Thank you, Roger

“The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” — David Foster Wallace

A Game of Inches

Sunday, July 14th. Our living room was quiet. The match clock read 4:11. Two match points — it was about to happen. Roger Federer was going to win his ninth Wimbledon and we were witnessing it on live television. His first serve bites the tape. *Oh of course, that was expected — he’s going to hit the second out wide and force an error from Novak. On the second serve, Novak swings back and Roger pushes the forehand just a few inches right of the line. “Okay, one more, he still has one more.” I felt a terrible drop in my heart. I had witnessed this before: US Open 2010, US Open 2011, and even as recently as Indian Wells 2018. It was another 40–15. He needs to finish it here. No question about it. We held our breaths and watched Roger pull a nervous first serve down the line. Novak replied with a chip forehand, setting up the shot to take it all. It was the same setup as the end of the Wimbledon 2012 final. A serve down the tee paired with the forehand to the opponent’s weaker side. At that moment, I closed my eyes. I wanted to hear the roars from my brother, dad, and mom. I wanted to hear cheers and the crowd going wild on the television. I wanted to see Roger fall to his feet and put his hands in the air. When I opened them, a stout Djokovic had just rolled a passing shot into the right corner of the service box. A perfect shot at that moment, one requiring mental fortitude and guts of steel. At that moment, it felt as though time stopped. My dad had even earlier commented that it seemed as though the entire world wanted Federer to win this match. The packed Wimbledon crowd cheering him on, the sunshine flowing into Centre Court, the history on the line.

Alas, over 40 minutes later, Roger would shank a forehand at the 12–12 tiebreak, sending a ball into the crowd and letting the dream of a final Wimbledon title sail away. As the players walked to the net to greet one another, I walked out of the room. With small tears flowing and a lump in my throat, I was in absolute disbelief. “This was just not right. How did this happen? Why did it happen?” Novak Djokovic is a great champion, but how could our beloved Roger not wrap up his career in such heroic fashion? Despite the seeming “choke” and the heavy disappointment of a lost opportunity that would never return again, that day, more than ever, I was convinced that Roger Federer was my champion, a living legend who I would always stand by.

The Melbourne Miracle

Sunday, 29th January. “Wake up. Check the score.” It was 3:20 AM on a Saturday night, but my heart couldn’t be racing more. Having just awakened from my preset alarm, I was ready to check. Deep breathes — Okay let’s do it. I pulled up Google on the iPhone and typed in “Roger Federer.” As the page loaded, I waited in silence. Suddenly, a flash of light and the ESPN app read “6–4, 3–6, 3–0 Federer.” It felt like a shot of adrenaline just flew into my heart. The two GOATs were locked in a battle in the early hours of the morning and I could sneak to my TV and witness it. This match was huge. This was Roger’s best shot at a grand slam title since 2015. Against his great rival, Rafa, any lead would be monumental. As I powered on the TV, I was met with an unexpected flourish: the Federer backhand. For years, I could recall me and my dad yelling at the screen, saying “Roger, don’t keep slicing … Just hit it!” but this moment felt different. Roger was hitting the backhand without fear.

He had been out of the game for six months leading up to 2017, reeling from a knee injury sustained at Wimbledon 2016. No one had thought Roger would even reach the final of the Australian Open, let alone the late stages of the tournament given the difficulty of his draw. Yet, the maestro simply showed that age was just a number, beating the likes of Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, and Stan Wawrinka to make the final. The Australian Open of 2017 revealed a different Federer, one who played without expectation and put it all on the line because he had one goal: title number 18. For years, so many critics doubted Roger. Since early 2009, people questioned his longevity, his ability to keep up with Novak and Rafa, and his hunger. But Roger showed them that he wanted it more than ever, strutting into the changeover with a phenomenal 6–1 set in the bag. One set away from a timeless championship, Roger was not yet free. Rafa turned on the jets and stormed away with an early lead in the 4th set. As the 4th set seemed to slip away, my dad also awoke and came to our living room, likely having heard my “oohs” and “ahs” during this thriller of a match. As Rafa secured the 4th set and jumped up to a 3–1 lead in the 5th, our confidence in Roger wavered and the opposing outcome seemed ever more likely. However, little did we know that we were about to witness a champion’s rally.

