One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him and one ends up… exalted at the revelation of what a human being—a being like oneself—can do.”
—South African Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee
To understand why Roger Federer’s announcement of his retirement—a voice-only recording that was duplicated on his letterhead as two typed pages, both distributed without much fanfare on social media—was received as if it were the closing stanza of a modern-day myth, it is necessary to turn away from the glitter of his countless trophies. One has to ignore for the moment his extraordinary consistency at the four Grand Slams where he reached 46 semi-finals (or better) over more than a decade, his record eight Wimbledon titles and his unrivalled six wins of the elite year-end finale, the ATP Finals. Look past his artistic athleticism that led sportswriters to compare him to Michelangelo, Monet and Mozart when a hyperlink to a You Tube video would have worked better than trying to describe the indescribable. Certainly, these are all part of the fairy tale of how Federer became among the most loved sports icons ever.
But Federer’s crowning achievement in this age of celebrity is that he remained down-to-earth and remarkably human. After having been a Superman in tennis whites, he somehow slipped back to being an everyman Clark Kent seconds after a match was over. No champion has cried so often and so openly after winning—and sometimes after losing. He may have single-handedly made it acceptable for men to do so in public. No sports star has giggled as routinely in post-match interviews.
No tennis great at Federer’s stratospheric level has more than occasionally lost the matches he should have won. It sometimes seemed as if he didn’t compete hard enough, perhaps because he seemed disinclined to pump his fists. Refreshingly, even grunting on returns appeared too symptomatic of a wrestling match for Federer. L’ Équipe, the French newspaper, greeted Federer’s retirement with a rousing headline, Long Live The King. But the Swiss was, against the odds, determined also to be a common citizen, despite enjoying a messianic appeal that elicited “wahs” from Chinese relatively new to the sport in Shanghai and prompted men in suits to shout “Roger, we love you” at Wimbledon.
To understand how relatively untouched by the trappings of celebrity Federer has been, consider this alternative soundtrack to the roll call of championships and the narrative arc of his gladiatorial rivalries with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, both of whom he trailed in head-to-head matches. Two incidents, almost two decades apart, point to how approachable he remained throughout his career.
* The first year-end finale to be hosted in Shanghai in 2005 was a potentially catalytic moment for tennis because the sport was keen to accumulate fans in newly wealthy China, just as American basketball had done. A few weeks before the tournament in November, Federer had flown to China’s commercial capital to promote what is called tennis’ fifth Grand Slam. He had done photo- ops across town and played doubles with Shanghai’s mayor. After a 12-hour day, when he learnt that there was a dinner for the staff working at the tournament, Federer asked if he and his then girlfriend (now wife), Mirka Vavrinec, could drop by. They stayed till 11pm. After this story was recounted during the championships of the top eight players by the tournament director, there was an appreciative murmur. A couple of nights later, Federer was asked about it. His response could not have been more matter-of-fact: “I knew I was here for the opening, not for myself. It was good fun. I don’t get to spend every day with the government, especially from China.”
* At a small and casual Swiss restaurant this June, an ardent fan found himself a couple of tables away from Federer. The 30-something man stood up and announced he had a tattoo of a quote from Federer on his forearm. “Show him, show him,” shouted the women around him. Federer disbelievingly rubbed the man’s forearm, and then stood to give the fan a bear hug. The champion, who would ordinarily have been preparing for Wimbledon in June and almost certainly had his impending retirement weighing him down, looked visibly moved.
In these off-stage situations, the “real Federer” revealed himself. He combines a great sense of responsibility to his sport with empathy and a sense of humour, which are on display whether he’s meeting bigwigs in a foreign country or a fan in a restaurant. He has a curiosity about the people he meets, which is unusual among sports stars and many other highly driven, successful people. Simon Kuper, author and Financial Times columnist, reports that he was almost bombarded with questions about himself when he interviewed Federer a couple of years ago.
From the apex of his sport, Federer has thus turned the conventions of celebrity upside down. Perhaps in part because he lives in Switzerland, where he is afforded the privacy superstars elsewhere in the world can only dream of, Federer has always seemed to enjoy post-match press conferences and the occasional drudgery that comes with being a top player. More than a decade ago, an inexperienced young reporter at Wimbledon asked the Swiss how he was so fluent in English. Many of us grimaced but Federer calmly explained that because his mother was South African, he had always spoken it at home, alongside his father’s native Swiss German.
I have been the beneficiary of this kindness and old-fashioned courtesy—no other words describe it—when I flew to Shanghai from London in 2005 to report an FT Weekend cover story on the then three-time Wimbledon champion. Soon after I walked into his suite at the Hilton, he doubled the time I had for the interview to more than an hour. When his then coach, Tony Roche, dropped by to check when they were going down for dinner, Federer set up a time for the interview I had requested with Roche.
