It’s What You See

“This is Roger”

B y 1991, Peter Carter’s tennis career was winding down.

Up to that point, he had been a standard issue nine-year pro. Some success in doubles in his home country Australia, beset by injuries, a likely transition to coaching on the cards. He’d been in Switzerland full time for four years when he first saw a shy nine-year-old kid hitting tennis balls at a club in Basel. At one of the sessions, the kid’s mother brought him to Carter.

“This is Roger,” she said.

Over the years that followed, Peter often spoke to his old doubles partner, Darren Cahill. Cahill would rave about this Australian kid he was training, Lleyton Hewitt. Peter would respond with stories about his own protégé. Peter would even call his parents back in Australia. He’d tell them about the “gigantic talent” he had on his hands.

This boy Roger, by most accounts, wasn’t even the best in his own age group at the time. Peter didn’t mind. He looked at Roger with foresight, to draw out from the young boy what he could be. He had the mind for the series of assumptions and richness of imagination needed to bring that vision to life. Peter wasn’t Roger’s first coach, nor was he the coach under whom Roger became famous. But he was, as Roger himself has emphasised to anyone who will listen, his real coach.

For twenty-four years, millions around the world have had countless opportunities to give thanks to Peter Carter.

Roger Federer, Peter Carter.

Through the most critical years of Roger’s development as a young prospect, Peter constructed the technical platform on which his blistering natural talent could thrive. The moving picture in our collective mind’s eye of how Roger moves across a tennis court, how he steps into a ball before striking it, the product of resistance that is his one-handed backhand, his sharpened sense of anticipation, his vast knowledge of what decision to make when and why. They’re all best understood as decorations to the house that Peter built.

Further, Peter’s platform gave young Roger the superiority he often needed over his opponents so that his own destructive, hot-headed side derailed him less often. As he grew older, he grasped that he could just be better than his opponents; that he didn’t need to get agitated while playing. That emotional runoff area — the space during a tennis match to master his emotions — is something that Peter constructed. Peter both designed what we now intuitively recognise as the Roger Federer aesthetic and meticulously wrapped the emotional touchpaper capable of setting it alight in a cling film of calmness. Many have since laid claim to spotting the genius in Federer, but Peter was the very first. He was able to bring Federer’s gift to the world because he was blessed with a gift of his own.

Peter Carter watched a young Roger Federer and somehow intuited that it’s not what you look at that matters — it’s what you see.

The Generational Handoff

Coming up through the ranks, the knock on Roger Federer sometimes was that he didn’t hold his own enough.

He often played up to the high level of top opponents but, just as frequently, played down to the level of opponents he should’ve been beating. It’s well and good to have your vision of how to play tennis but, at that specific time, Federer didn’t have a consistent route to overcome big servers on fast courts or powerful sluggers on slower ones.

He’s always great to watch, went the criticism back then, but if he doesn’t win enough, no one will watch him.

At Wimbledon in 2001, the Federer pieces finally started to lock into place. In the fourth round, he faced Pete Sampras: seven-time Wimbledon champion, Grand Slam king, matter-of-factly the best men’s singles player of the 1990s and, in a matter of no small personal significance, a boyhood idol of Federer’s. They played for three hours and forty-one minutes, long into the London evening.

“Sometimes it was weird, I looked on the other side of the net, I saw him,” recalled Federer later. “Sometimes I was like, it’s true, this is happening now, I’m playing against him.”

Speaking to the perceptible shift in his mindset, he continued, “But then it just goes away, this feeling. You think about your serve, where you’re going to go, then it’s like playing against some other player.”

At 5–6 in the final set, on Sampras’ serve, Federer hit two shots I won’t soon forget.

The first was a backhand return winner for 0–15. Federer read the serve, watched it onto his backhand, and cracked it, right in the sweet part of his range, at about 80% extension, and sent it fast and hard to the right of the onrushing Sampras. The second was a forehand return winner at 15–40, holding two match points. This time, he read the serve even better, sorted his feet out well before the ball got to him, and laced the ball over the high part of the net, past the service box, deep into the backhand corner to the onrushing Sampras’ left.

Now, I don’t suppose anyone thinks Federer is the best returner of a serve to have ever lived. Nor does anyone hold him principally culpable for the demise of serve and volley. At the same time, to anyone who grew up watching tennis around Sampras-Federer 2001, both propositions wear a cloak of legitimacy. They’re right there, undeniable, on video. At the sharpest end of the fifth set on the night the ship of the seven-time champion passed the ship of the to-be eight-time champion on the Wimbledon high seas, Federer shook Sampras with a backhand return of serve that connected so clean that it forced him to serve to the forehand, and then beat him with a forehand return so good that getting to it from a commitment to forward motion was out of the question.

You know, Federer seemed to be saying, you really shouldn’t serve and come straight to the net.

Federer x Sampras, Wimbledon 2001, match point.

It was the first time Sampras had lost a five-setter at Wimbledon. It was uncannily evocative of Sampras’ own coming to the dance moment, a five-set quarterfinal win as a nineteen-year-old over Ivan Lendl at the 1990 US Open. This was twelve years on, a five-set, fourth round win for the nineteen-year-old Federer.

Federer-Sampras 2001 felt like a generational handoff, a hinge in the history of the game.

Federer lost to Tim Henman in the very next round.

All the same, he was now strapped with the burden of conquering Sampras, like a target on his back. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Wimbledon the following year. Despite being seeded seventh, a lot of punters had him, at the age of twenty-one, to win the whole thing.

He crashed and burned in the first round, in a 6–3, 7–6², 6–3 thrashing by qualifier Mario Ančić. As soon as it happened, those early doubters were all over him again.

He can’t beat big servers. He can’t handle the pressure.

This boy Roger, he’s too emotional.

The grind of the ATP Tour, however, is relentless.

Federer was soon in Canada for the Toronto Masters. As he was preparing for the tournament, he got a call.

Peter Carter, he was told, had been killed in a road accident while on holiday in South Africa.

It was as if a record needle was suddenly, angrily scratching and tearing across the surface of his life. Federer staggered out of his hotel room and onto the street, crying and inconsolable. It’s hard to process something like that, leave alone get over it. Carter hadn’t just been a foundational figure, he’d been snatched away in a manner that left everyone reeling in shock and disorientation.

Federer played on in Toronto. He lost in the first round.

He went to Cincinnati the next week, and lost in the first round.

He went to Long Island a couple of weeks later, and lost in the first round again.