From 3–1 down in the fifth set, Roger Federer played five heroic, masterful games. He managed to hold serve, came clutch in breaking Rafa at the crucial moments, and as we all remember won an absolute “lung buster” of a point at 4–3 40–40. That rally would come to symbolize the warlike intensity and swings of the match as a whole. Rafa aggressively trying to pin Roger with loopy shots, Roger counterpunching with the backhand to get Rafa on the run, scenes of phenomenal defense from both players, and finally a seemingly immortal stretch forehand to end a historic rally. As was said on the ESPN broadcast, I will never ever forget that rally. That moment and the finish of that match signaled that Roger had fought off his demons. To come back from injury and rally to beat his greatest rival was a superhuman feat. Roger had ascended from an incredible sportsman to a generational athlete. With the digital hawkeye line calling system ready to determine the outcome of the match at 5–3, my dad and I held our breaths. When we saw the black silhouette of the ball fall squarely on the line, we felt a surge of absolute bliss. “HE DID IT.” I really felt like I myself just won the Australian Open. As the trophy ceremony celebrated an incredible match and the sun began to rise back home, I felt at peace with the outcome, beyond thrilled that my idol and legend had done the impossible and near unthinkable. Yet, I could distinctly remember Roger saying the words “I hope to come back and play again.” Even in 2017, we knew we didn’t have much time left with the maestro.

Defining Greatness

In sports, we frequently ask ourselves the age-old question: what does it mean to be great? Is greatness solely based on numbers and statistics or is it a more subjective quality where personal attributes have equal emphasis alongside numeric achievements? Long story short, it is easier to make a quantitative argument for why Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal have exceeded Roger Federer as “GOATs” of the game. Grand Slam Titles, Grand Slam Finals, Match Wins, Masters 1000s, ATP 500s, Weeks at #1, etc. At the end of his illustrious career, Roger no longer leads his counterparts in the defining metrics of tennis. However, there’s something about Roger that makes him so beloved by millions of fans around the world. When I walk into a Uniqlo store, more often than not his signature RF logo hat is sold out. When one looks for players practicing ahead of matches at tournaments, getting a front-row seat to watch Roger is the most coveted. When I converse with friends who’ve never followed pro tennis before, the name Roger Federer still echoes greatness. Roger Federer’s legacy and gift to the sport of tennis is too rich to distill down to a singular thesis. However, he is the player who transformed tennis into artwork.

When timeless painters like Monet and Michelangelo created their works, there is an almost elemental feeling to the quality of their craft: an aura. Federer’s ever-present aura has never been seen before in the sport of tennis, both in his on-court and off-court activities. Despite his fair share of tantrums and swearing early during his career, Roger would come to symbolize the tennis equivalent of a Swiss army knife: tactile, elegant, and deadly. His slices seemed near effortless yet would cut through the air. His serve was streamlined and elegant in form yet would have laser precision and unmistakable speed. Most famous of all, his forehand was a weapon no opponent would ever want to face on the court: one of the greatest if not the greatest shot tennis has ever seen. On the court, a prime Roger Federer was a sight to behold. I still go back and watch as much old footage of Federer as possible to revel in the dominance.

However, we fans also love Roger because of his admirable qualities and chivalry. Going from a ballboy raised in a small canton of Switzerland to an iconic legend of sport is no easy feat yet Roger accomplished it with style and was elegance personified. With a humble confidence and suave attitude both on and off the court, it almost became hard to not root for Federer both during his meteoric rise from 2003 to 2007 and in his periodic gaps in form. From the heartbreak experienced in the 2009 Australian Open to the rock bottom feelings of the 2013 season, Federer has dealt with hardships that not all players would have been able to surmount. It would always have been easy for him to be satisfied after eclipsing Pete Sampras's record but simply put, he loves the game of tennis. In the last decade in particular, even after reaching his 30s, Federer graced us with his determination to give the sport more.

