garros. He was two sets and a break point down to Tommy Haas; lose the point and Haas would have served for the match. Federer served to Haas’ backhand, who planted it back on to Federer’s backhand side.

Federer then did that incredible thing that only he can do, where he shifts his entire body in midair to create a meter of space to allow him to unleash his forehand. The ball went at almost 45 degrees to kiss the chalk, the winner shifting the game to deuce. He’d take that set, and the next to love, and serve out for a five-set win. Three matches later, he had secured his first Roland Garros title.

That Roland Garros triumph in 2009 is still up there for Federer as his greatest win. He became just the sixth male to win all four Slams, after Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi. (Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would later make it eight.)

“It was probably my greatest victory, I was under big pressure,” he said after the match. A month later, he won Wimbledon for the sixth time. The net from that final against Roddick is his most prized possession.

“Losing semifinals and finals was never good enough for me,” Federer said at the time. “After five years of ‘you’re so great’ and compliments, then having to praise other players was difficult — saying too many good things about other players and bad things about yourself, makes yourself think. I’ve proved people wrong.”

Then he became a father, with his wife Mirka giving birth to their first set of twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva in July 2009.

Federer’s life had changed.


FEDERER STILL HOLDS the incredible feat of never having retired from a tour match injured. His body used to let him play through the pain. But now he feels those knocks and scrapes more than his younger self. He has been dogged with back issues throughout his career, but it’s been his right knee which has plagued him in later life.

He has approached this like other setbacks or hurdles in his career. Federer has adapted his game as new challenges arise. He taught himself a new backhand to deal with Nadal’s topspin forehand. In 2015 at the Cincinnati Masters, he unleashed the move known as the SABR (the Sneak Attack by Roger), which saw him attack the opponent’s second serve by basically standing on the service line and then dominating the net.

He managed to dodge surgery until 2016, when he injured his left knee. It was an innocuous incident that occurred while he was running a bath for his daughters. As he shifted the weight from one leg to the other, his left knee popped.

He later admitted he “got scared” as he saw his knee all bandaged up.

But then after recovery came Grand Slam No. 18 at the Australian Open in 2017, defeating Nadal across five sets in the final. It was the first time a men’s player had won 18, and for him it was all the more impressive, just a year after he was contemplating his tennis mortality.

By February 2018 he was back to No. 1 in the world, after adding another Wimbledon title and Australian Open crown. At the age of 36 years and 195 days, he was the oldest male to ever top the rankings.

But his body was starting to creak and the once-predictable narrative around Federer was starting to fade. In 2019, he had two championship points on his serve against Djokovic in the Wimbledon final and was unable to convert, losing in five sets.

He reached only the quarterfinal of the US Open later that year. Then he was knocked out in the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2020 in straight sets by Djokovic, and announced afterwards he would need further knee surgery.

He ended up undergoing two operations that year — focused on the medial meniscus, the part of the knee joint that cushions the impact between both sections of the leg — in a season that was interrupted by COVID-19.

The way he talked about retirement shifted. Federer started to speak with more self-awareness about his transience, talking about how he and Mirka only plan 18 months ahead at any moment.

“The big difference from 2016 is that when he took a break after Wimbledon in 2016, his muscles were always there,” Pierre Paganini, Federer’s fitness trainer, told the Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in 2021. “Now we had a total break where the muscles deteriorated considerably. It was a long time between the first operation [in February 2020] and at the point in July when we said we could gradually start working again. His muscles were no longer in the same condition, the imbalances were extreme. His muscles could no longer work immediately and needed more recovery time.”

In 2021 he managed only 14 matches. Having missed the Australian Open — his first absence since 1999 — he pulled out of the French Open ahead of the fourth round to protect his knee. Then he was knocked out at the quarterfinal stage of Wimbledon to Hubert Hurkacz, having lost 6-3, 7-5 (4), 6-0. It was the first time ever at Wimbledon that he’d lost a set without winning a single game. As Federer walked off Centre Court, he gave each stand a lingering look, a slightly longer wave than usual. Some wondered if it was his goodbye.

