Roger Federer (B: 8th August 1981) will be remembered as usherer of a new age of speed-power-and-grace style play in the annals of tennis in the first decade of 21st century, Once he bagged the first ever grand slam win – the 2002 Wimbledon Singles Final -, he so effortlessly seemed to dominate the next decade. The ease with which he could adjust his game to the demands of different surfaces, he seemed to effortlessly accumulate 19 more grans slams, with one Calendar Grand Slam as well as record 8 Wimbledon Singles to=titles, even while facing fierce completion form Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
His recent announcement of retiring voluntarily from the professional tennis spurs me to note down some of my memories of the game of tennis as well as some lessons that his career offers to all of us, for our personal as well professional lives.
My basic interest in tennis dates back to ‘60s, when I would read the whole of sports page in the English newspaper with a basic aim to improve my English. There,, along with news of cricket and cricket stars, I would get to read about exploits the then tennis greats like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewell, Roy Emerson, Stan Smith or the Indian greats like Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukherjea.. However, I saw the real tennis court for the first time only when I joined L D College of Engineering, Ahmedabad in 1966.
Then came the mid ‘70s, when TV had started making in-roads into Indian homes. In that period, we would invariably make it a point to watch the live telecasts of the tennis matches, more particularly the Wimbledon finals. Bjorn Borg, Ile Nastase, John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe, or Vijay Amrithraj of India are the names from that period that remain etched in my mind. Watching these matches also cultivated the understanding of the game of tennis. Then came Boris Becker, who cliched Wimbledon Singles title in 1985, at the age of 17 (the youngest to win the title) as an unseeded player. His ‘boom boom’ serve ushered in the ear of strong first serve as the major match-winning weapon. In fact, ‘number of first serve as aces’ then became a major parameter to assess the match performance.
By ‘90s, the tennis had started becoming the game of technique and power, with most games being decided on the first serves only. The charm of serve and volley, spins, dropshots suddenly started looking like relics form the distant past. However, games of players like Stefan Edberg, still, remained attraction of watching the full live matches.
By the end ‘90s, new star, Roger Federer, could be seen at the horizon of the tennis world. However much before Federer won his junior Wimbledon title in 1988, his father was able see that hidden talent in the boy. He used to motivate the young Federer to nurture the goal to reach the Top 100 so that he could earn the expenses of travelling for playing in the tournaments.
However, the adolescent Federer was feeling extremely home sick. Additionally, when he would match, he would keep crying, alone. He would try to copy some of the shots of his the then idols, like Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker etc. But obviously once into the rhythm of a match these copy shots would not work. He would then grievously regret his such decisions.
However, his Junior Wimbledon title win in 1998 had created its own impact in the world of tennis. But his short temper was still a big hampering factor that seemed to keep consistency away from his game. The 6-3, 6-3 straight sets defeat against Franco Squillari turned out to be the eye-opener for Federer. His own terrible behaviour on the court in that match hurt Federer so much that he vowed not to lose his cool ever again.
The manner in which he succeeded in maintaining the right balance between the hot lava’s flow of series of successes on the court and exemplary coolness of temperament on and off the court has placed the Federer’s subsequent professional career and his life in coveted a role model for a professional in any walk-in life. The way he could create the harmony between his natural talent and acquired competence could be seen in the smooth precision on the court that elevated him to status of (one of) the greatest player as well as a treat to watch for his fans.
However, what appears to be so simple in the way it comes across in these words, in was not all that smooth sailing for Federer. In fact, in the same year at Wimbledon, he suffered another defeat at the hands of Tim Henman. That defeat was the second eye-opener event in the life of Roger Federer.
He realized that along with the natural skill and acquired composure, the discipline also plays a crucial role in the success for a professional. He realized the importance of regular and dedicated training, reaching the venue o the match well before the scheduled time, a sound sleep of night and such other every single detail of a professional life.
The death of his mentor and one-time coach, Peter Carter, too made Federer realize what his destiny was. Roger Federer realized that this untimely death was a sacrifice at the altar of his success.
His win at the 2003 Wimbledon Singles final, against Mark Philippoussis, was the first sweet fruit of his changed way of life. Every lesson that Federer learnt from the subsequent success, or defeat went on to add to the humility, maturity and burning desire for success on all types of surfaces.
His 2009 French Open title was perhaps his sweetest of all 20 grand slam wins. The way he transformed his game from a straight two set defeats and on the brink of a breakpoint in the third one, in the fourth round, is considered to be nothing sort of a miracle. That French Open title established him as the sixth ever male winner of career grand slam, after Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi. (His close rivals and compatriots Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic also have achieved this success subsequently.)
In the age where changes in the ball and the racquet, tennis attire and gear, surface, post-match analysis rapidly started undergoing changes because of the pressures of the respective technologies, a very unique blend of Federer’s skill, style, commitment and razor-sharp intuition has played a key role in recognising him as THE trend-setter player of his time. Never retiring from a match or the tournament in his long gruelling career also remains an unbeatable record.
