I knew that Roger Federer’s tennis career was on life support, but I didn’t think he’d pull the plug so soon. The news that the tennis great will play his last ATP event next week in London comes weeks before my 50th birthday and is a distasteful reminder that age catches up to all of us. Federer’s comebacks always inspired me, but I knew this latest one would be tough. I had returned to playing tennis myself on a few occasions after some lengthy absences due to knee surgery and multiple autoimmune diseases. The older you get, the harder it is to bounce back. And yet, I still hoped that Federer could give us a long farewell tour that would culminate at the Swiss Indoors, his hometown tournament, next year.
When I watched Federer win his record tenth Swiss Indoors title in 2019, I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me then that it would be his last ATP title. He blew through the field that week without losing a set; it felt like it was 2004 again and no one could touch him. He broke down in tears after the win, and, as a credentialed reporter at the tournament, I got to ask him what prompted the tearful reaction in the post-match press conference. He said that tournament wins didn’t come easy anymore, and he understood that he needed to savor them.
My time at the tournament came at the tail end of a ten-day Federer pilgrimage I took in 2019, chronicled in my book, Footsteps of Federer. I took the trip because, after a long illness, I wanted to make my own tennis comeback on hallowed ground—on courts where Federer himself had played. I traveled around the country, meeting people in Federer’s orbit and playing tennis at clubs where he has honed his game over the years. Along the way, I met people with connections to him both distant and close. Those who barely knew Federer felt the same way about him as those who knew him well. He was a celebrity who didn’t act like one, and that’s what they all liked about him.
A few months after my book came out, I got to do a one-on-one Zoom interview with Federer, who had just signed on as an unpaid spokesperson for Swiss tourism. We spent just a half hour together, but we were joking around by the end of it like old friends. What struck me most was that he never once glanced down at a phone or looked at his watch. He entertained all my questions with purpose. It was like spending time with someone who is just one of the guys.
I didn’t fully appreciate Roger Federer in his early, ponytail days. The post-Pete Sampras/Andre Agassi, pre-vintage Federer era in tennis was dull, and the sport slipped off my radar. I started to root for Federer during his golden era, roughly 2004–2008, but didn’t become deeply invested in him as a super-fan until much later. I identify more with underdogs than world beaters, and, as odd as it sounds to call one of the all-time tennis greats an underdog, Federer has been an underdog compared with his two younger rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, for years now.
Federer’s greatest win, I think, was his 2017 Australian Open title. Then 35, Federer bested Nadal in a thrilling five-setter that stands out for the quality of the tennis as well as its unlikely outcome. He came into the tournament seeded just 17th after six months off the tour thanks to a knee injury. He didn’t play a warmup tournament; most tennis writers had already written their career obits for him. Battling another of my illnesses at the time, I found Federer’s comeback an inspiring distraction just when I needed one. Sports can be an elixir that helps us decompress from politics and other unpleasant matters in our lives—something Federer understood keenly. In an era when too many activist athletes and entertainers push their politics on fans, Federer stayed blissfully neutral.
He was a model sportsman. Other players were faster, and many have hit the ball harder and with more spin. But tennis has never had a better ambassador. He was a sensation from Bogotá to Beijing, from Bombay to Belgium, and he inspired more people to play tennis than anyone before him. They call soccer the beautiful game, but with his elegant strokes and balletic footwork, Federer made tennis something it had never been before: art. Along the way, he reminded us of his humanity, sometimes baring his soul on the court, as he did after losing the 2009 Australian Open final to Nadal. “God, it’s killing me,” he said, tears welling, as Nadal put an arm around him.
With Federer’s departure, tennis’s incredible Big Three era is over, though Nadal and the unvaccinated Djokovic, when he’s allowed into countries to play, keep at it. Can you name another sport where the three best players in history were squaring off against one another at the same time? Imagine if Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and Mike Tyson all boxed in the same period. That’s what tennis has had for the last two decades.
Federer leaves the sport with titles in 20 majors, third all-time behind Nadal and Djokovic; overall, he won 103 ATP titles, second behind Jimmy Connors, and 1,251 matches, also second behind Connors. He held the world Number 1 ranking for a best-ever 237 consecutive weeks, and he won a record eight Wimbledon singles titles. Some of Federer’s records have already fallen and others, like his achievement of being the oldest ATP Number One at 36, will probably fall, too. But fans’ love of Federer has never been quantifiable based on wins, losses, or stats. In December, Federer was voted the fans’ favorite player for the nineteenth consecutive season, though he barely played.
I had hoped that Federer would be tennis’s Tom Brady, playing into his mid-forties. Perhaps he’ll rethink his retirement, as Brady has. In any case, the sport is his life, and he’s unlikely to disappear from the scene as Pete Sampras has. Don’t be surprised to see Federer play legends tournaments and coach top players once his children grow up. Meantime, we have one more chance to watch him: at the Laver Cup in London next weekend, where he’ll be joined one more time by his great rivals. Few athletes have ever deserved a bigger sendoff, and few will be more justly missed.
Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images