Just six weeks later he announced he would miss the rest of the season to have further surgery on that troublesome knee. “I will be on crutches for many weeks and also out of the game for many months,” he said. He talked of wanting to have a “glimmer of hope” of returning to the sport.

And then, radio silence.

The longer the gap in Instagram posts of photos of him holding a racket, the louder the fears over his future.

In November 2021 an interview with Federer appeared in the Tribune de Geneve. Federer talked of wanting to reappear one more time for a final hurrah in the sport. “Even if I know that the end is near, I want to try and play some more big matches,” Federer said. “That will not be easy, but I want to try.

“Let’s be clear: My life is not going to fall apart if I don’t play another Grand Slam final. But that would be the ultimate dream – to get back there. I want to see one last time what I’m capable of as a professional tennis player. I also wish I could say goodbye in my own way and on a tennis court. That’s why I give my all in my rehabilitation.”

He aimed to play again by summer 2022, but then moved that target to the Laver Cup, which begins Sept. 23.

He was meant to be forming the dream team with Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, in a tournament which would signify his return to the sport. But as it drew nearer, reports suggested he had fallen behind in his rehabilitation. And on Sept. 15, Federer said that the tournament would be his farewell.


EARLIER THIS SUMMER on July 3, Centre Court at Wimbledon was celebrating its 100th birthday. Past greats were invited back to take part, while current players Nadal and Djokovic interrupted their playing schedule (both into the second week of the tournament) to make an appearance. Players such as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg received huge welcomes from the packed crowd, as did Nadal and Djokovic.

But it was nothing compared to the ovation that greeted Federer.

He was in two minds about attending the celebration, but in the end, his love for the place won over. He was there in his immaculate suit; his rivals Djokovic and Nadal were there in their training gear. He didn’t specify why he was conflicted over attending. Perhaps it was because he wanted his return to Centre Court to be as a player, or if he did attend the celebration, it was as if he already had one foot in retirement.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of matches on this court. It feels awkward to be here today in a different type of role,” he said. “It’s great to be here with all the other champions. This court has given me my biggest wins and my biggest losses.”

You could feel the mutual admiration between him and his fellow competitors. The Big Three of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have kept each other going and motivated during a run that has seen them win 65 of the last 72 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.

Back in 2019, Nadal was asked about how Federer has pushed his own career. “We spoke about that one thousand times,” Nadal said. “The same time, it is great to be part of this rivalry — [to] be in the middle of these three players that achieved that much in this sport in the same era, [it] is something that is going to be difficult to see again.”

Whenever Djokovic talks about Federer, it is done with immense reverence. Back in 2021 after the ATP Finals, Djokovic said, “Obviously Roger is an icon of our sport and people around the world love him. They love watching him play, love seeing him around. He’s very important for our sport on and off the court.” He went on to talk about the importance of Federer having a chance to bid farewell to the sport.

But on a more personal level, at Wimbledon in 2022, Djokovic explained the true nature of what his rivalry with Federer meant to him. “As with Rafa, nothing but respect for these guys. Of course, both of them have influenced my development as a tennis player a lot, probably more than any other players,” Djokovic said.

“The most iconic matches I have played in Wimbledon were against Roger, no doubt. … It’s pretty much similar like with Nadal. Every time you step on the court with Roger, you feel it’s not an ordinary match. There’s so much more weight to everything that is around that match, the anticipation, the rivalry. … So, of course, it’s an ultimate challenge in sport playing probably Roger on grass and Rafa on clay. Those two guys have made very impressive careers on those surfaces.”

The trio have shared some of tennis’ most incredible matches. Ask any tennis fan what their favorite match in history is, and the majority will mention one involving one of that trio, or perhaps a match featuring both. Several would reference the Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer back in 2008; that epic five-set match that Nadal took is widely regarded as one of the most perfect matches ever seen.