The destiny had other plans for Federer as he mulled different strategies to continue pursuing his tennis career in spite of advancing age taking its toll on his physique. In aa freak accident in 2026, His left knee popped up when he slipped while running a bath for his daughters. He had to undergo a surgery he was avoiding all this while. Once he recuperated back to the fighting fitness, he went ton defeat Nadal in 2017 Australian Open final to clinch his 18th grand slam!
Presently, Roger Federer, in sage-like decision, recognises the inner messages that his body has been sending in that enough is enough now. His body now has to be accorded its due after having fully supported his career over more than 1,500 matches in last 24 years hat his body cannot take more strains of the professional tennis, so he has decided to hang off his professional tennis gears.
As much as it is important to nurture burning desire to excel at each stage of life and put in all the energies to achieve that success, it is also a defining quality of a successful individuals to know when it is time to quit, gracefully, voluntarily, in planned manner. The great cricketer Vijay Merchant out it succinctly when he said, ‘Retire when people ask why and not when’.
Along with burning desire to always excel with matching approach towards the on-court play on different surface s and ability to adjust the playing style, one very major facet of Roger Federer’s tennis persona has been his very unique equation he has been able to maintain with his hotly chasing his heels compatriot competitors – Rafael Nadal and then Novak Djokovic. On 3rd July, 2022, Roger Federer was in two minds to accept the invitation to attend the 100th anniversary celebrations of the beginning of Wimbledon which was to be attended by almost all the past greats. In the end, his love for the game and the ground that gave him the unique status of eight, record-making, grand slams seem to have tilted in favour of the decision to attend the function. Importantly, one can so clearly see the unique chemistry he had been able to work out with the compatriot competitors and his respect for other greats like Stan Smith, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and such other great legends. It is that quality of Roger Federer that puts him in to the league of one of the ‘aal-time greats’ from a simple great player of his time.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic essentially have very different playing styles, each having one more suited for a particular type of the surface. However, it is to their individual and collective credit that they have won 65 finals out of a total 72, played across different types of surfaces. If 2004 to 2010 was the golden period of Federer, it is Nadal and Djokovic who seem to have dominated the next decade.
Even when their on-court competitive spirits is quite fierce, the combative mood simply gets switched off as anon as the match ends. It is this unique Coopetition ( a business strategy that uses insights gained from game theory to understand when it is better for competitors to work together) that has not only spurred each one of them to raise their game to sustained higher levels of performance, but also greatly benefitted the game of tennis at large. Every match between any two of these three has been a great event for not only the respective fans but has also attracted several other classes of essentially non-tennis loving public to the game.
If shattering of one record after the other in just one time period of the game is because of the great individual competence of each one of these three, a major part of the credit is also due to the strong stimuli that their cooperative completion. To better appreciate this aspect, let us go back a little in the past.
After a string of successes at clay and grass courts of French Open and Wimbledon respectively, Bjorn Borg was not able to crack the American Open title. After a fourth successive failure, when he suddenly announced his retirement from the active game, his words were:
“When you go out on the court, you should say this is great, I’m going to hit the tennis ball, I’m going to try to win every point, and I like to make a good shot. If you don’t think and feel that, it’s very difficult to play.”
There are two different explanations to this statement. One school interprets this as his frustration that he did not have that quality of competition that could help him to elevate his game for the hard courts of American Open. The other school looks at this feeling as Post-Prime Depression, wherein the symptoms include a bruised ego, growing awareness that the top spot in the ranking will never belong to you again, and a fear of the inevitable. It was perhaps a combination of both the factors that prompted Borg to suddenly call it a day.
In comparison to this, there hardly was a phase when any one of the three – Federer, Nadal or Djokovic – always would keep so much winning on a particular surface that other may simply lose all hope of ever winning again on that surface.
Roger Federer selecting the September 2022 Laver Cup as his swan song professional tournament, where he was to team up with Rafael Nadal under the captainship of Bjorn Borg, epitomises the true nature of that unique competitively cooperative spirit. Nadal was all tears at the end of the doubles which he and Federer had lost. However, these tears were not because the two greats could not win just one match, but were the natural reaction that he would never play that high-class, high-voltage tennis against Federer.
Federer has not only given back to tennis what he has got in so much abundance from the game, but he has put his earnings from the game to the care and education of the children across the poorer nations. An official statement at Roger Federer Foundation that he has set up for this purpose notes that the foundation has been able to reach out more than 1.8 million deprived children over last 18 years.
Beyond the game, Federer is also a brand ambassador for the Swiss tourism. A street each is named after him in Halle, Germany and Biel, Switzerland.
Federer was so graceful tennis player, who combined minimalist elegance with an abundance of flair, that it is said the even after a gruelling five-steer, he would hardly have shed a drop of perspiration and would be as immaculate as he was at the beginning of the match. His gliding movements across the court were so much a stamen of kinetic beauty that he was called ‘a poetic inspiration with the racquet’. For many others watching his game was more of a ‘spiritual experience’.
In his farewell statement Roger Federer very emotionally states that “…..to the game of tennis: I love you and will never leave you.”
The words of Bjorn Borg, at the recent Laver Cup, aptly sums up the feelings that we all will cherish for Roger Federer – …. no one is bigger than the sport itself — but what he did for the sport all around the world, it’s amazing. We should all be proud.