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Roger Federer: Growing up with the champion's champion

What Roger Federer gave to his fans transcended the tight lines of the tennis court

Over the last two decades, the love that Federer’s game and personality inspired led to long lasting connections between fans. 
Over the last two decades, the love that Federer’s game and personality inspired led to long lasting connections between fans.  (AP)

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The year was 2005. I’d just moved cities, leaving home and friends who were like siblings. I was in a new school, reading a new syllabus, and trying to make conversation with classmates whose fast-paced after-class banter was in a language I was just picking up. Alone for a few dull hours after school that January afternoon, I was flipping channels on the TV and landed on a telecast of the Australian Open. What a day to have done so.

The first Grand Slam of the year was in its quarter-final stage. The legend Andre Agassi was playing the No.1 seed, Roger Federer. Agassi was 34; Federer had not yet turned 24.

I fell hard for the sound of the ball hitting the strings. Federer’s electric blue T-shirt stood out against the then green of the Australian Open’s hard court surface. The game took hold of me. I wasn’t sure what it was but I could sense something sublime.

For the rest of the match, a meditative transcendence calmed the storms of pre-teen angst. I basked in the playfulness and warmth of Federer’s game, the allure of its style and the safety of its confidence. I couldn’t articulate it then, but being engrossed in a Federer game was like escaping it all, while also finding a home.

To a non-believer (of any hue), this would sound ridiculous. I am no sports observer, nor an expert in Federer’s game, but what he gave me was unbelievably beautiful and poetic tennis, to which my mind automatically plays Pachelbel’s Canon in D major. If David Foster Wallace could declare in The New York Times in 2006 that “Roger Federer (Is) A Religious Experience”, then, I told myself, I wasn’t too far out.

To me, Federer is tennis, but also so much more. He is more than the GOAT, more than one of the greatest forehands in tennis history. Much more than the unforced errors he stacked up in recent years, and so much more than the record 237 consecutive weeks he spent as the ATP world No.1. For 17 years, Federer, his matches and his moments, have come to me when I needed them most.

In that cold January, he was my ticket to finding real friends. In the days following the Agassi match, I found out that one of my new classmates liked tennis too. She loved Lleyton Hewitt but she found Federer exciting. Who didn’t? Already world no. 1, and the defending champion that year, he wasn’t an underdog. Saying “I really like Federer” was an easy enough way to forge tennis-specific friendships. One turned into two in school, and extended to a neighbour. I met people I would carry in my heart for decades to come, and the city became one I would end up calling home.

Soon, another move meant keeping in touch with these friends through newly minted email IDs. The internet was young to us, and I found a whole world of friends on the official Federer website between 2007-2010. had a thriving community of people from all walks of life, from all over the world, celebrating Federer. The forums had different threads — we could talk about games, rallies, specific shots, his shoes, his racquets, his family and friendships, and other players who caught our attention.

The fandom here was not blind in its love for Federer. Those who understood the technicalities of the game wrote short and snippety as well as longer, detailed essays. It was a sort of service within, and for, a fandom. They would break down his game, not with the acquired objectivity of a seasoned sports journalist but with the gentleness of an older sibling explaining the beauty of a math formula. During his then infrequent losses, they would cushion the minor heartbreak with tales of its universality.

Also Read: What Roger Federer's retirement means to his fans

Unexpectedly, it was through these Federer forums that I discovered new literature. More importantly, the communities there kept me writing through the loss of a grandparent and a beloved dog, and board exams. We exchanged notes, followed one another’s blogs, and discussed writing and reading. A Greek Federer fan I had become friends with introduced me to C.P. Cavafy’s poems, an Italian who diligently compiled a scrapbook to gift Federer on his birthdays connected with writers and artists over email to collect poems, essays, fan fiction, photographs, illustrations, or anything else one wanted to send to Federer. Whether they actually reached him was immaterial.

These were just the tip of the iceberg in collaborations and connections forged purely from the love that Federer’s game and personality inspired. As life and college got in the way, I had less time for the forums; and sometime in 2016, the site shut for maintenance, returning in 2017 without a “forums” tab. It all feels unreal, impossible, now— there remain many different kinds of fandoms but I believe that this one was, and is, truly unique, given the changing nature of the internet.

In the Goodbye Roger Federer episode of The Tennis Podcast, a speaker talked of his “creativity and that sense of fun, a sense that he was always playing a game—he never made it into a war”. In my experience, this trickled down to the RF fandom. We might have had a complicated relationship, especially with Rafael Nadal for example, but the discourse was largely not antagonistic.