Peter’s funeral was the first one Roger ever went to. It was a chance to say goodbye but, as Roger breaking down when speaking about Peter as recently as 2019 betrayed, that wound will never fully heal.

At the time, the jolt threatened to derail his career.

The cling film of calmness that Peter had so tightly wrapped around Roger’s emotions had been torn to ribbons.

The Religious Experience Era

“It was a wake-up call,” Roger would later say of Peter’s death. “I guess he didn’t want me to be a wasted talent.”

There was no doubting Federer’s commitment to the cause from then.

In October, he went to Vienna and tore through the tournament. His first title in five months. After the final, he spoke from the heart.

“I lost my coach Peter Carter a short while ago,” he shared. “This title is for him. I miss him a lot.”

If you followed Federer’s breathless ascent to the top of the men’s game, there’s not a lot I can tell you about the years that followed that you don’t already know.

He disassembled the “can’t beat big servers” criticism by taking out Andy Roddick and Mark Philippoussis successively to claim his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon the following summer.

Federer, Wimbledon, 2003.

Starting in January 2004, he commenced a fabled run that barely makes sense to this day. He won eleven of the next sixteen Grand Slams, 247 of 262 singles matches from 2004–06, grabbed the World №1 ranking, and outright refused to let it go. He became the most famous, most popular, most successful, most recognisable tennis player in the world. People who’d never watched tennis before started watching because Federer was playing.

In the summer of 2006, David Foster Wallace wrote of how colossally difficult it was to understand the scale of Federer’s talent through a television screen and yet how disarmingly simple he was to appreciate through the same medium. Stealing a line from a Wimbledon bus driver, he wrote Roger Federer as Religious Experience.

Here’s a statistic that really blows my mind about the Religious Experience years. Following the Vienna title, won in the haze of Peter’s passing, Roger won his next twenty-three tournament finals in a row. He’d first demonstrated it in the Sampras match in 2001 but now it became a cornerstone of the experience of watching him: on the most meaningful occasions in tennis, Roger always delivered.

There’s another small footnote to this astounding run.

In 2004, two years to the day since Peter passed, Roger won the Toronto title, 7–5, 6–3 over Roddick in the final. With the gravity and symbolism of the day clearly foremost in his mind, he stepped up to speak.

“I dedicate this to Peter — and Peter alone,” he said.

This boy Roger, he turned out alright.

The peakity peak of the Religious Experience years inevitably invited comparisons with dominant streaks from the past.

Federer’s 2004 was the first three-Slam year in men’s singles tennis since Mats Wilander’s 1988. It was the best individual year in men’s singles since Lendl’s 1986. (Federer would soon run up a 92–5 record in 2006, which is still a strong shout for the best individual year in the history of the sport.)

Sixteen years since Wilander, eighteen years since Lendl. Sport has a very specific word association with these kinds of durations. For the first time, it came to be used with Federer’s name.

This guy, everyone whispered, was a generational player.

The Religious Experience years are frequently disparaged these days.

I’ve seen it said that the quality of competition wasn’t as good as it was at other times in the past. The leading lights in this era didn’t go on to win a lot of Grand Slams.

That’s a poor way to assess the value of historical periods in any sport. For one, tennis is inherently rivalrous, so if one player dominates, as Federer did for so long, the others are automatically backgrounded to some degree. For another, it seems to lock in the disagreeable contemporary bias that any tennis not played with x or y player around means less for that reason.

Mainly, though, it terribly short-changes Federer’s prime. Recollections of this era coming alive are an essential part of the Federer memory bank. What marks them out, for mine, wasn’t just how swiftly Federer turned the tide on abruptly overmatched opponents. Much of the thrill was also about how new and revolutionary it felt to watch him do it. Federer’s prime invited viewers to take a leap from the merely unseen and into the unimaginable.

Even now, the exercise of drawing lines dividing Federer’s career into phases does a tremendous disservice to the Religious Experience years. We draw these lines now with neatness, with the benefit of knowing what came after.

In 2006, however, Federer’s path was difficult to project into the future with any certainty. It feels preposterous to recall this now but Federer, with the vast majority of his legacy work already done, was still just twenty-five. Back then, it seemed as possible as not that he might win two or three Grand Slams a year for another ten years. It also felt just as plausible that, once he’d claimed the records he wanted, he might lose all motivation and quit.

This is why any credible assessment of Federer’s legacy must endeavour to resurrect the invincibility he wore so naturally at his peak.

For a long, long time, Federer was unstoppable. Not just in the sense that other tennis players lacked the capacity to stop him, but unstoppable in the present, continuous, forever tense.

Equally enrapturing was the flip side of Federer in his prime.

When he did lose, especially when he lost big matches, it prompted questions laced with incredulity. This was a close to perfect tennis player, near as good as anyone has ever been. How did he lose? How could he? Did he get tired? Did he get hurt? Nervous? Frustrated? Did he make too many mistakes? Why did he do that? Why didn’t he just keep playing perfectly, employing his perfect everything, and keep winning?

I remember asking these questions vigorously after Marat Safin beat him in the 2005 Australian Open semis. Federer stood on match point in the fourth set tiebreak. There was the drama of some kind of back injury. Safin had him dead to rights at 5–3 in the fifth set. Federer fought off multiple match points. He lost 9–7.

I wasn’t angry or disappointed as much as I was confused. I wasn’t accustomed to him losing this big a match. I didn’t know where to look for answers. I needed to find a satisfactory explanation because the fragilities from his early career had never felt closer at hand. Would he start getting angry? Would he yell? Would he cry? Would he — perish the thought — start losing to big servers again?

Safin x Federer, Australia, 2005: 5–7, 6–4, 5–7, 7–6⁸, 9–7.

Looking back on it now, Federer losing that match made tennis exciting again. To those who didn’t like him, it opened the possibility that others might start winning again. And those who did like him simply couldn’t look away.

I remember he played Ančić and Ivan Ljubicic in the semis and finals in Rotterdam soon after. Every chance he got, he stared holes through them. It was as if, in the back of his eyes, all he saw was Safin standing across from him in Australia.

Take that, and that, and that, he went.

Every ball hit with rage. Many, many points played in vengeance.

He won Rotterdam, but it wasn’t pretty. Something about the younger, angrier Federer didn’t sit right in the body of the older, more mature one.

But he kept winning. He beat Ljubicic again in the Dubai final, went to Indian Wells, won the thing without dropping a set, and then, from two sets down in the Miami final, came roaring back to win 2-6, 6-7⁴, 7-6⁵, 6-3, 6-1.

