Different Class

It’s pronounced FAY-der-er, by the way, and he wasn’t always like this. Early on, Roger Federer stylized himself as the tortured genius, that well-worn mentality many kids inhabit once they hit high school and discover Dylan, or Cudi, or Sondheim, or Swift, or whomever they think can better express their ideals than themselves.

His mother, Lynette, was a secretary in the South African office where his father worked for a time after university. Neither possessed particular athletic skill, nor were they disproportionately different in any way which may foreshadow a dynamo talent such as that of their son.

Of course, pharma money gets you a club membership, but that still doesn’t make you the greatest man ever to effortlessly walk a tennis court. On the occasion of Roger Federer’s impending retirement from professional tennis, which he announced Thursday morning via Instagram and elsewhere, and because he has mostly avoided competitive tennis for the past few years, we must look back.

Between his on-court dressings down of lesser peers – nothing to be ashamed of after the fact, as it turns out – Federer would appeal to his coach, the easygoing Swedish former pro Peter Lundgren, to drive him around after bad practices, and engender Lundgren to blare Metallica, with the windows down, continuing his head-banging into the night[2].

“More CDs.” This is what Roger Federer said he would buy with his first tennis paycheck in an interview with a local newspaper as a teenager[1]. Shortly after, he was the U14 Swiss national champion, in between bouts of on-court rage and icicle moments that would define his – or anyone’s – teenage years.

Roger Federer doesn’t have a middle name, not that he ever would’ve needed one. He grew up the son of a son of a Swiss textile family that turned pharmaceutical, as if there was ever a choice. His home life growing up was exactly what he needed to become a capital-R/capital-F, almost first-name-basis person in seemingly whatever his chosen field may have been – that it was so public an avenue as tennis is a blessing to the rest of us.

The Basel club where Federer would initially hone his wares is T.C. Old Boys; he joined the tennis program, led at the time by Madeleine Bärlocher, who struggled on grass at the Wimbledon girls tournament. Funny, the way it sometimes is.

He turned pro in 1998, but his largely agreed-upon breakthrough was at Wimbledon in 2001, where he upended Pete Sampras, the four-time defending champion and seven-time winner overall, in their only professional match against each other, (7-6[7], 5-7, 6-4, 6-7[2], 7-5).

Federer didn’t win that tournament overall, but no matter, he’d get to that soon enough. Wimbledon in 2003 was a harbinger of things to immediately come: he won that, and then the next 64 matches consecutively on grass. That his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, broke Federer’s streak is immaterial because, naturally, Nadal had an 81-match win streak on clay which Federer broke it at the 2007 Hamburg Masters[3].

His absolute peak, from 2004 to 2008, included five consecutive US Open wins and a record 237 consecutive weeks as the ATP #1, among many other accolades. Carlos Alcaraz, the effervescent 19-year-old Spaniard fresh off his first Grand Slam victory at last week’s US Open and newly atop the rankings, would have to be there until March 2027 to topple that mark.

At his most, and even dialed back from that, Federer was more artist than athlete, painting the baseline and rushing forward for unthinkable returns. Any single element of his game stands among the best version of it in tennis history; his serve could be the ATP logo, his footwork was Jordanesque and his forehand recalls the swirling melted chocolate of a Lindt commercial.

Fitting for a player who counted among his foremost admirers Anna Wintour, Federer did his best work at Wimbledon, winning the tournament a men’s record eight times. It was on the grass of Centre Court where he played perhaps the greatest match of his career and one of the best ever, a rain-delayed five-set marathon against Nadal that he lost. Even in defeat, Federer’s omnipotence shone, and anyway, he won the Wimbledon title three more times after that[4].

He played on ships in the Sydney Harbour and built schools in Malawi. He listened to house and played FIFA; he became a Rolex spokesperson and continued closing out his own service games in under a minute flat. He showed up in various shades of white and white-adjacent attire for multiple decades, through multiple arrivals of baby twins, and he and Mirka just kept working – Mirka Federer, née Vavrincová, a Swiss ex-tennis pro herself who met Roger at the Sydney Olympic Games – toward a holistic view of what life should be. Clenched fists on the rail and all, there Mirka usually would be, cheering on Roger in an age when coaching directly wasn’t allowed.

Ultimately, Fed understood a game, one which men had taken and kept to themselves for longer than necessary before women were be able to be paid for it, and turned it inside out. Fed picked up where Sampras and Agassi left off: serve-and-volley has its place, but power and finesse was going to be the way forward. He was a bridge in the way that LeBron James, three years his junior, would soon become in basketball.

He lost more Slam finals (11) than most players could ever hope to make at all. There he was, for nearly twenty years, becoming an adult without ever quite growing up: by the time he beat Agassi at the 2005 US Open in the latter’s last-ever Slam final, he already had five majors to his name. Going from that to, fourteen years and fifteen Slams later, losing the longest-ever Wimbledon final to the likes of Novak Djokovic felt unheard of; it felt, simply, like Roger Federer was never going to stop.

But soon, he will, and at age 41, he’s earned it. We get lost, sometimes, in what other people owe us, what they did or didn’t do to appease the masses. Expecting Roger Federer to show up in all whites is one thing; he’s Barilla James Bond, after all. Expecting him to destroy himself with the likes of Alcaraz, Casper Ruud, Frances Tiafoe and others knocking at the door? Human, which no one suspects Federer strictly is. What he is, we saw. What is was, so much more typically than not, bordered on perfection. The rest of it, he’ll have time to find out. With a deep breath, finally, he can relax, headphone speakers set to 10.

[1] Between this and his frosted tips just before he broke through, he and I are the same. No pictures, thanks for asking.

[2] Many of the notes here come from L. Jon Wertheim’s seminal Strokes of Genius, a book originally published in 2009 which includes the following sentence: “Yet in 2008, the Federer Empire was, if not crumbling, showing some signs of decay.” A full decade later, Federer won his final Slam title at the 2018 Australian Open.

[3] You can’t talk about Federer without Nadal; similarly, the symbiosis between Federer and Serena Williams retiring concurrently is almost too perfect. Serena is the greatest tennis player who ever lived, full stop. I don’t like relegating this to a footnote, but Serena’s greatness is so all-encompassing that it demands mention here. She, Venus and Federer came up at similar times under wildly different circumstances, but that never detracted from any of their respect for the game they would come to dominate.

[4] Federer’s reign lasted so long that “Is the end of Roger Federer on the horizon?” became sort of a parlor game for people writing about sports or tennis. Here’s one; here’s another, and there are many more from years before his Slam-winning days were over.


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