This is a long time ago in Melbourne.
A wedding reception is in full noisy swing. On a trolley in an alcove a TV is on. A man is playing tennis. The groom is enraptured. The father of the bride looks on.
A question is occasionally asked: How far will you go for an athlete?
Into the kitchen of a strange place evidently.
My daughter picked the date of her wedding and only later did her partner, a tennis fan, realise it was the 2010 Australian Open men’s final day. So a little creativity was warranted.
Staff was spoken to, a large TV found in the kitchen, and the set dragged into an alcove. Every set between whisky and dances we would sneak in—me the reporter, he the fan—to watch a game.
There is no point to this story except to say that my daughter is lovely. And also that she understood. Roger Federer was playing.
Tennis was still Federer’s stage. He beat Andy Murray that Sunday but over the next six-and-a-half years won only a single other Slam. Decline is an idea, till it suddenly occurs. Now as Wimbledon begins, there is a hole in the draw. For the first time in 23 years, it will be summer without him.
The sound of the tennis will be different. On grass his game sounded like a silenced gun does in the movies. I interviewed snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan recently and he, a natural himself, said he prefers tennis the Federer way and offered precisely that sound effect:
“Pfft, pfft, pfft, pfft.”
“Fast, quick, simple, elegant.”
Wimbledon is Federer’s surface and his tribe. His game is built for “oohs”. His tidy conceit suits the place. His manners fit. He politely even sweats less. It is all past tense. Like nature, sport replenishes itself. Talent withers, Carlos Alcaraz comes. Everyone runs out of skill and is replaced. No one paints their TVs black in protest, but for genius there is a little yearning.
It’s a one-year anniversary of the 6-0 set and imagine if it’s the last set Federer played at Wimbledon? The 6-0 score was what he doled out, his racket riffing like a jazz guitarist. Ten times at Wimbledon he had 6-0 sets and then last year a risotto-eating, over-tall Pole named Hubert Hurkacz does it to him. Hurkacz idolised Federer once but in sport awe doesn’t mean mercy.
Federer played in the main draw of Wimbledon more times than any other Slam: 22 appearances, 12 finals, eight titles. Built for grass, you would say, except three of his first four challenges ended in the first round. In his first year, 1999, he, No.103, met Jiří Novák, No.59, and the Czech uttered a line that should be preserved forever. When he discovered Federer was his rival, this was what Novák thought:
“What a great draw.”
But in 2001 it took a champion to recognise one. Defeat by Federer turned Pete Sampras into a believer. Five times in his post-loss press conference he said, “I give him credit.” A question was asked, “There are other Roger Federers out there, as you well know. Jim Courier says they’re coming out of the woodwork...,” and Sampras offered a clarification. “Well, sure, there are a lot of young guys coming up, and Roger is one of them. But I think he’s a little extra special than some of the other guys.”
Federer confirmed that with grass-court titles in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, losing eight sets in those five years. Soon flattery littered the premises. A reporter started a question to Jonas Björkman by saying, “Looking for weaknesses in Federer is like looking for flaws in Mother Teresa...” Jimmy Connors would have snarled and sent spittle arcing towards Federer’s pristine shoes, but in Wimbledon even rivals shrug and joke about Federer because they like him.
Björkman gets four games in the 2006 semi-finals and has a question for his rival later. “I just asked him how he felt, if he saw the ball like a bowling—what do you call it—like a bowling ball or a basketball ball. He said, yes, it was almost like that.”
Andy Roddick, who wins a set off Federer in the 2004 final, had made jokes about plumbing equipment—“I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got his tub”— which led to this exchange at a press conference.
Reporter: “If he hit you with his bathtub, do you have to go get like a water heater or something?”
Roddick: “I was thinking fridge.”
But then from 2008-21 Federer won only three Wimbledon titles and this decline was as telling. One year when he played Novak Djokovic, a grown man watched him from the stands with the crossed fingers of a child. It didn’t work. He couldn’t beat Djokovic, not once in three finals in 2014, 2015 and 2019, and it wounded him, made him cry, made him say in 2019 when he let go match points: “I don’t know what I feel right now. I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it.”
As the years pass, we have gotten old with him. This year my son-in-law will be with me in Singapore during Wimbledon and we will laugh about his wedding day. Federer’s name will come up. Commentators will discuss his age (40). Cameras will linger on the winners’ board. Footage of past glories will appear on rainy days. Then a match will resume and the present will outweigh everything.
The Swiss may return there but he will never win there. Now people don’t even say “you never know”. And yet Federer, who did a fair bit of winning, was never only about winning. And what that something else was is undefinable really because beauty mostly is.
You need to see it and now we won’t.
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.