• Marseille, February 13th, 2000, final of the Open 13 ATP Tournament: the match is over. A spotty young man is in despair and quite crying. Having lost the decisive tie-break, it seems impossible to win another major tennis tournament. But the winner, his fellow-countryman Marc Rosset, comforts him: “Roger, don’t worry, you will win another time.”
• Dubai, March 2nd, 2019, final of the ATP 500 “Dubai Tennis Championships”: the Champion holds the trophy up, showing a satisfied smile. Photographers are jostling each other to take a snap which can capture this historical moment. He will be 38 year-old in August, an age maybe too old for an athlete: but don’t tell him, for he has just won his ATP title n. 100.
The cult of Federer, the worship enjoyed by this champion, hinges on twenty years of victories and millions of passionate fans who acclaim him throughout the world. Writers and intellectuals have also lost their mind for him, enraptured by his regal dances and fascinated by his attitude on the tennis court and in life.
Sport chronicles cannot completely explain such a phenomenon; an account of data and a list of smashing records can only partially suggest Federer’s real strength.
His story is an extraordinary one.
The elected one
“Federer brings tennis scene to the centre. He considers himself part of this sport. This also means to belong to its history: he plays tennis from an historical perspective.”André Scala
When history casts its dice on a large arena, we can encounter phenomena which are difficult to explain: the same happens when a country with little sport tradition produces a champion.
This was the case of Bjorn Borg, the first tennis “rockstar”: coming from Sweden, a nation hardly mentioned in the annals of tennis but, since Borg’s appearance, able to produce a long list of champions, he gave rise to a huge storm in the entire North Europe and firstly in Boris Becker’s Germany.
We don’t know whether Switzerland was directly affected by the Scandinavian storm, but during the Nineties, the Confederation briefly had, as matter of fact, two tennis players in the men’s top ten ranking and a very young champion, Martina Higgins, queen of the women’s ranking.
On this fertile ground, the miracle of Roger Federer takes place. Being its genetic heritage half Swiss and half South African/Afrikaner, he also represents the power of contamination, the attitude to intermix homelands and continents.
When Roger turned professional, in July 1998, he was soon regarded as one of the next big things, although he was clearly immature and subjected to fits of anger.
He stepped into the limelight in 2001, acting as the executioner of his idol Pete Sampras on the lawns of Wimbledon, in a match which marked the passage of testimony. Unfortunately, he did not take advantage of it.
Thus, the awaited recognition is delayed to his first Grand Slam singles title, still at Wimbledon (2003). This becomes the turning point of his career. The twenty-two year-old Federer is now more aware of himself: talent is a gift which cannot be thrown away; on the contrary it requests a sense of responsibility, as you have to cultivate it in order to express your best abilities. For Roger, this quantum leap cannot be postponed. He wants to dominate the tennis world, by filling the void left by the great champions of the Nineties.
The years from 2003 to 2007 are the most intense and establish Federer as one of all- time greats in the world stage of sports. He is requested by sponsors and media which soon realize his potential and appeal. He is the absolute sovereign of tennis courts and his aura of invincibility is so palpable that the adversaries seem already defeated before even playing, only hoping not to make a poor showing. Each victory is taken for granted, a mere formality requesting no toil or particular effort: his ruling power is more an idyll than a competition, a worldly Eden without any tempting snake.
Many commentators notice that Federer never appears sweaty or tired during the matches, often mere “agonistic activities”; others criticize his “cannibalism” due to the absence of real challengers; his colleagues, while shaking hands at the end of the match, take care to tell him that it was a real honour to play (and lose) against him.
In Switzerland, his image is on tourist sign postings indicating Basilea: the myth of Roger Federer is stronger than ever, fostered by an adoring public and huge press acclaim.
His career is by now well-known. After this very successful period, just like any epic story, there will be falls and hard days but also unexpected resurrections.
The aesthetic miracle
“The elegance of the athletic gesture is not an ornament. It is part of Federer’s technique”André Scala
“Federer is Mozart and Metallica at the same time”David Foster Wallace
Attending a Federer’s match is like entering a library full of classics: you can feel history’s weight, being in the presence of someone who will pass on the noble tradition of tennis. It is like being in a scriptorium, where the Champion is the calligraphy master, or browsing through the pages of a troubadour poem, enraptured by the fluidity of that poetry, hypnotized by rhythmic shots which sound like rhyming verses.
This is Roger Federer’s art: a dance slightly touching grass, a sheet music made of silent movements and gestures counterpointed by shots and the crowd excitement. We call it tennis, because Federer is constrained into the rules and limits of this sport: but his playing style is most of all an aesthetic experience – religious, according to David Foster Wallace – whose aim is harmony and grace.
Federer’s talent is conveyed by an extraordinary equilibrium, a perfect proportion of fluidity and effort, touch and strength, technique and athleticism, style and result, indolence and determination.
Nothing seems forced in this champion: a slightly muscular physique, an appropriate athletic preparation and no excessive training sessions. The sense of measure is his guideline.
Even his indecision and emotiveness during key moments, as seen in the matches he lost notwithstanding a favourable match-point – the latest one at Wimbledon is still a bitter memory – seem a sort of counterbalance of the gift received: with an emotionless mind and a steady arm, he would have been invincible, too strong and perfect for this world. Thus, natural equilibrium is preserved.