His opponent in Miami that day was an extremely impressive eighteen-year-old kid.

His name was Rafael Nadal.

That Miami final in 2005 kicked off a rivalry that came to define both players in equal measure.

The extent of their chokehold over the men’s game across the next five years is made good by an astonishing statistic. Starting with Miami, eighteen of the next twenty-one Federer-Nadal matches were tournament finals. (The other three were semi-finals.) They took on each other in the Roland Garros final and then, straight after, at the Wimbledon final in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Seemingly overnight, tennis turned white-hot. Federer-Nadal suddenly became appointment viewing. Nadal’s role in growing Federer’s legend through these years cannot be understated. It works much the same way in converse too, in the sense that Nadal’s wins over Federer elevated his own stock like no other wins could.

The apogee arrived when Nadal wrested the 2008 Wimbledon final from Federer in five wondrous sets, played out by the end in utter darkness. It’s on nearly everyone’s shortlist as one of the greatest tennis matches ever played. And even here — especially here — Federer needed Nadal and vice versa. I’ll argue that the value of Nadal’s achievement that night lay less in winning a Grand Slam on grass and more in finally taking Federer’s Wimbledon title from him.

Nadal’s hot hand in a crackling rivalry was confirmed in another five-set classic at the Australian Open final in 2009. Memorably, Federer got emotional at the trophy presentation.

God, it’s killing me,” he wept.

Wimbledon 2008, given the extreme conditions and how close the match was the whole way through, had been the quintessential classic with a coinflip to decide the winner. Australia 2009, however, had left no manner of doubt. Nadal had been better on the night, and had pulled away down the stretch.

Federer, Australia, 2009.

Unlike his post-Safin spell, Federer had six weeks off. When he returned, though, he still seemed to play on in anger more than in reconciliation. It would’ve been hard for him not to see Nadal every time he closed his eyes but, equally, none of his other opponents were anything like Nadal either.

But then, at Indian Wells, he was taken out in three sets by a Scottish kid called Andy Murray. Soon after, in Miami, he ran into another young guy: a tough, hungry Novak Djokovic. It turned into a gnarly, biting contest, as Djokovic came from a set down to take a 3–6, 6–2, 2–0 lead. As the commentators chatted on about how Federer needed to exploit Djokovic’s potential jitters, Djokovic made two first-class recoveries. The second of them gave Federer an inviting ball halfway in the court. He skipped forward, at liberty to hit it either side of a defensively rooted Djokovic. Federer turned an angle with his feet, uncorked a forehand, and clattered the ball into the net.

2–0, 30–0, and sinking fast, Federer had had enough. He smashed his racquet hard into the ground, re-arranging the thing.

Nadal had been tearing at the cling film of calmness for the last twelve months, but this capitulation to Djokovic had now exposed the touchpaper.

It was staggering to see. The crowd started booing and whistling at him.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen [that]…ever,” intoned the commentator, aghast.

Back on the European clay, Federer blew another lead against Djokovic in Rome.

That made it six tournaments played, zero won, in 2009.

By the standards of 99% of players to have ever played pro tennis, Federer was still having a great season. But, with four losses to Murray and Djokovic, the existential questions were mounting. For so long, Federer had been out on his own as the standard-bearer for men’s tennis. Now, for the first time, cut down to size by the Nadal losses, there loomed the once-unthinkable prospect of Federer being overtaken en masse by the mini-generation behind him.

Federer responded like he had never responded before.

Over the next eight weeks, he stepped up as the dominant player on Tour once again; a mesmerising 19–0 run that took in a first Roland Garros title and Wimbledon again, the latter clinched in a nerve-wracking 16–14 fifth set over Roddick. His sixth Wimbledon was also his fifteenth Grand Slam overall. It had taken him all of six years since his first Grand Slam to claim the men’s singles Grand Slam record. That feat alone will never be repeated.

He ran into plenty of adversity along the way, too. Two sets and break points down to Tommy Haas in Paris. Two sets to one down to Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals in Paris, before an adoring crowd pulled him through. No breaks of serve the entire four hours and sixteen minutes in the Wimbledon final, until it really, really mattered.

Federer, Roland Garros, 2009.
Federer, Wimbledon, 2009.

Relatively speaking, Federer’s star slowly began to fade beyond this point. In fullness of context, however, the Religious Experience era was an elongated period of time — longer than most elite tennis careers — where Federer first set a singularly high bar, spearheaded the start of what we identify today as modern baseline tennis, engaged in one of the best stylistic rivalries to ever visit the sport, and then fought off elite challengers whose own approaches displayed telltale signs that he was the most widely studied tennis player on the planet.

This phase had started out with Federer on an equivalent trajectory as hundreds of young pros from around the world. Over them, he had Peter Carter-reinforced advantages, of course, but the truly frightening thing about him was that, at most by the age of twenty-three, we were looking at almost certainly the most complete men’s singles player to have existed up to that point.

Federer’s prime generated another important effect.

It set in motion a distinct undercurrent of “if he wasn’t the way he was, would I be the way I am?” in the careers of Nadal and Djokovic in particular. They’ve since pushed each other hard for the Grand Slam record, as Federer has faded from view. It’s hard to argue against the idea, though, that the reason they’re running this hard in the first place is because they set out to chase Federer.

There’s another, simpler way to anchor Federer’s prime.

For eight straight years on the ATP Tour, the guy who was better than Roger Federer was the best men’s singles player in the world.

It just so happened that, for six of those eight years, that guy was Federer himself.

Still-Great

Sporting age is a curious phenomenon.

We understand, as a matter of formal logic, that advancing years affect performance on the field of play. Elite sport is always a dance between mind and body. At the start, neither mind nor body are ready. Usually, the body is up for the challenge and the mind lags behind. Maturity, then, is often viewed as the process of the mind catching up with the body. The end goal is to peak — to perfectly align body and mind for a productive spell — before the two tracks begin to diverge again. In the latter part of sporting careers, the body starts to disobey, even though the mind is willing. The results can be brutal. That is the natural order of things.

As he started slipping from his otherworldly levels at the start of the 2010s, Federer attacked the problem a different way. He started, in a sense, to increase the workload on his mind to compensate for a physical decline that he knew was coming. It commenced one of the most fascinating phases of his career.

I lack the evidence to say this conclusively, but I sense that the meta prevailing in men’s tennis around then started to back itself into favouring time over reflexes. Technological changes made precision groundstrokes more accessible. Elite players started breaking off the constituent elements of tennis into micro-sports: serve game, return game, point construction, net approaches, transitions, scrambles. Tennis in general began to favour deeper contact points, putting more returns in play, more complicated shot chains, heavier spin, more power and athleticism.