During our conversation, he was candid about the mounting pressure, before he won his first Wimbledon in 2003, that he might end up as one of those huge talents who never succeeded. Federer spoke with obvious affection of his childhood coach, Peter Carter, whom he credits for his free-flowing playing style. Everyone, even the supremely gifted, needs someone outside their family who believes in them unconditionally; instead of the tantrums Federer threw often as a boy, Carter saw only the talent. Carter died on his honeymoon in South Africa in 2002 in a freak road accident (asked about what Carter might have thought of his protégé’s 20 Grand Slam titles, Federer wept openly during a CNN interview in 2019). Federer rededicated himself to tennis; a year later, he had won Wimbledon.
During the interview, he never seemed distracted or hurried. I presumptuously suggested he come to the net more often, as he had early in his career. Federer responded as if the suggestion had come from his coaching team instead of a business journalist who had never even made his mediocre school team. Soon, he was discussing the intricacies of simplifying his volley. He dismissed predictions that had begun a decade and a half ago that he could be the greatest of all time. He said Rod Laver—who won all four Slams in 1962 and then repeated that feat in 1969 after being disallowed from playing because professionals were not admitted to the four Slams till 1968—and Martina Navratilova—who gifted Mirka rackets after seeing her play as a child—were more deserving (by coincidence, those were my views too, then and, more controversially, now).
As the interview wound down, he requested I wait a couple of days before I set up an interview with his mother, Lynette, so she could get over jet lag. He then walked me towards the door and said goodbye before disappearing into the bedroom. It was well past 8pm and I assumed he was late for dinner. Seconds later, he was back, saying Mirka was in the shower, and apologised that she would not be able to say goodbye. This week, he credited her with making his life on tour more normal by suggesting they go out for dinner after a tournament ended and enjoy the cities they visited.
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I left Shanghai admiring his parents for being both hugely supportive as well as giving him so much leeway that they discovered in a local newsletter that he had decided to move to the national tennis centre about 200km away. This involved learning French and living with a foster family. He was all of 14.
The tennis centre at Écublens was where he met Pierre Paganini, his career-long trainer, now 64, who early on was focused on keeping Federer agile rather than beefing him up in the gym. Paganini told me this was critical to ensure the “endurance of explosivity”, the ability to repeatedly come up with bursts of speed in a five-set match. Paganini’s magic left Federer mostly injury-free till 2016, when he required surgery for a meniscus tear endured while kneeling down to draw a bath for his twin daughters.
He returned for an utterly memorable 2017, which began with him reeling off five straight games to beat Nadal in the fifth set of the Australian Open final. He followed up with straight set wins over Nadal in Miami and Indian Wells and repeated that in Shanghai that year. His father, Robert, contributed hugely to his confidence that year. Tired of seeing opponents go after Federer’s backhand, he is believed to have given the champion a eureka moment. “Just hit the ball, dammit,” his father said. Through that year, Federer struck winner after winner off that wing, a man in a hurry at the end of his career who was playing better than in his youth.
In the years since that interview, watching implausibly angled backhand passes at full stretch or drop shots conjured sometimes even off an opponent’s serve, I have regretted not openly expressing my gratitude, as the Swiss fan did this summer, for what the novelist David Foster Wallace, who was a junior player in Midwestern America, memorably described as “Federer Moments…These are times when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made. The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.”
In a sense, the thanks on behalf of millions who have marvelled at Federer’s magic was enshrined at the celebrations on the middle Sunday of Wimbledon this July to commemorate Centre Court turning 100. Even after the roll call of tennis luminaries, ranging from Rod Laver to Billie Jean King, Margaret Court to Rafael Nadal, generated plenty of applause, the reaction was electric when Federer, who had not played competitively in a year, stepped on court. He was wearing a business suit rather than Wimbledon whites, an omen that his career was over. Sensing this, the crowd rose as one and gave its favourite champion a standing ovation that went on and on.
I was reminded of Lynette Federer recounting how she and her husband had to intervene with the coaches at the Swiss national tennis centre after 14-year-old Federer became withdrawn and lacked confidence. He was grappling with the challenge of living away from home and being disciplined repeatedly for not conforming to the strict tennis regimen. Turning emotional during a breakfast interview in Shanghai, Lynette recalled telling the coaches: “He is mischievous, but if you give a little, he will give you back so much.”
As the countdown to Federer’s retirement has seemed an inescapable subject these past few years, I have thought often that without that crucial parental intervention, the Federer story might have turned out quite differently. Instead, Lynette’s words turned out to be prophecy worthy of a religious epic. In that moment on Centre Court, as waves of applause rained down on Federer, it was as if Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet were being simulcast on the radio channel fans follow through the Wimbledon fortnight: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” Even then, months before the quiet announcement two Thursdays ago that was heard around the world, it felt a magnificent way to say farewell.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.