In the old press room at the Australian Open, just near the welcome desk, sat a TV monitor. As I would breeze in and out, holding a pad full of scribbles, I would glance at it.
The monitor noted practice times. And if he was on and there was no pressing assignment, I would saunter off to Court No.16, his usual workplace in the second week. Sometimes I would go with Greg Baum, the masterful columnist from The Age, both of us musing over greatness. Little was said.
The practice arena is a factory of repetition, a polishing workshop, and it can be boring—but it’s also a privilege. Almost no one else lets you into their world. Not Meryl Streep into her rehearsal space. Not Adele into her studio. But here, with Roger Federer, I could lean on the fence and into his world.
He is playful and purposeful, all flick and whip, mobile and still. In matches, they would do super slo-mo shots and you could see his head still, eyes tracking the ball on to his racket. He was like Sachin Tendulkar, anticipating, picking cues, seeing the ball early, registering speed, calculating angle, selecting a shot of 90, all inside a second.
An expressive Federer searching for his precise self is unforgettable. As Martha Graham—and it seems appropriate to quote a choreographer—once noted: “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
Before finals or semis, the locker room by now mostly emptied, he would find someone to warm-up with. Everyone wanted to hit with Federer, think of it as reading lines with Robert De Niro. But maybe not in the first round of a Slam. In 2010, my friend Peter Hanlon, then of The Age, and I went to find Igor Andreev, who told us he had got a text from a friend that he was playing Federer first up. “I thought he was joking,’’ said Andreev. “It can’t be true!’’
I have returned to the practice court because there’s nothing to look forward to (Laver Cup aside), only to rewind. Retirement can leave everyone a little lost. Federer will miss the crowd, for he and they fell for each other, a devotion beyond language and borders and flags. But he will not return to the arena because he’s 41 and satisfied. Other athletes often find the real world a hard fit but Federer wears most things comfortably.
But it’s us, writers, watchers, who feel like a piece of our jigsaw has been yanked out. Champions become our companions. You switch on the TV for them just like you put on Bruce Springsteen in the background. Connection turns into attachment and then habit. And then one day you trade them in for the new.
Everything in modern sport leans towards excess. We over-pay, over-praise, over-dramatise. Worship has become ritualised till it has become dreary. But Federer was different and so will his absence be. No one has been so elegant at such speed nor worn fame so lightly. In an entitled landscape, he leaves a void.
For a week, I have been wandering through Federerland, writing a long farewell piece for my paper and then rustling through the past. A hundred pages of Getty Images photographs to look at. A library of articles to scroll through.
Old names emerge. Guillermo Cañas, who held him to a 3-3 head-to-head record. Old clips make one pause. Federer looking away from his daughters as they arrive on court after Wimbledon 2014, as if he doesn’t want them to see him in pain. Later, he is spotted walking with them, holding hands. Somehow you never worried for him.
The match points against Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2019. In every watching, he still loses them. The tirade about the “lucky shot” when the Serb beats him in New York, 2011. The underrated defence. The holy arc of that forehand.
The 24 straight finals won between 2003 and 2005, when he seemed to be reinventing the game. Playing shots it seemed we had never seen. Shots which had waited for him to appear to compose them. Elif Shafak, the Turkish writer, started a TED talk by asking, “Can you taste words?” What about shots? Didn’t Federer’s have their own flavour?
Ramesh Krishnan wrote in reply to a question: “The two players that Federer reminded me a lot of from my playing days were Ilie Năstase and John McEnroe.” Artists in sport are often eccentric, inflammable, but Federer was the polite poet. He probably burped stylishly.
Old interview transcripts were read. Questions on cricket. Questions on Marat Safin’s beer drinking. Questions always on Rafael Nadal. And answers, like one from 2004, when he’s asked if he thinks he’s the most complete player around, which most people think he is.
“Yeah, I’m maybe the most natural ball-striker, I don’t know. I’m not going to start praising myself. But just for me, my game feels natural. I feel like I’m living the game when I’m out there. I feel when a guy is going to hit the ball, I know exactly with the angles and the spins, I just feel that I’ve got that figured out.”
All figured out because of practice.
I would stand at Court No.16, maybe in line with the baseline and a few feet away. What is clear to him is a blur for me. Life lived at different speeds. Sometimes when he was serving, going wide from the deuce court, I would go to the other end to feel his curving control.
Hum isn’t quite the right word, neither is click. Timing just makes a sound that the ear knows, like Mark Waugh flicking to leg. A long time ago, Krishnan spoke to me about timing and said: “It’s like a precision watch, as Ion Țiriac once said, 240 odd things must go right.”
On Court No.16 some days, Federer felt like he had found 239.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.