London | Reflecting on Federer’s legacy

Roger Federer had just completed a post-final Wimbledon press conference at a tournament he won a record eight times. Another year of triumph in the men’s singles. Which one I cannot recall. I had the briefest of words with him as he made his way through the crowd of media, graciously accepting congratulations from any individual breaking the professional rule for remaining totally objective. Embarrassingly, I’d felt a compulsion to fracture it further by asking him for his signature. Loathe taking advantage of my privileged position, but, to my shame and something I’m far from proud about, was overwhelmed enough to do so.

Dear Roger, my friend and rival. I wish this day would have never come. It’s a sad day for me personally and for sports around the world. Rafa Nadal

In mitigation, the compulsion is as rare as hen’s teeth over my 40-years-and-counting as a journalist.

But Federer, along with Muhammad Ali, George Best and Jimmy Greaves, proved irresistible. Why?

Simply put they have the X-Factor. Bracketed, in my mind, as having more of it than other athletes.

It is defined as “a quality that you cannot describe that makes someone special”.

Federer has intangibles in excelsis.

In what can be a brutal sport, he has added finesse, elegance and artistry. All reflected in his game and personality. It has been old school in the modern arena. His one-handed backhand is the stuff of dreams. And he has had class seeping from every pore in the biggest of on-court crises. Federer has been a sponsors dream as he is articulate, accommodating and looks the part with tasteful tailoring, while remaining urbane and refined.

His fellow players have respected him as a bloke and someone who has fought their corner in political battles to improve their lot as president of the ATP Player Council. He is also the loving husband of Mirka and father of two sets of twins. And involves himself in charities.

If an individual tennis player has appeared more perfect, he is yet to be spotted through this set of eyes.

But don’t confuse his impeccable behaviour with a soft centre. He has displayed a steely resolve, the killer instinct, on court. Able to hit returns with power as well as touch. Be a champion. One who has stayed motivated despite the collection of glittering prizes, money, plaudits, nee fawning.

Why? He has loved to play. His boyhood enthusiasm might manifest itself more serenely to the youth who raged on court. But was still there when he was forced to call it a day after three knee operations at the age of 41 on Thursday (15th September 2022). The bottle of fizz still bubbled at the neck.

Roger Federer with the Wimbledon trophy he has won a record eight times

Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty Images

You can also throw in the adjective “greatness”, which is reckoned “the quality or state of being great as in size, skill, achievement or power”, when analysing the Federer Effect.

How do you judge it? Titles? Popularity? Influence? A combination? Federer certainly has the key to that combination. He tweeted a video announcing he is to retire from the tour after 24 years and 103 championship wins following a scheduled appearance in the Laver Cup at the 02 in London. Saying the right things in the right way. Talking about his “incredible adventure”. How the sport has made him feel “incredibly alive”. His “unbelievable fans”.

Adding: “Of all the gifts that tennis has given me over the years, the greatest, without a doubt, has been the people I’ve met along the way: my friends, my competitors, and most of all the fans who give the sport its life.” And signing off: “To my tennis family and beyond. With love.” Within 24 hours, 12.4m had ‘liked’ it.

The tributes flooded in. From his biggest foe Rafa Nadal, who said: “Dear Roger, my friend and rival. 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.” To the fan who just said: “We always love you Roger”.

In between, superstar Serena Williams, who herself has just retired and played Federer in Hopman Cup mixed doubles three years ago, said to him: “You inspired countless millions and millions of people – including me – and we will never forget. Welcome to the retirement club. And thank you for being you. I have always looked up to you and admired you. I applaud you and look forward to all that you do in the future.”

With the old guard on the wane, Carlos Alcaraz, 19, the US Open champion and world No.1, said: “Roger has been one of my idols and a source of inspiration. Thank you for everything you have done for our sport. I still want to play with you.”

Female No.1 Iga Swiatek, 19, from Poland, added: ‘I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done and everything you are for our sport.”

American Andy Roddick, beaten by Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final, said: “Thanks for the shared memories my friend. It was an honour to share time/experiences on the most hallowed grounds in our sport. Don’t be a stranger.”

Federer has been a one-man phenomenon.

He was the first player to lift 20 Grand Slam crowns in an era considered the greatest in the history of the sport, although Nadal (22) and his other fiercest rival Novak Djokovic (21) can challenge the general acclaim that Federer is the GOAT (the greatest of all time).

Former Swiss ball-boy Federer. from Basel, has inspired countless youngsters to pick up a racket and live the dream, as Williams suggested. Set an example of how to behave with sportsmanship and a calm and respectful on-court demeanour. And he has attracted a global fanbase which stretches beyond tennis, beyond sports, with the way he has carried himself generally.

His innate charm, politeness, wit and intelligence (qualities he has always displayed while switching between at least three languages during media briefings). The pride his family must feel is incalculable.

Federer has been a class act since becalming that anger displayed as a kid. Containing the fire. Transforming it, along with a God-given talent, to such positive effect. Leaving an extraordinary legacy, while smoothly, coolly combining old school traditions with state-of-the-art.

There has been a wealth of greats in the sport, from Rod Laver to, of course, Nadal and Djokovic, Fred Perry to Andy Murray, John McEnroe and Bjorn Bjorg to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. I could go on.

Former winners of Wimbledon Roger Federer (L) and John McEnroe during this years Centre Court Centenary Ceremony,

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

But none of them can match up to Federer. McEnroe himself told New York radio station WFAN after Federer came back from knee trouble to lift the 2017 Australian Open: “Federer overall, consistency-wise, is the best ever.”

I wrote at the time: “Federer might just bring his Grand Slam total up to 20, even 21, by the end of the year, including a record eighth Wimbledon. Far-fetched? Surely, the guy has a dodgy knee, is a father of four and past his prime at 35, some might say. But who is going to bet against the Swiss after his heroics in 2017’s opening major in Australia? It looked as though Federer had achieved everything there was to achieve, bar Olympic gold, before he donned the mantle of the Comeback King in Melbourne where he increased his record Grand Slam total to 18.”

Federer has maintained a consistent career of success since becoming world No.1 for the first time in February 2004. The developments of rackets and improved fitness and diet have allowed competitors to strike the ball at a higher velocity aligned with the improved techniques. Big hitters from the baseline have abounded, but Federer has remained unfazed. Able to mix his beautiful game for one with a bit of beast. And gain his reward. In spades.

Federer, who aims to play non-tour events, stated in the video: “I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on Earth,”

Well, tennis is fortunate Federer chose to base himself within its confines.

Federer has been and will continue to be the ultimate ambassador for it whether his future is in coaching, commentating, administration or giving his family more TLC. Thank you, Roger. Still got that signature.

Poland's Hubert Hurkacz in quarter final action against Roger Federer in what is now the Swiss player's last match at Wimbledon.

Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images

* Mike Donovan has authored The Jimmy Greaves We Knew: The Authorised Celebration of a National Treasure out on Pitch. Available on Amazon, Waterstone’s and other good bookshops and via the following link: Read a FREE sample



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