The skills that made Federer great at tennis — taking the ball early, killing points with creative shots, playing the game within the painted lines — were, at once, less valuable in this new era.

Federer had a choice to make.

He chose to double down on what brought him to the table. (The “playing within the lines” element of his game, in particular, is one he stubbornly refused to compromise on. It’s a commitment he kept to the very end, aided by a lack of runoff area on ground in Dubai, where he spent a lot of late career practice time.)

The other, more bizarre consequence of this new era was that Federer was immediately hounded by calls to retire. As Nadal caught him up and surpassed him head-to-head and Djokovic came barreling down the pike as an elite player, it became apparent that both men held unique advantages over him. Even if he found a solution to one problem, it might not solve the other. In the summer of 2010, Federer briefly dropped out of the top two in the rankings for the first time since the end of 2003.

At one level, these retirement calls were the inevitable cost exacted by the transcendence of his early career. People seemed to want to save Federer from himself; almost as if being anything less than the best would sully him immeasurably. At another level, though, the point was being made totally seriously. (Imagine, for a moment, that Federer had taken this seriously. What might his legacy have been then? I’ll tell you what. People would’ve said he ran away because he couldn’t hack it. In general, recalling this time has given me pause to consider how much the wearying clamour for his retirement has, itself, been retrofitted in our memories as a source of the elasticity of Federer’s late career.)

When Djokovic’s first banner year, in 2011, took flight — from which point forward it was evident that there were two players capable of being consistently better than him — Federer was twenty-nine years old.

It seems laughable to write that out with a straight face now. At the time, though, it wasn’t beyond possibility that Federer might flame out early. (Sampras, the most dominant men’s player of the previous generation, was twenty-nine when Federer took him out of Wimbledon in 2001.)

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried.

Federer’s terrific thirties heavily reoriented the possibilities known to elite players across sports. What we had previously known in the name of longevity in men’s singles tennis were streaks of random success: Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors, more latterly, Andre Agassi.

Federer was different. His late career seemed forever in bloom; a constant stream of nearly-but-not-quite moments that confirmed he was elite even as Nadal and Djokovic largely gatekept him from major honours. Somehow, he was always there.

Federer, as Brian Phillips so wonderfully put it in 2011, spent longer as a still-great athlete than any elite player in memory.

The divergence of body and mind in the post-prime years is a delicate matter. The downturn can be rough. Careers and legacies can get bent out of shape alarmingly quickly. Yet, four years later after first diagnosing Federer’s still-great-ness, Phillips wrote of him in awe once again. Father Time, he noted, is cruel in condemning the most adored sportspersons to an exaggerated slow-motion sink to the bottom of the ocean. Except Federer did more than not sink to the bottom.

He discovered a whole other universe in the depths of that ocean.

I’m hard-pressed to exaggerate how incredible this Federer was to watch, across days, weeks, months, years. He was, of course, lucky with injuries and recovered well. Even allowing for all that, Federer operated with dramatic contempt for the properties of physics and time. He showed he could be still-great at an age when, prevailing wisdom dictated, he had no business playing top-tier tennis at all. Nadal and Djokovic have since, with different, perhaps better tools, confirmed that Federer’s late career trajectory is repeatable and sustainable.

But Federer showed it was possible.

It’s as big a part of his contribution to his sport as any title he ever won.

Above all else, I marvel, in retrospect, at his drive.

With anyone else in his position after the Roddick Wimbledon final in 2009, Grand Slam №15, you’d expect their motivation to shatter to pieces. It’s far easier to thought bubble Nadal or Djokovic’s mindset than Federer’s own at that time.

Nadal especially might’ve been minded to think, Look, Federer has fifteen Grand Slams. I have six. I know I can beat this guy, and he’s got the record now, but he’s five years older, he’s probably going to get worse with time, if he sticks around at all. Maybe I can get to sixteen. Let me keep pushing to get there.

To be fair, that’s probably not how that monologue went. It holds together, though. At a minimum, it was harder then to imagine why Federer would want to keep going than imagine that Nadal didn’t believe he could catch Federer’s numbers one day. Federer had every record in the book, save for Connors’ seemingly unattainable Tour match wins and Tour titles record (though, in the end, he got closer to both than he had any right to).

As the Grand Slam race steadily took over men’s tennis across the 2010s, Federer’s unique stamp on it was to speak of taking the milestones as events. After all, many of the records Nadal and Djokovic were after, he’d chased them too. He’d got there first. He knew what it was like to be in their positions. He didn’t have to say how he felt about it, but he did, thoughtfully and graciously. He urged both Nadal and Djokovic to enjoy the milestones, as they would wins or titles. It’s a beautiful way to think about it, actually.

It’s a weird thing to account for, but it’s still quite meaningful: The best advice on how to grapple with the significance of breaking Federer’s records came from Federer himself.

GOAT?

Greatest of All Time, as far as I care to trace it back, was a creature of the Muhammad Ali hype train in the 1960s. I don’t recall how or why it first crossed over into tennis but I’ve thrown my share of punches to curse the day it was. Through tedious overuse, Greatest of All Time (with its egregious acronym in tow) is, today, as hateful as it is inescapable; the microplastic debris polluting the ocean of tennis conversation.

The all-consuming nature of the GOAT apparition in tennis is of recent vintage. Under the old rules of conversation, I suppose Federer’s phenomenal prime years gave him as good a claim to being the greatest as anyone who has ever played tennis.

His extended twilight, however, put this GOAT thing front and centre. It was, to be sure, a singular time for what was going on around Federer. Nadal emerged unexpectedly, rivetingly as an exceptional two-surface threat. Simultaneously, Djokovic began distancing himself as the standout singles player of the 2010s. Both claimed Grand Slams by the handful, adding statistical heft to their own case to be the greatest. Both — Nadal steadily and Djokovic rapidly — caught up Federer. In the last two years, coinciding with the trough of Federer’s ambiguous semi-retirement, both have surpassed Federer’s Grand Slam total.

These developments converge in one important way. They unapologetically shove claims to greatness in men’s tennis back in the direction of raw achievements.

I suppose what’s most disappointing about this — even more than numbers taking over — is how promptly it has choked the space for conversation about what greatness really means.

I’ll stick my neck out and say two things on this. Both have often been said before.

