Roger Federer, the tennis player who turned sport into art

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Switzerland’s Roger Federer celebrates his second-round win over France’s Richard Gasquet in London, Britain. July 1, 2021Paul Childs/Reuters

Roger Federer has been doing a slow, smooth fade for so long that it seems unfair that he now has to take time off altogether.

While he wasn’t the greatest tennis player in history in terms of some grim stats, he was certainly the greatest tennis presence of our lifetime. Federer changed the way we think about tennis and therefore all sports.

When Federer was playing, it wasn’t just a very fit person running after a ball. He transformed sport into physical art. His courtly choreography, his apparent ease and, above all, his grace. In retrospect, his closest contemporaries weren’t the Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovics of the world. They were Martha Graham and Rudolf Nureyev.

Federer, 41, announced his retirement via a social media post on Thursday. He will play in next week’s Laver Cup – a crowded tennis exhibition – and then leave.

Unlike Serena Williams’ recent game of “will she or won’t she?”, there was no exit in Federer’s announcement. He does not evolve far from the game. The upcoming tournament “will be my last ATP event”.

Federer said he would continue to play tennis, but not for the elite stakes. He specifically ruled out any return at a Grand Slam.

So that’s it.

This combination of photo files created on July 16, 2017 shows Switzerland’s Roger Federer holding the Wimbledon Championships trophy after winning each of his eight men’s singles titles at the All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, south-west London, in (top LR) 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, (bottom LR) 2007, 2009, 2012 and July 16, 2017.-/AFP/Getty Images

It’s only when a great athlete leaves that you realize what he represents. It’s not entertainment, or at least not just that. It’s an era. Federer was not a tennis player. There was a time and a place.

He was at home nowhere and everywhere. If the top professional athletes are now as much global brands as they are people, Federer did it first.

Unclassifiable in a specific national context – no one sees it and thinks “Swiss” – he became a citizen of whatever country he was in that week. When Federer was at Wimbledon, he was an honorary Brit. In China, an honorary Chinese. In the middle of any big city in the world, you knew if you looked up, you’d see his face on a billboard.

He supported all good causes in general, and none in particular. At a time when it was still possible, he made capitalism cool and marketing easy – win Wimbledon, then put on your Rolex.

Unfairly perhaps, he was the great athlete of the neoliberal ascendancy. You could call him the Barack Obama of tennis. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

It depended on his era. Federer rose in this quiet moment between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the war we currently find ourselves in.

It debuted in 1999, just as the internet was becoming ubiquitous. Now intimately connected with six billion neighbors, people sought out topics of conversation that we all had in common. Sport was a no-brainer. There aren’t many games that are understood and enjoyed everywhere. After football, there is tennis.

Roger Federer of Switzerland plays a backhand during the Men’s Singles Semi-Final of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 10, 2015 in London, England.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Comes the moment, comes the man – has that ever been truer than in the case of Federer?

Sport was the bait, but it was Federer’s way around the world that hooked people. Call it pleasant sweetness; 007 with a racket and a smile. If you wanted Federer to be your favorite athlete, you could just say he wanted to be that for you.

Whatever space he occupied, he always seemed the most comfortable person there. You watched him at press conferences after a crushing loss and could tell he was enjoy. Having said it in English, he gladly repeated the same thing in three or four other languages.

This air of general contentment never slipped. He never complained or played the victim. For nearly 25 years, Federer never really had a crossword for anyone.

These days, many athletes cultivate this image of somewhat detached cosmopolitanism. It’s hard work and it shows. For Federer, it came naturally. He was born to be observed.

Of athletic ability, what else can you say? He didn’t reinvent tennis, but only because no one can play like him.

“I would like to be in his place one day to know what it is like to play this way,” Mats Wilander once said of him, six times major champion. You knew Federer was the greatest because all the best players, past and present, kept grabbing you by the shoulders and insisting that was the case.

Don’t go where the puck is. Go where it will be. Federer brought this philosophy to his own sport. The difference between hockey and tennis is that Federer was the one who decided both things – where he is and where he will be in three shots. A few opponents were his physical equal, but none were strategically close to him. The last years of his career, as his body crumbled, were a testament to that.

Switzerland’s Roger Federer waves to spectators after defeating Russia’s Daniil Medvedev during their men’s singles match of the Shanghai Masters tennis tournament at Qizhong Forest Sports City Tennis Center in Shanghai, China, 10 October 2018.Andy Wong/Associated Press

Part of that was also luck. Federer didn’t just find the right moment. He also found good company.

He replaced a king when he arrived (Pete Sampras). Then he brought out someone who was almost his equal (Nadal) to follow him throughout his career. Djokovic showed up in the second half to show you what Federer would have looked like with all the talent, but no charisma.

In the end, when someone of Federer’s stature leaves, it’s not about them. It’s about you. How you felt during their time. How they shaped that feeling and sent it back to you. They were part of your life. Not the main part, but the soundtrack playing in the background. When they leave, it’s time to find some new music.

That’s why it’s so inexplicably sad. You don’t feel like you’ve changed, but the world is changing around you. In this specific case, probably not for the best.

Roger Federer was enormously lucky to experience an unprecedented period of calm and hope. We were lucky to have the luxury of enjoying it thanks to him.

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