The army of Federer devotees will have their own favorite moments, matches and memories. There were the early important wins, like the 2001 triumph over Sampras that signified the beginning of the changing of the guard. His win over Andre Agassi in the 2003 Tennis Masters Cup final (later to become the ATP Finals) cemented his status as the dominant force in tennis. There are other milestone moments, like his 2007 Wimbledon title triumph over Nadal — his fifth on the bounce — and then the way he tamed Andy Roddick‘s serve to win the 2009 Wimbledon final. There was the role he played in Switzerland’s Davis Cup triumph in 2014, where he beat Richard Gasquet over three sets in the final.

In the more recent stages, we saw the fight from him in 2016 at Wimbledon when he came back from two sets down to beat Marin Cilic in five in the quarterfinals. Then there were the two Australian Open wins in 2017 and 2018 over Nadal and Cilic respectively after that first prolonged absence due to injury. And then there was that defeat to Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final as Federer chased Grand Slam No. 21.

There could be countless others named. But they are only part of his legacy.


FEDERER IS THE face of Switzerland tourism. The advertisements he shot with Anne Hathaway and Robert de Niro over the past two years have gone viral. It’s just part of what Federer has busied himself with while he underwent his rehabilitation. In October 2021, Federer was at the unveiling of a tram named after him in Basel called the “Federer Express” (a slightly different honor to the one he received back in 2003, when he was given a milking cow named Juliet for winning the Swiss Open). He has streets named after him in Halle, Germany, and Biel, Switzerland.

Switzerland will always be home, but Federer is a worldwide star. Even though he hadn’t played a competitive match in 2022, in August Federer was named Forbes’ highest-paid tennis player for the past 12 months, having brought in an estimated $90 million. That comes through his partnerships with Rolex, Uniqlo and Credit Suisse, alongside his stake in the company behind running shoe On.

He has also built the Roger Federer Foundation, which helps children living in poverty and includes school programs in Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Switzerland. The foundation says it has benefited approximately 1.8 million children over the past 18 years and invested $52 million in the region.

This will all keep him busy in retirement, but anchoring it all is his family. His twin daughters Myla and Charlene are now 13, and he also has eight-year-old twin boys, Lenny and Leo. “I want to find the right balance between my tennis, the needs of the children, Mirka, our friends,” he said in an interview with Caminada Magazin. “One has the feeling that the wheel turns faster and faster with age. Now I’m in the middle of life, still have enough energy, plus a lot of experience, I’m full of zest for action.”

But first comes his farewell to tennis. Having faced the question about when he’d retire for 13 years, he announced it — without fanfare — on Thursday. The statement lasted 4 minutes, 34 seconds as he read it out on his social media. Then those words traveled the world.

The announcement prompted tributes from players past and present. There were those from greats of the game such as Billie Jean King, who called Federer the “champion’s champion.” Then there was newly crowned US Open champ and world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, who said, “Roger has been one of my idols and source of inspiration.”

And then there was Nadal. “Dear Roger, my friend and rival,” he wrote on Twitter. “I wish this day would have never come. It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world. It’s been a pleasure but also an honor and privilege to share all these years with you, living so many amazing moments on and off the court.”

He could not retire on the grass of Wimbledon, but his departure will still be in London next week. Even when his knee finally gave him no other option, even in retiring, Federer did it in his own harmonious manner.

“The last 24 years on tour have been an incredible adventure,” Federer said in his retirement statement. “While it sometimes feels like it went by in 24 hours, it has also been so deep and magical it seems as if I’ve already lived a full lifetime.

“I have laughed and cried, felt joy and pain, and most of all I have felt incredibly alive.

“When my love of tennis started, I was a ball kid in my hometown 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 began 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. Finally, to the game of tennis: I love you and will never leave you.”

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