It is still early in the evening in UK when I find myself relatively alone in the media centre. My deadline—Indian time—means that my focus is more on filing the day's deliverables rather than watching the men's top seed in action.
It's Wimbledon 2001, in which Pete Sampras is attempting his 8th title on these grass courts. In this fourth round match on 2 July, his opponent is a relatively unheard of Swiss teenager in a ponytail, who the reporter thinks should be a fairly routine conquest for the American. Hence the focus on deadline rather than action.
As some of the few other remaining sports writers make their way out of the media centre towards the Centre Court, one of them pauses for a moment with a friendly smile and asks: "You don't want to see this one?"
"No," I say. "It will be a fairly routine early round win for Sampras, no?"
"You should probably see this. This kid is going to be the next big thing in tennis."
Despite never having met the writer before or since that conversation, I do feel a sense of gratitude, for the "next big thing in tennis" did turn out to be that. The 19-year-old Roger Federer ended up beating Sampras. These were two men of similar styles and demeanours, who could not have scripted the passing-of-the-baton better than at Wimbledon's Centre Court. The five-set match, the only time the two played each other, ended Sampras' quest for a fifth straight Wimbledon title.
Now, 21 years later, as Federer retires from tennis having won eight Wimbledon titles of his own, it seems like that match against Sampras set the tone for his career so well. For the knowledgeable European writer, who had pointed me in the right direction, acknowledging Federer's potential had been far easier, having seen him win the boys' title there in 1998.
Over the course of the next two decades, Federer more than delivered on the promise— to the extent of being considered by many to be ‘the greatest of all time’. It's a rhetorical argument because every generation has a ‘greatest’ and Federer soon became a prospect rather than a certainty for the sobriquet, once Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic started racking up the titles.
But unlike the other two, Federer always seemed to float above the fray. It was what some people may call his ‘classiness’: the neat clothes, the unruffled appearance, the Rolex endorsement. With Federer, there were no controversies, no tantrums on court and no shouting at the umpires.
He could certainly have been a bit more vocal on certain issues, but the Swiss are typically apolitical, so you could say he stayed true to character. As his biographer Christopher Clarey wrote in The Master: The Long Runand Beautiful Game Of Roger Federer, Nadal liked the fight more than the win while Federer did not like friction.
Then there was the tennis, the effortless tennis, that would make fans gasp and wonder for as long as he played. A friend who plays the game once said that while watching Nadal, he would often wish he could play like the Spaniard. Watching Federer, though, he was sure he would never be able to play like him.
What endeared Federer to Indians fans was also the constant presence of his family—wife Mirka and four children—who would watch him play from the stands. It was a part of his being, the human and the champion able to coexist seamlessly; a combination that few top level athletes have been able to manage.
Federer came to India for the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in 2014, playing in front of an exhibition crowd in Delhi, trading shots with a completely out of place Aamir Khan and Deepika Padukone. It was third and final time I saw him play in person, the second time being a few years earlier, again at Wimbledon, during a routine early round win. In Delhi, I remember feeling embarrassed at the sight of Federer having to play against film stars, as if people wouldn’t have come just to watch him play a proper game of tennis, against another tennis player.
So scarred was Federer, it seems to me, by that experience, that he ended up forming an exhibition league of his own, not too dissimilar to the IPTL called the Laver Cup, which is where he would take his final bow later this month in London.
But besides the few live, in-stadia games, there were all the other matches, watched on television, that brought joy and heart break in equal measure, as his prowess first grew, and then waned, in the presence of two other mighty challengers. There was that amazing resurgence of late-career Federer in 2017, when he defeated Nadal at the Australian Open final. He would go on to win Wimbledon later that year, and win the Australian Open again in 2018, which turned out to be his last Grand Slam title. Those wins promised so much before the two match points that he lost in the 2019 Wimbledon final to Djokovic, the most painful defeat of them all.
To focus on what could have been is the mark of a pessimist. But such has been Federer’s powerful charisma, that true fans find it difficult to disassociate with even the losses. From the time he sprawled out flat on court after beating Sampras, Federer's worn his vulnerability on his sleeves, in stark contrast to most sports champions who tend to exhibit arrogance rather than fallibility. When it came to Federer, his softer side was always just one win or defeat away from becoming visible to the whole world. That’s one more thing Indian fans associate Federer with—humility.
As Clarey points out, to those who witnessed Federer's ascent from the mid-2000s, his overall record might even seem like an underachievement. He had won 16 of his 20 majors before the age of 30. Surely he should have been the male player with the most Grand Slam singles titles? But with his career having coincided with two other remarkable champions, who both have a better head-to-head record against him (Nadal 24-16, Djokovic 27-23), that was not meant to be.
His 20 Grand Slam singles titles—which will probably end up as the third most of all time for men—besides more than 100 ATP Tour titles, the hundreds of weeks spent as the number one, and the glorious years of domination in the mid-late-2000s are better markers for Federer's career.
What's tougher for fans—and even for more casual followers—will be to stay connected with the sport, to find someone else to follow, to basically just get over it. It didn't happen for me with women's tennis since Steffi Graf quit playing, or with Formula One since Ayrton Senna's accident, or with cricket since Mohammed Azharuddin got mired in match fixing.
Sachin Tendulkar played it right, with his words this time, when he paid tribute to Federer: "We fell in love with your brand of tennis. Slowly, your tennis became a habit. And habits never retire, they become a part of us."
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.