One is that many of us don’t speak of sporting greatness solely (or even predominantly) in the language of accolades. The other is that Federer’s claim to sporting greatness was rarely about that in the first place.

This thought came hurtling to me in early 2020. It happened around the time The New York Times published an opinion piece that was (I assume unironically) titled Roger Federer Will Always Be the Greatest (Even if He’s Not).

“In a recent interview, Federer said that he expected Nadal and Djokovic to finish with more majors than him. ‘I think the way it’s going, obviously, Rafa and Novak will win more,’ he said. ‘Now, at the end, if somebody else would pass you, I mean, I guess it’s OK, because that’s what sports is all about. It’s a lot about numbers.’

This equanimity is probably not shared by many of his fans. For those who worship Federer, the idea that he may go down as the second-best or even (shudder) third-best player of this era is painful to contemplate.”

The pearl-clutching of it all was insufferable. The meek submission to the tyranny of numbers, plucking the very worst bits of the GOAT noise to amplify, the characterization of Federer fans as delusional worshippers.

I hated it.

Even so, it got me wondering how I might begin to describe Federer’s impact on tennis. Like many who’ve attentively followed his career, I’d been sending my subconscious mind to visit this subject off and on for years. This was the first time, though, that I was prodded to turn my thoughts inside-out. Wound up as I was at the time by the New York Times piece, it came out as a rant.

It ran like this:

“If we’re now at the point where people can’t even accept what Federer has to say about [the GOAT debate] without triggering some profound, collectively imagined disappointment, I might as well give up altogether.

Federer arrived behind a generation of Americans that had utterly dominated men’s tennis before him. The first batch of players to be labelled his peers were also American or bore similarly American styles, but with the advantage of being all-surface players.

They were products of the academy culture (of which America remains the tennis epicentre) of maximising output and minimising risk. The manner of its ingratiation into top tennis prospects was such that it rendered their approach quite transactional.

It was marked by a blinkered, rehearsed approach towards a whole host of ‘controllables’: drilling, conditioning, scouting opponents, shot selection, footwork, accuracy in flat hitting, and the (original) push for on-court coaching. Inventiveness and imagination were good, but only if they could be counted on consistently and under pressure. Showing personality was good, but quirks were often coached out of the players who exhibited it. And it was all tied together by a heavy, almost self-defeating emphasis on tactical play.

It was a generation that played to win, but, far too often, played only to win.

It’s a crossroads that’s largely been forgotten about because Federer blitzed through them, but this generation represented an approach that might’ve killed (or at least heavily fragmented) mainstream interest in the men’s game.

In doing so, Federer effectively reset the men’s game on his own. He didn’t do that just by winning. There have been multiple hot streaks in tennis comparable to his in the mid-2000s. But none of them had the kind of effect his did. Federer was special because he, as much through courage and intelligence as through talent, normalised skills that were considered too risky to succeed in tennis when he arrived.

He did this with centre-to-out hitting. He did this by demonstrating a sustainable way of turning backcourt half-volleys into a wide range of offensive and defensive options. He figured out a way to consistently put low balls back into play on fast surfaces without drastically upping the risk of career-limiting injury. He’s used a one-handed backhand his entire career. He’s absolutely revolutionised the right-hander’s wide serve. He’s built an entire series of return triggers to shorten points at will. He’s had the best hands inside the box for at least thirty years (probably since prime Becker). He brought back drive volleying to elite-level tennis. He once won an entire tournament by resurrecting the chip-and-charge. You could keep doing this for hours and come no closer to being able to safely close this list.

By doing all this, Federer dragged the rest of the sport up to his level, in a way that men’s tennis probably hadn’t seen since the athleticism revolution brought along Connors, Borg, and McEnroe. You had to develop all these challenging new parts to your game because Federer had them. And even if you managed to beat everyone else in the world without them, Federer would beat you with them. It’s a contribution that will far outlast Federer’s tenure in the sport. With him — perhaps more frequently than with any male player to ever play the game — you’ll watch tennis ten, fifteen years from now and think: Federer used to do that.

To my mind, that’s the core of the men’s GOAT case for Federer. Notice how none of it requires reference to how many Grand Slams he (or anyone else) has won. It has everything to do with what he’s contributed to the game and how he’s changed it from what it used to be. He’d have had this impact if he’d won ten Slams or fifteen or eighteen. He’ll have had this impact if his Slam total is overtaken by one player or two or three.

It’s quite simple, really: if you believe Federer isn’t the greatest male tennis player of all time, there’s probably no outcome to this Grand Slam race with Nadal and Djokovic that’ll change your mind. If you believe he is, the outcome of this race should be gloriously irrelevant already.”

It’s been over two-and-a-half years since, but I reckon most of this still holds up. (“The best hands in the box for at least the last thirty years” was not, shall we say, my finest moment.)

Part why, I think, is that, despite there now being clear daylight back to Federer in the Grand Slam race, that was only ever part of the men’s GOAT conversation. Records are important to a sport as taken with individuals as tennis is, for their base purpose of accounting. Of course they are. But they serve another purpose. They stand out for the moments created around them. This relationship is a true one. The more significant the record, the more meaningful the moment. Federer has been eclipsed in the Grand Slam race by two players who have already cut immense figures in tennis history. They’re self-evidently great at their sport, just as Federer was. Surely, though, that doesn’t erase the act of Federer claiming those records. He got to his Grand Slam record, didn’t he? He extended it, by two and then three and then four. Those were all huge moments at the time, for the same reason the ongoing race between Nadal and Djokovic fascinates us today.

There’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying that records are meant to be broken. Meant to be broken, as if that is their purpose. There’s no saying that records are meant to be grimly held on to for the rest of your life so that your fans can win you GOAT points on the internet.

Even this statement of it, though, is vaguely unfulfilling.

Nadal and Djokovic are very different players, but the blanket of domination they’ve cast over men’s tennis in their thirties does have one thing is common. They’re hurdling over opponents rather than solving them in unexpected ways. For the genius that undoubtedly resides in them both, their Grand Slam GOAT era, for want of a better term, has driven them to exhibit slower, showier, maximum output versions of themselves.

On each of these counts, late-career Federer’s isolation from his two biggest rivals had always seemed rather outré. It took me until his final singles match, last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal against Hubert Hurkacz, to fully absorb this.

“[Federer’s] is a peculiar position,” I wrote that night.