Inspired by Roger

Given Roger officially retired from professional tennis on September 15th, 2022, I decided to write this piece to pour lots of raw emotions and thoughts into writing. In terms of my personal feelings and for my family, my life will not be the same without having Roger actively playing on the tour. When Federer lost a match, the mood for that day would already be a bit solemn by default. When he would win, even on my worst days it gave me something to smile about. Lots of my friends can attest to this but I can recall Federer’s past match results and scores from the last 20 years with high accuracy. From the 2006 US Open to Shanghai 2014 to the 2019 French Open, it’s all locked away in my memory. The reason for this: I love watching Roger’s highlights. In fact, in middle school and high school, a lot of my free time went into watching Roger’s highlights from various matches across the years. I was simply captivated by his style of tennis and couldn’t get enough of it: even if it meant watching the same matches and points over and over again. Seeing Roger in person was an even more special privilege. It made the trips down to Indian Wells more worth it than ever and it was also so wonderful to see him light up stadiums as part of the Match for Africa exhibitions in Seattle and San Jose.

Roger’s impact also fell quite literally on my tennis. Just like everyone else, I wanted to play just like him. I wasn’t able to ever wield a one-handed backhand but I did try my best to have a similar slice that could punish opponents. I also put work into making my forehand even a fraction as fearsome as his was. On my 18th birthday, I even got the racket I always wanted: Federer’s very own all-black signature Wilson Pro Staff 97. Having played the game for over 15 years at this point, I can say with certainty that watching Federer so often on the screen has helped my game as much as it has introduced unorthodox aspects like hitting the “prettiest” shot or going for winners that you would see on the ESPN highlights reel. While I still can’t hit an amazing tweener, I’m pretty satisfied with my running forehand passing shot.

The Religious Experience

For the last few years, it has been clear that Roger’s retirement from professional tennis has been inevitable. A lackluster finish in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2021 accompanied by setbacks with knee surgeries and further aging have defeated fans’ hopes for a Roger comeback. However, there is still so much to celebrate even when the great man decides to hang up his racket. From heartwrenching defeats like Wimbledon 2019 to moments of ecstasy like Australia 2017, there is symmetry in the career of a generational athlete like Federer. For each crushing defeat, there have been numerous victories: Wimbledon 2009 was the antithesis of Wimbledon 2019, matches where the better player could not complete the job. Australia 2009’s heartbreak was matched if not bettered by the glory of winning it all in 2017. For all the 40–15s, there have been many great escapes and the general blessing of Roger’s fitness late into his 30s. Just the fact that a 37-year-old could still compete at the upper echelons of tennis is an achievement on its own. Even more broadly, as the New York Times puts it: Federer’s grace, speed, power, precision, kinesthetic virtuosity, and seriously wicked topspin have transfigured men’s tennis. And for multiple decades, his tennis has been a gift to fans and lovers of the sport.

The point goes beyond Federer. The Big 3 and their history of incredible matches with twists and turns have revitalized the tennis community as a whole. Records are meant to be broken but winning 5 US Opens in a row, claiming 8 Wimbledons, winning 13 French Opens, and winning 9 Australian Opens are near inhuman feats. Rafa and Novak are undoubtedly GOATs of this sport as well and the Big 3 have only sharpened one another through their epic battles. Uplifting Roger doesn’t need to bring down Rafa or Novak by default. History will remember this era of tennis as the golden age or renaissance of sorts and these three names will forever be entangled.

However, as the sun sets on this chapter for Roger, we’re reminded that time is limited. Nothing lasts forever and for fans of tennis, we must cherish these great champions on and off the court. To Roger personally — it has been a privilege to have spent my childhood and grow up with you. In your victories we took comfort and in your defeats we took lessons. For me, you are truly the greatest and tennis will not be the same without you. The quote below captures this feeling best:

“When you do something best in life, you don’t really want to give that up — and for me it’s tennis.” — Roger Federer

Thank you, Roger. You’ll always be my idol and hero for the journey that lies ahead.

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