He is an extraordinary human being who modeled what the peaks of life can look like. His retirement should remind us that excellence never has to come at the cost of character.
There are an infinite number of ways to measure the longevity of Roger Federer’s tennis career.
In my own life, when Roger Federer defeated Pete Sampras in the fourth round of the 2001 Wimbledon and announced his coming reign over the tennis world in the process, I was a newlywed with only three years of teaching experience, half-way through my twenties. Today, as I listened to his elegant retirement announcement, I have been standing in front of students for a quarter of a century, my wife and I are both graying, and my oldest child is a sophomore in college.
Though, what tennis fans across the world should be celebrating today is not his longevity, or even his tennis greatness. Yes, many consider him the most graceful athlete, in any sport, ever. Yes, in his prime, he was able to conjoin artistry and athleticism in a way that transcends any superlative. And yes, the laws of Newtonian physics seemed to bend at times with his panoply of spins, speed, and superhuman slices.
This is what the late David Foster Wallace was trying to explain with his piece in the New York Times, brilliantly titled, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” He wrote:
“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”
It is as we watch Federer exit the world of professional tennis, however, that we realize that the most important “Federer Moments” of the past two decades have almost nothing to do with forehands and backhands.
People who admire Rafael Nadal regal in his brute strength, his godly competitiveness, and the fact that he is a truly humble, gracious human being who, after every tournament when there are no cameras on, seeks out and shakes the hands of the people behind the scenes who make the tournament possible.
People who love Novak Djokovic revere his unapologetic individualism, his taciturn and tortured quest to be the greatest of all time, his reverence for his country, and his humble background.
But the global love affair with Roger Federer is different.
Federer is also a gracious and kind human being, and he can also make claims of being the greatest tennis player of all time. However, the reason why Federer seemed unique, why he could sell out stadiums in every country and inspire fawning biographies penned by New York Times journalists, is because Federer seemed to embody an assemblage of capacities from ages past. His excellence and acute sense of style seemed aristocratic, his preternatural propensity to triumph echoed from a distant Homeric past, his zest for charity and family life embodied high Christian idealism, and his kindness to everyday fans radiated a truly democratic sensibility.
But this man, unlike any other political, athletic, or pop culture icon of our age, exuded a sense of eclectic grace like no other. Roger Federer loved being Roger Federer. There was never pretense or phoniness or pulp.
There was Roger Federer weeping during the awards ceremony after he lost to Rafael Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open Final. There is Roger Federer taping a television spot with Nadal and getting the giggles. There is Federer during a Spanish interview who cannot contain his laughter. There is Federer at the Australian Open getting stopped by security on his way to the locker room because he didn’t have his credentials. Instead of asserting himself or flouting his fame, he simply and humbly stepped aside and waited for his trainer to show his credentials. There is also Federer losing his temper, angrily yelling at the umpire, during the 2009 US Open Final, which he lost.
But he also had an inspiring capacity to contextualize his failures and disappointments. John McEnroe, for instance, took a mid-career hiatus and was never the same. Federer, though, could bounce back like no other. He was a point away from defeating Djokovic in the epic 2019 Wimbledon men’s final. He had two match points against Djokovic at the 2011 US Open, yet still lost the match. He was on the losing side of the most famous tennis match in the history of the sport—the 2008 Wimbledon Final against his friend and rival, Rafael Nadal. And, yet, every time he seemed to understand that tomorrow could and would be better than today. He seemed to understand failure was never unfair. He never raged against the Fates, the umpires, or his opponents.
To everyday people around the world, there was a didactic element buried deep inside his suffering: if a demi-god can endure the torture of failure before the world, we can do the same in our own lives with failed marriages, disappointing careers, or protruding bellies.
Roger Federer’s universal appeal is that he was a man for all seasons—he was magisterial in a tuxedo, eloquent in press conferences and awards ceremonies, funny in commercials, entrepreneurial in his off-court businesses, and endlessly good-natured to friend and foe alike. Whichever Federer you liked best, there was no one else quite like him.
Tennis fans have to wonder what effect the recent US Open victory by wunderkind 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz had on the timing of Federer’s retirement announcement. Maybe it nudged him to the finish line by reinforcing the fact that Father Time loses to no one, that he had walked with kings, triumphed atop mountains, and electrified millions of fans in the process. If the past is any indicator of the future, though, the best is yet to be for Federer.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, recently released in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.