“He is in the tiny group of once-elite sportspersons who play their sport purely for the challenge. However, even within this micro-elite, he’s a bit of an oddball. In a sport dominated to a fault by wins and rankings and titles, his present incarnation is, by comparison, one of ideological militancy. He plays to win but, above anything else, he plays as if he’s trying to win votes in a silent referendum that his vision of what tennis is can still be the dominant one.”

At the time, I had no idea if that was his final match. With that match on the line, Federer had chosen to weaponise the late-career freedom so typical of him to such a degree that his freedom had ended up using him as a weapon.

It ended in a straight sets loss in a hundred and nine minutes.

Hurkacz x Federer, Wimbledon, 2021: 6–3, 7–6⁴, 6–0.

The knowledge that it was his final match casts that performance in an altogether different light. With the freshness of hindsight, it now feels as though Federer’s approach was a near-diabolical gamble.

That realisation forced me to confront something else as well.

Though he had fallen off a cliff athletically by the time Hurkacz happened, the truth is, Federer had been playing that way for years. He’d been getting away with it for so long that a beating like Hurkacz had been in the mail for a while. (No hard feelings, by the way. Hurkacz’s message on Federer’s retirement was adorable. “It was an honor to experience your game for all these years,” he wrote. What a great way of putting it.)

As a general matter, it sucks to watch your sporting heroes get old. For Federer, his still-great-ness came with the devastating counterweight of watching him in matches like Hurkacz, which seemed to go on far longer than warranted. However, even this diminished Federer played as he always did: aggressive, risky, thrilling, occasionally magical. Ultimately, he flew so close to the sun propelled by the wings of his own ideological militancy that he got bageled in the last set he played at Wimbledon. There’s some dark hilarity in that.

In the main, though, late career Federer made us keenly aware of how special he was.

It might well be longer than a lifetime before someone that good at tennis that far past their best takes on peers that great by playing the way they did fifteen years ago, and so nearly wins the lot.

It’s a big reason why, far beyond the tiresome GOAT question, Federer’s retirement brings with it the sobering sense that something unrepeatable has been lost forever.

The Second Wind

Following an extended layoff, Roger Federer, “batteries full”, charged into 2017.

Over thirty-five years old, playing with a double-digit number next to his name for practically the first time since he was an adult, 2017 brought with it the decided sense that he was playing with house money.

Back in Australia, the odds aligned for him in manner that was truly divine. He won the damn Australian Open, with a heartstopping five-set final over Nadal.

Federer, Australia, 2017.

The year only got more absurd from there. Watching him cap a 32–2 run to claim his eighth Wimbledon and Grand Slam №19, I was speechless.

To preserve my sense of disbelief, if nothing else, I wrote about Federer that July.

“[In Australia], he blew past four top ten players, and won three five-setters in eight days, including an instant classic in the final against Nadal. For its sheer improbability, it has undoubtedly been the highlight of his season.

Incredibly, he then won twelve straight matches in a mesmerising twenty-six day spell in the late spring to win the Sunshine Double: Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back. He’s only the fourth player this generation to do it, after Clijsters, Azarenka, and Djokovic all did it at the apogee of their careers. Except Federer had already done the Sunshine Double before, twice. The last of those was eleven years ago. There are top tennis players who have whole careers shorter than eleven years. In terms of improbability, this wasn’t far behind the Australian Open.

Now he’s won Wimbledon. His eighth Wimbledon. Seven men’s singles titles had been done before, but never eight. The eighth had seemed less likely with each passing day in the wilderness. He’d come back to the final twice, only to be put away by Djokovic. This wasn’t like Nadal’s [then] ten French Opens, which was clean outside the limits of human contemplation until Nadal alone breathed it into existence. Federer’s eighth Wimbledon was more tenuous. It seemed perpetually attainable and yet remained out of reach, until today.

It’s easy [to] discredit Federer’s run by pointing out that Murray and Djokovic, probably his biggest challengers in the second week, were finished by injury within a couple of hours of each other on Wednesday. It’s even easier to look to today’s final and see, clear as day, that [Marin] Čilić wasn’t all there. It can certainly be said that, adjusted for rankings, this is the weakest Wimbledon field Federer has ever beaten.

All that does, though, is put in perspective the ludicrousness of what Federer is doing. He’s getting us to argue that a record eighth Wimbledon title might realistically only be the third biggest achievement of his season so far.

But there’s another thing Federer is doing. He’s reminding us that he’s been entering in all his experiences from the [late career] wilderness into what is now probably the single greatest dynamic repository of in-game tennis knowledge ever constructed.

It’s now becoming apparent that this 2017 season he’s putting together has been four and a half years in the making.”

It was the kind of run that wired shut any mouths that had questioned his desire to keep going. Thinking back to that time now, there’s certainly a good case to say that this might’ve been the most fun many fans have had watching Federer.

Incredibly, he went one better the following January.

Despite his cling film of calmness nearly coming undone in a tough spot in the quarters, Federer soared to another title at the Australian Open in a five-set final. Unlike in 2009, the tears that came on this January night were tears of happiness.

Federer, Australia, 2018.

Watching on from his box were two of his biggest fans: Bob and Diana Carter, Peter’s parents.

“Peter set the foundation, and that’s why I’m so happy that his parents were at the finals and saw me win,” said the champion.

“That really meant a lot to me.”

This boy Roger, he really did do alright.

Poignantly, it would be his final Grand Slam title.

Grand Slam №20 in Australia attached a hypnotic quality to Federer’s Grand Slam total.

It also vaulted him, a few months out from turning thirty-seven, to the World №1 ranking. (“When it happened, it was just remarkable,” confessed one-time rival and long-time coach Ljubicic recently.) By any measure, this was a remarkable second wind.

Cruelly, just when everything was sailing along smoothly, his game started to unravel.

It began on a Sunday afternoon in March 2018.

He had struggled all week in the desert at Indian Wells but, up until 5–4, 40–15 in the deciding set of the final against Del Potro, Federer had handled a difficult occasion consummately. It seemed like the cling film of calmness was about to bring him another title. One more measly point, and it would be fifty-three wins from his last fifty-six singles matches going back to the previous June.

Instead, Federer froze.

Del Potro came fighting back, levelled the match, and dragged it into a tiebreak, where Federer couldn’t get himself to land a single clean first serve. For the audacity of his comeback, Del Potro well deserved the win. But it was Federer’s demeanour after a tough week that had me worried.

Prior to this, all his famous heartbreaks had typically come with the cold comfort that he cared enough for them to hurt. When he broke in Indian Wells, however, I saw a dumbfounded, slightly frightened player.

