Let us say, as a concession to a deep human intuition, that certain values are free-floating. Beauty appears in this human frame and then quits it. Genius alights on this person in this place and then on that person in that place. Perfection blesses this endeavour and eludes a hundred thousand others.
The intuition is of course wrong. Aside perhaps from some residual mystery, these virtues are emergent, the product of genes, of chance, of care, of effort, of perseverance. And yet the free-floating view has its merits, not least in the way it captures the transience and rareness of these qualities.
Something else we often feel to be free-floating is historical meaning, which seems to flit from this palace to that battlefield, from this love affair to that misunderstanding, from this blunder to that pamphlet. In essence, all that is needed is an arena where fundamental values can clash. As such, there is nothing to say that meaning cannot play out at the top of men’s tennis between 2003 and 2019. What this merely sporting venue lacks in gravity and consequence it gains in the purity of the oppositions. Because of one man, Roger Federer, tennis became a testing ground for an impossible dream.
Distilled to its purest form, the promise of Roger Federer was that – in one place at least, in the person of one genius at least – beauty could not only survive modernity but outperform reductive mechanical efficiency. And not in some purpose-built glasshouse where delicate beauty can flourish, but in the high-tech, high-stakes, fiercely competitive world of professional sport. If underwritten by genius and a commitment to perfection, beauty could prevail.
Most oppositions on a tennis court are muddy. The great majority of players have a similar style of play. If you take out extraneous elements, such as a player’s off-court personality or on-court antics, there is often not much contrast left. So how did Federer and his era of men’s tennis become so sharply defined?
The story has been told many times, so here is the briefest of outlines: at a moment when the last embers of tennis elegance were dying, along came a player who rekindled the sacred fire. I do not mean here the peripheral notes, the elegant amateurism of the well-to-do – although Federer could evoke those things too – but the aesthetic patterns of play and graceful body contortions before modern racket and string technology. Part of Federer’s genius was thus to rescue the baby from the bathwater.
The power baseline game in the ascendant at the time, and the serve-and-volley style before it, both tilted the sport in the direction of specific skillsets and patterns of play at the expense of others. The hegemony of either threatened the viability of tennis as entertainment. When Federer invented a way of playing that embraced all skills and patterns, it was an impressive one-man recalibration job. And if his own game was perfectly balanced, it was nonetheless out of sync with the historical trajectory of the sport. Hence the extraordinary definition.
Federer’s ghostly evocation – or embodiment – of the sport’s history, it turned out, was hauntingly beautiful. And not just pretty, as some detractors have claimed. One way of distinguishing the beautiful from the pretty is to say that the former is integral while the latter is accessorial. To return to our image of free-floating virtues: when beauty lands on a thing it does not sit on its surface but possesses it.
Witnesses to Federer’s beauty are not like the person on the wooden bridge who catches a fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher while their spouse is looking at the trout on the other side. The beauty stood there like a heron for everyone to see. Moreover, his career coincided with the rise of HD and video streaming platforms, so nobody need rely on hearsay.
Professional sport has always had room for wayward geniuses – think Alex Higgins or George Best. We associate flashes of brilliance with these erratic talents, but no heavy loads could be placed on their shoulders. To fulfil the sempiternal promise of his unique talent, Federer could not afford to squander effort in worldly pursuits. The moments of magic he created on the court – the “Federer moments” celebrated by David Foster Wallace and variously compiled in thousands of YouTube videos – were abundant and joyful expressions of his talent and imagination, underpinned by a sober professionalism.
This commitment allowed him in his pomp to rack up 237 consecutive weeks at #1 in the rankings, make eighteen out of nineteen grand slam finals from Wimbledon 2005 to the Australian Open 2010, make twenty-three consecutive grand slam semi-finals, make thirty-six consecutive grand slam quarter-finals, win five Wimbledon titles in a row and five US Opens in a row and win twenty-four consecutive tournament finals.
Even deep into 2019, sixteen years after his first major title, he would craft Federer moments in every match he played. Alongside all the titles and records, he built up this shadow oeuvre of thrilling works of imagination. Sometimes he would complete a pattern of play with a creative flourish – just so! – and sometimes he would break the pattern in a way nobody had anticipated. This artistic sense came on top of the general beauty of his strokes.
Furthermore, the artistry of these plays did not have to be explained to audiences, who gasped, cheered and rose to their feet. Every year, the ATP, which runs men’s tennis, holds a Fans’ Favourite poll. Federer has won this award nineteen years in a row. The last player to win it before him was Marat Safin in 2002.
Fans with signs saying “Shh! Genius at work!” were a common sight at his matches. Despite its jokey nature, the slogan is eloquent – genius, work, silence. There is no doubt that Federer worked his talent hard, against some of the toughest competitors the sport has ever seen, whose athleticism was unprecedented. His game – and his single-handed backhand most of all – was subjected to the fiercest of assaults. For many years, the looping topspin forehands of the left-handed Rafael Nadal battered his backhand and his confidence, until, bucking all expectations, his improved backhand with a bigger racket turned the rivalry around in 2017.