“He’s a brute, a monster, a force of nature, the strongest and the most mobile tennis player I’ve ever seen”Andre Agassi, 2005
In the heroic story of Federer, a rival was missing. Only a demon could break the idyll and reveal the mortality of the hero, making all this epic.
Nemesis shows itself under bull-like appearance and beastly screams, a strong physicality, a competitive spirit which frightens and hides impressive but undervalued technical qualities.
Rafael Nadal is combative and strong-willed, strategist on the court and obsessed by training: his muscular figure is an externalized representation of self-discipline. Likewise, his talent is sharpened with hard work, according to necessities. He is one of the most competitive players in sport history.
If the earth were attacked by aliens, we would not rely on heads of state, armed forces or scientists, but simply deliver planet’s keys to Rafa Nadal. We would be safe only with him, thanks to his courage and ferocious determination, a superhuman strength which can turn into fury, a tactical intelligence which allows him to take always the right decision.
He is the best adversary that any script writer would imagine to contrast the hero. Completely different for style and energy, Nadal is the perfect villain for Federer and his supporters, used to win effortlessly. He is the one who firstly makes us doubt of our hero’s invincibility, becoming a nightmare when Federer’s defeats become rule rather than exception. He seems unable to find himself, bewildered by the fury of the young claimant to the throne.
The formal coronation of the new Majorcan sovereign takes place in the memorable 2008 Wimbledon final. But the real one will occur seven months later, in Melbourne, with Federer in tears and upset, finally aware of being neither the best nor the strongest world’s tennis player. Chased away from his worldly Eden, he is compelled to face pain: and, not only him, but also his fans, shocked and saddened for their idol, almost thinking that the easy victories of the previous years were really due to the absence of rivals, as somebody claimed.
It takes time to get rid of “nadalite” nightmares but Federer will eventually establish a sort of equilibrium with his adversary.
When bronze shines like gold
“Tennis was dominated by Federer and Nadal for several years, not only on court. Novak… is the number one, after taking the titles from both. Nobody else did it.”Boris Becker
The destiny of the right man born in wrong times seems already marked: the Helvetic-Hispanic diarchy does not allow any chance to ATP vassals. But the new claimant to the throne shows a fierce determination: he is Serbian and hungry for glory. He likes to be witty and play the clown to drive out the woes suffered during Yugoslav wars.
However, Novak Djokovic’s declared aim is to be the number one, to fly higher than the two sacred monsters of tennis. To do that, it is necessary to have talent and a winner’s attitude: he possesses both, as well as method and sacrifice spirit. Because of this, he can finally establish himself and dominate the circuit for about five-years, with an insatiable appetite.
At first, his mission seems impossible but Nole is also able to outplay directly the rivals and threaten their records. In addition, considering all the obstacles, his victories have a higher specific weight.
Novak works miracles, but Roger & Rafa’s supremacy, as well as their icon status, is not to be replaced. Nole remains a newcomer, the one arrived later, when people’s hearts were already conquered. Although a winner, he remains an outsider. In this paradoxical situation, bronze shines like gold.
But when Novak shows uncertainty, he is soon forgotten by audience and media: he endures the pain without letting it on. Then, he again conquers the scene relying on old schemes and his instinctive appetite.
Game, sunset, match
Roger Federer belongs to a category of champions fully involved in global marketing, a phenomenon arising in the Nineties along with the integration of world trade and well represented by figures like Michael Jordan, Schumacher, Ronaldo de Lima and Lance Armstrong, some of the most important champions of that period. Like them, he expresses dominance instincts, lust of records and hyper professionalism, as well as the ability to be a successful one-man brand.
“Roger is a global icon. What makes him so attractive for all the big companies is the fact that he is Swiss. Switzerland is a small country with one associates loyalty, luxury, precision and perfection. Now, whether he’s in France, Asia, the United States or elsewhere, he is welcomed as though he were at home. It’s is as though his country’s neutrality makes him a global citizen.” In these words, his manager, Tony Godsick, expresses the unique power of the Helvetic champion in sport business, a brand whose revenue is extraordinary.
It is too easy to admire Roger Federer, a man of many virtues and victories. His style on the court and in life is too seductive. Moreover, he is very able to hide the results obtained behind the beauty of the athletic gesture. Those who look for perfection may feel dizzy when the Beautiful (nice game) and the Good (result) are conveyed at the same time.
This kind of admiration stirs up memories, the regret for a golden age when each victory looked like a sort of feudal tax obtained without any effort and any defeat was seen as an injustice, a victory of matter over spirit, of physical laws over gentle touch, of bad taste over refinement.
But, loving Roger Federer means acknowledging that your champion may not be the greatest one ever, as repeatedly claimed by media. It means watching him fall and soothe his wounds to rise again and revive the wonder.
It means crying for his victory over Rafa at the 2017 Australian Open, his most touchy, epic and, above all, liberating result, for it marked his renaissance and reversed the negative trend.
Now that adversaries are more competitive and his farewell to tennis seems so close, the distance between being the best winner of all time or a loser is slightly, slightly and distressing like a match-point reversing the result.
But the story of a Champion who seems eternal must teach a very precious lesson and let fans develop a peaceful attitude. Debating the Greatest of All Time or listing the number of records is useless. The stronger one, whatever he may be, should take what he deserves. Breaking records should not be an obsession. For us, admiring once again the Maestro would be enough, being grateful for living in Roger Federer’s era.