“Serving 40–15,” he later said, “I don’t even know what the stat is, I probably win 90-something per cent [of the time].”

“I would like to play that tiebreak again,” he offered blankly, “because I don’t know what the hell happened.”

It was just one defeat, his first of 2018, but I could sense what was welling up inside me wasn’t an overreaction:

“It feels absurd to say this about a player who is 17–1 this year, but Roger Federer is very much an embattled tennis player right now.”

“There was something deeply troubling about how he played all week — he seemed irritable, his face was gaunt, his eyes were hollow, his face was pockmarked with too much stubble for it not to be deliberate.

We don’t know how he’ll play his way out of this, whether he will, whether he even wants to.

It’s as if the great equalising principle of the universe is fighting back, aggressively doing its best to make Federer look breakable, beatable, and human.”

The following week, in his first match in Miami, he surrendered another third set tiebreak. This time, it was to then-World №175 Thanasi Kokkinakis.

To watch those two defeats back now is to see Federer’s abnormal skill level — for so long the thing that distinguished him from the pack — start falling out of his game in stages. Indian Wells-Miami 2018, for my money, is that line in the sand. The eliteness exhumes itself from Federer, hissing like the sound of escaping gas.

Federer, Indian Wells, 2018 (left). Federer, Miami, 2018 (right).

The Kokkinakis loss, with tennis’ neurotic emphasis on ranking points, had another upshot. It used Federer’s own dream run at Indian Wells and Miami in 2017 as a stick to beat him with. The points he had claimed with those titles now turned cancerous. He forked over his status at the very top of the men’s game to Nadal, who himself hadn’t hit a ball in sixty-one days.

“I deserve it after this match,” Federer lashed out. “That’s how I feel.”

In the semis of his comeback tournament on the grass of Stuttgart in June, he took out Nick Kyrgios in another deciding set tiebreak. It was a good win.

It wasn’t enough to right the wrong of the previous two, but, spurred by the “bit of extra motivation” of the ranking race with Nadal, it did help him briefly wrest back the ground he had surrendered in Miami.

For the last time in his career, Roger Federer was World №1.

You Felt That Too, Right?

A key sign marked out Federer in decline.

His own outlook to defeats went directions other than him feeling wronged. The steely intensity that he packed in his kit bag after Safin in Australia or after Nadal in 2008–09 was persuaded by an unbending urge not to let those losses shape his own self-image. As bulletproof as his self-belief undoubtedly stood even deep into his decline, the early summer defeats in 2018 weren’t really followed by an energetic push to right those wrongs.

When he found himself unable to close out match points against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final after two weeks of improbably brilliant tennis, there was shock and stunned silence, yes. But, after a month off that summer, he didn’t exactly turn up in Cincinnati wanting to smack tennis balls at people with bad intentions because he was seeing Djokovic everywhere he looked.

Djokovic x Federer, Wimbledon, 2019: 7–6⁵, 1–6, 7–6⁴, 4–6, 13–12³ (left). Federer, Cincinnati, 2019 (right).

The terrifying focus of the prime years had yielded to the sense that he was playing a game. Around the time of the Nadal losses, the idea of listening to his shrillest critics had felt abhorrent to him. Towards the end, however, even the retirement question didn’t seem to needle him quite so much.

As Federer began to thin out his workload and slink from view, the direction taken by the men’s game made apparent just how big an outlier he had been and for how long. The playstyle shift that had started around Federer in the 2010s found full expression with him gone. The players taking Federer’s place signalled a resumption of the historical order. In the post-Djokovic era especially, tennis was re-taken by percentage players with strong metronomic instincts; tall, athletic guys who prefer to rack up attritive damage rather than land a spectacular knockout.

Federer doesn’t respond to this description very well. He arguably never did.

An understated facet of Federer’s game was that you could never arrive at him in final form by combining the sum of his parts. In a sport founded on reading a ball that takes half a second to reach you, Federer was, without too many exceptional physical advantages over his competition, able to guess, anticipate, and follow the ball, damn near every ball, onto its exact coordinates and uncork perfect swings. He did this hundreds of times a match. For sixty, seventy, eighty matches a year. For twenty-plus years. And then — and only then — did he hit the sort of kinesthetic burnout that finally made him look human. The full explanation for how he managed this is still a mystery.

There’s something compelling about the idea that it might forever remain so; an enchanted forest living just beyond the edge of human discovery.

Federer is rather more than the sum of his parts in another way.

To find out how, we must stipulate that his Carter-hewn calmness is the bedrock of his on-court behaviour. As this association came to be made by more and more viewers, a grave misrepresentation passed into the realm of established fact. Federer, it was popularly assumed, was an instructional in the mastery of self and process. Let us be fair and allow that if you met Federer on his ascent or at his peak, this came to be a defining feature of the Federer experience. Equally, though, let us admit that, if you watched him from the start, you knew his calmness was tightly fastened cling film and nothing more.

Either way, his on-court demeanour came to serve an unexpected purpose. It soon became a canvas onto which fans could project their own emotions about his matches. Since Federer hardly ever disclosed what he was feeling, millions of people decided to play the game of feeling emotions in his place instead.

In a sport with so much anxiety built even into the premise of merely watching along, this was a godsend. Some of us went catatonic. Others turned zen. The most long-suffering alternated between the two states. Federer’s gift to us all was that he rarely denied us the freedom to paint our own stories to fit his performances.

It grew to be an essential part of the tennis loyalty bonding protocol. It never demanded a conversation of any notable length or detail to establish someone else’s connection with Federer. Federer fanhood followed the truest principle of shared sporting allegiances: You went through the same process I did with this guy, and came to the same conclusion I did.

I’ve never seen anything like it before. I don’t know if I ever will again. That kinship, that sense of community, the glances shot in the direction of those watching with you after every point to say, you felt that too, right?

To those who didn’t live through the you felt that too, right?-ness of prime Federer, no explanation will suffice. To those who did, none is necessary.

“The Perfect Way to Say This”

Watching Federer retire at the Laver Cup this week brought home to me, for the millionth time, how borderline unbelievable it is that he’s actually really good friends with Nadal and Djokovic.

In fact, all the players who you’d expect would dislike Federer seem to like him quite a lot. When he arrived on the men’s Tour, nothing dictated that you had to be friends with your rivals. It’s worthwhile, then, to wonder where tennis might be today if Federer, the pre-eminent men’s player straddling the past two generations, had decided to be a prick. Even outside that thought experiment, it’s quite extraordinary that the enormous downward pressure of the years of Nadal and Djokovic usurpation has provoked little antagonism from Federer, if any.

Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray. London, 2022.

There’s a deeper point here, too.

Men’s sports are often held back by dense, crude, alpha male-style behaviour which needlessly ties together what it means to be the best and what it means to be a man. It would be dishonest to claim that tennis is bound to be a destructively aggressive sport, but it can certainly turn into that on occasion.

Federer brought a very different energy to that position. His temper never really went away, of course. But, on the long view, he held together his cling film of calmness as securely as he could, and he’s never got nearly enough credit for taking his responsibilities as a role model very seriously. In time, I’m sure, people more qualified than myself will come to assess this with greater accuracy. For the moment, though, it’s worth pointing this out, as it was a keenly felt yet unspoken part of his appeal.

For a period so many of us remember so well, Federer stood for everything the world’s best men’s tennis player was supposed to be. He did so while quietly detonating the trope of the alpha male that had, for so long, come with that territory.

Even more than how watching him made you feel, I reckon the ultimate tell-the-grandkids test with Federer is how much he is loved within tennis.

The reactions from his fellow pros to his retirement announcement really brought this out.

Sampras sent him a wonderful video message. “Every moment you shared has left us better off,” was Agassi’s sentiment. Roddick spoke about how Federer, even leaving aside everything he’s accomplished, stands out for how he conducted himself when no one was looking. Nadal, who fittingly stood on the same side for his final match, said he wished this day would never come. Djokovic said it was hard to see this day finally arrive. Del Potro declared his love with a plaintive, all-capitalized I LOVE YOU.

Daniil Medvedev spoke of how playing him for the first time was one of the greatest feelings of his life. Stefanos Tsitsipas credited Federer as the reason he plays with a one-handed backhand. The newly minted World №1 Carlos Alcaraz, who has lived his entire life under the Federer sun but will now never get to play him, unwittingly started off a heartbreak emoji chain. Alejandro Davidovich Fokina joined it, as did John Isner and Karen Khachanov, before I lost track.

It was the opening words of Serena Williams’ message, though, just a few days on from her own retirement, that really struck me.

“I want to find the perfect way to say this,” she wrote. It spoke to something deep inside us all, I think. To the need to treat Federer’s tennis legacy, of all legacies, with particular care.

Serena’s sincerity in searching for the perfect way to offer her tribute spoke louder than words ever could.

Now and Forever

Federer goes without regrets.

“I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on earth,” he said in his retirement address. “I was given a special talent to play tennis, and I did it at a level I never imagined, for much longer than I ever thought possible.”

Even beyond that, he leaves tennis in peace. He’s not at odds with the direction the sport is going. He doesn’t hate it or feel betrayed by it or get bored by it. He goes with the golden handshake of being limited his own failure to keep going.

In that, too, he has found resolution. He recognises that he has been on thin ice for a long time, and that, at forty-one years old, it can’t be that he’s chasing after something that’s hardly realistic anymore.

He goes with a sense of completeness, leaving behind a fully constructed vision of how tennis could be played. A vision that was at once beautiful, skillful, daring, outrageous, efficient, silent, respectful, and glorious. To my mind, his tennis embodied what Wallace — he of the Religious Experience — once described as “that weird mix of caution and abandon we call courage.”

Federer’s tennis greatness is supported in equal measure by the peaks he reached and by the longevity he enjoyed. It’s a legacy of tremendous, almost unfathomable weight, yet one that he has worn effortlessly, as only he can.

Aside from the blessings Federer has already counted himself, we’ve been blessed with him in one striking way. His entire career has been documented. He played one thousand five hundred and twenty-six singles matches, all told. The vast majority of his career is on film somewhere. A big part of me balks at the thought of referring to his career in the past tense but, in reality, there will always be complete access to nearly everything he ever did on a tennis court.

He’s a special figure to me in ways that are truly once-ever.

I was both wowed by him and able to closely sense his vulnerabilities the first few times I watched him play. I was a teenager then, and I think needed to be one in order to get what he was about. Federer did much of his legacy work before social media and messaging apps invaded my life. I’m grateful that my recollections of the first half of Federer’s career are relatively pure, untainted by the opinions of people on the internet. Perhaps that’s part why his imprint has been so profound on us all, and why so much of his tennis legacy is so secure in my mind. Nearly everything I remember of prime Federer is cryogenically preserved from a time when big time tennis matches were discrete occasions, when one day didn’t melt indistinguishably into the next in quite the way it does now. He came along in the narrow slice of time — perhaps the last such slice of time I’ll ever experience in my life — when I could understand the quality and significance of what he was doing as well as trust myself to retain moments and the precise emotions that were bundled with them because our memories were our only method of clinging to the ghosts of tennis past.

Federer also performed the rare feat of unshackling several matches he played from the quality of their context. Sportspersons who produce memorable bodies of work tend to compel investment for the confluence of greatness between art and artist. It takes an exceptional sportsperson, however, to compel investment in the mundane. Federer may have been the genius who pursued art for art’s sake but the Federer experience, in many ways, was about following the art for the sake of the artist.

He serenely resisted the encroachments of Father Time in a way that I’ll always remember. With Federer, it was easier than with perhaps any other player to see the older, still-great player and imagine that you were watching the perfect tennis player he was in his prime.

It was a mass dissonance of a type and to a scale that, I suspect, we’re unlikely to see again. That won’t be because post-prime tennis players will stop claiming titles. It’s more because the prime iteration of Federer was so perfect that the flashes of genius, even as they slowed to a trickle, appeared to emerge from that same quarry of endless perfection.

Even as his ability to go back to that quarry demonstrably frayed, we hoped above hope that he could do so on command. Out of sheer goodwill, we allowed him — and demanded of ourselves — that loyalty for years. Towards the very end, it was a deeply questionable loyalty, as fierce as it was hopeless. Even so, I plan to hold on to it as long as I am able. Not because I can’t let go of that loyalty but because I find it utterly impossible to forget that feeling of rooting for Federer against all good sense.

All of which circles back to the lesson I started with, and one that has been by my side through hundreds of his tennis matches down the years.

It’s what Peter Carter first spotted in that nine-year-old kid in Basel in 1991, and it’s as powerfully true today as it was then.

With Roger Federer, now and forever, it’s not what you look at that matters — it’s what you see.

(With thanks to @tennisballfluff.)

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Eashan Ghosh

Eashan Ghosh

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News, reports and opinions on Indian intellectual property law. Everything else is gravy.