On the court Federer worked in silence. His eschewal of grunting had always been part of his asceticism. But there was a deeper stillness to his work. In an essay titled “Silences de Federer” from 2013, French philosopher André Scala teased out the ways in which Federer instantiated the ideal of tennis without the surrounding noise. Pace Jimmy Connors, who famously said “This is what they want!” regarding the crowd’s appreciation for his rowdy showmanship, it transpired that there is a vast audience for pure tennis, without theatrics, if practised by a genius with a style of play that embraces all the sport’s possibilities. If Brahms is the model of the composer quietly penning one masterpiece after another, then Federer is his tennis analogue. Nobody likes Brahms for his beard; nobody likes Federer for his nasal voice. It’s all about the work. Shh!
By all accounts a hot-headed teenager, Federer learned to channel his energies into his game. Extremely rare are the occasions on which he smashed a racket or lost his temper. And inspired by the example of his childhood idol Stefan Edberg, he did not engage in sportsmanship. Perhaps the most impressive bond of his integrity is the statistic that he never once retired injured in over 1,500 matches played. Meanwhile, his withdrawals before a match can be counted on one hand.
Federer had an epic career. That promise of his called forth counterrevolutions. And single-handedly he tried to fend them off. He had a strange ability to be as mesmerising in defeat as he was in victory. Some players are great when they’re on and flat when they’re off. Federer was almost always on and had some heart-breaking losses which he enriched with his brave tennis. For all the artistry, it was box office all the way.
And what of the impossible promise, the giddy hope? Well, the world buckled Atlas. Orthodoxy retook its dominions. The elastic snapped back. Icarus fell. Deep in the dusk, Federer went down swinging in the Wimbledon final of 2008. He fell from the top of the rankings. He broke down in tears after losing the Australian Open final in 2009 – the artless tears of the hero who incredulously feels his strength outmatched. He won his sixteenth grand slam title at the Australian Open in 2010 and spent most of the time thereafter in the shadow of his two younger rivals, although they never escaped his shadow either – and never will.
Through the subsequent years mostly spent at number two and number three in the rankings, he kept refining his game to remain competitive. Federer being Federer, this meant being even more attacking, coming to the net to finish points earlier. The sleekness of his game remained intact, and there were stunning performances and big wins deep into the twilight of his career, including four more grand slam titles and two more spells at number one.
At Wimbledon 2019, the flame burned bright again. Shortly before his thirty-eighth birthday, Federer beat his great rival Rafael Nadal in four sets at the semi-finals of Wimbledon. It was an outstanding, hugely focused performance under pressure. As it was the first time they had met at SW19 since their legendary final in 2008, it was a momentous win for Federer. But there was no opportunity to celebrate. Two days later, he faced Novak Djokovic in the final. Six years younger, world number one, the Serb had had a straightforward, much less emotionally taxing win against Roberto Bautista Agut in his semi-final. Nobody gave Federer a chance. Yet he came back from a set down twice to level the match at 2-2. And then he came back from a break of serve down in the fifth. Carried on a wave of momentum, he broke Djokovic’s serve again and was serving for the match at 8-7. Before he knew it, he had two matchpoints.
Then he faltered, losing four points in a row to have his serve broken. Impressively, he battled on to 12-12 in the fifth set. It was already the longest Wimbledon final ever. In the tie-break that followed, he lost, finishing the match with an ugly forehand shank.
The victory would have been so legendary – beating his two younger rivals back to back to win a grand slam at the age of almost thirty-eight – that it would have fulfilled the giddy promise of his beautiful game. In the final analysis, if his exuberant talent wrote a cheque that his career could not cash, then it was only once pence shy.
So the tide beat King Canute late in the fifth, having saved two matchpoints. In the melancholy injury-ridden years since, the two biggest records in men’s tennis slipped out of his grasp. And at Wimbledon 2021, in his final competitive singles match, the beauty finally left Federer’s frame. You can see the exact moment. Having returned from an absence of more than a year after multiple knee surgeries, Federer’s comeback in the spring of 2021 had been scratchy. But drawing on his reserves of experience, he had made it to the quarter-finals to face Hubert Hurkacz. A set down, he took the second set to a tie-break. At 2-3 down in the breaker, the old panther was on the prowl, turning defence into attack with an inside-in forehand down the line and coming to the net. The footwork is pristine, although maybe a little slow. He made one neat volley, forcing Hurkacz into a weak reply. Going for the kill, he stumbled and botched the easy second volley. His knee twisted horribly, and soon Hubert Hurkacz was bagelling him on centre court.
It had left him, the beauty, the genius, the perfection. Now he was just a crock, just a Swiss bloke – a very nice Swiss bloke by all accounts, but one divested of those free-floating qualities that had constituted his promise.
Officially, now, after his farewell doubles match at the Laver Cup, he is former tennis player Roger Federer. I am singing the song of a bygone hero. Other people can sing the songs of his rivals. They will have different tunes and mean different things. Statistically, Roger Federer’s career has been eclipsed by Novak Djokovic’s in particular. As such, the Swiss is no longer the mythical GOAT, if ever he was in the first place. No, Federer was something else.
Donal Moloney is a writer and translator from Waterford. His work has appeared in New Irish Writing (The Irish Times); The Moth; the Dublin Review of Books; Cork Words 2; Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (The Stinging Fly); Long Story, Short; Verge (Monash University); The Galway Review and Boyne Berries.