Many fans have since moved from the conversational nature of forums and onto a more announcement-friendly world of Twitter and Instagram now. And while that alters the inherent atmosphere for discourse itself, what hasn’t changed is the fervent and intensely personal way of expressing love and loyalty to Federer.

There is a Federer-fan gathering on Forumotion that’s still active, and a busy Federer tribute thread on Men’s Tennis Forums. It makes me wonder, had the forums stayed, how would we have gathered and what would the threads have looked like since the heartbreaks of his defeats became more regular?

We first saw a blip sometime in 2008, when Nadal and Novak Djokovic started to close in. The gut punches began in 2016. There he was, in his mid-30s and struggling, out most of the year since his knee surgery and a back issue. After almost more than a decade of dominance, he was losing to younger practitioners of a sincere and industrious but less graceful game.

For a little over 17 years, regardless of where I was in the world, I have stayed up nights and woken up early mornings to watch him, to find those few moments of a sublime something—whether it was in my pjs at home in Hyderabad, in a sparse DU hostel common room with a few unexpected fellow-residents for company, at a neighbourhood CCD in Chennai, in the dead quiet of my apartment in a cold-to-the bones Chicago winter night, or out at an old bar in Delhi with friends as he won his 18th slam.

For some of us, watching Federer at his peak meant discerning almost no difference between opponents. We’d develop a tunnel vision, one that would have nothing between us and that his awe-inducing overhead smashes, his soft, silent drop shots, and those forehands down the line that would somehow fix us.

Over the last five years, however, being a Federer fan has meant sitting tight while he recalibrates to the frailties of being human. Watching him linger a little longer before a second serve; having your heart thump harder and harder with each shot in an unnecessarily long rally that he would end with an error off his racket and not, as we had come to expect, an effortlessly executed spectacular winner. It hurt.

Roger Federer volleys a return to Victor Hanescu of Romania during their Men's first round singles match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Monday, June 24, 2013. 
Roger Federer volleys a return to Victor Hanescu of Romania during their Men's first round singles match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Monday, June 24, 2013.  (AP)

It was still a spectacle every time he stepped on court though. Just a spectacle of a different kind. Every single time he drew from some miraculous reserve of strength, especially when it seemed like he had none left, when, despite an error-filled game, he could still show us a flicker of what we knew we had experienced before, even if was much muted by a TV telecast, we knew it was a reason to believe again — not just in him and not just in this game. That one championship point he’d saved, in the epic 2008 Wimbledon final, is a fine example. These moments of magic were getting rarer, but despite, or perhaps because of this, the pull they had on us felt even more real. It made the magic, for lack of a better phrase, just so much more magical.

It was a grey, rainy Thursday evening in Delhi when the news of Federer’s retirement broke. And on cue, Federer-friends old and new reached out. “Whattt, Roger noooo. why NOW, and why would you do this at an EXHIBITION?!” said one, in a one-way conversation she was having with Federer, but in my Whatsapp window. “Knew it was coming sometime but still made me so sad,” said another. “I don’t even know why I’m sad when effectively, he’s been retired for a couple years anyway,” texted a friend from J-School, now a sports journalist.

What next for us Federer fans? Some are looking to Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Daniil Medvedev, Frances Tiafoe and Casper Ruud. I enjoy Tiafoe's cheeky skill and Ruud's charm. After a long time, this year’s US Open felt more exciting than the Slams of the recent past. “Finally, no? This was fully different from the Big 3 era,” wrote a Federer fan to me. “And I think it’s good in a way.”

His point is similar to what hardened critics felt about the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic (and sometimes Andy Murray) era: Federer’s clean wins made for boring copy, Nadal’s very visible hard work and victories over the Swiss became predictable, and Djokovic was likely the only one introducing any drama.

I can empathise: Sports reports and statistics cannot ever evoke the inexplicably intimate quality of being drawn into Federer’s game. He was, as Billie Jean King tweeted upon his retirement announcement, “a champion’s champion”.

His retirement is so personal for some of us that it does not matter whether we have been in touch over the last few years. The minute we see the news, we unplug almost instantly and look inwards. We remember where we were when he first happened to us, we look at how far we have come, how much his wins and losses were ours, and how his example got us to many of our own milestones. We turn homewards, even if for just a few moments, to everything and everybody we have grown up with. Roger Federer brings us together and centres us again.

Also Read: Roger Federer: a sportsman in every sense

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