Shortly after Pete Sampras departed the 2000 Wimbledon final as a 13-time grand slam champion, he was asked a simple question in his press conference: “Can you think of anybody beating the record?” At the time many people wondered the same thing as Sampras built a seemingly untouchable standing in the game. Now it seems laughable. Exactly a year later, that person toppled him on Centre Court.
So often in sport, the concept of a young upstart taking the baton from a veteran is more myth or narrative than reality, yet in Roger Federer’s case it was a defining moment in tennis history. He marked his arrival at the top of the sport by defeating Sampras, his idol, at 19 years old in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001.
Two years later Federer won his first title at Wimbledon, ushering men’s tennis into a new era. The way that he ruthlessly tore through the field, playing the game at a higher level than anyone before, is still unlike anything that has been seen. Despite the best efforts of poor Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and many others, he had no rival. In some ways, it is even more impressive – at one stage there was no other player to truly push him, as has been the case with most of the greats. He was simply that good. Between 2004 and 2007 alone he won 11 slams, amassing victories and titles at an astounding rate.
The spectacle alone has made his greatness feel more special. Federer suffocated opponents with his smooth all-out aggression, constantly taking his forehand, one of the greatest there ever was, so early. He continued to sweep to the net even as his rivals remained rooted to the baseline. Federer’s arsenal of shots was endless, and on court he moved like the wind yet he was so efficient. Over the course of his career, particularly as his athleticism gradually waned, he built one of the greatest serves of all time. For as long as this sport endures, there will be few sights as impressive as Federer flitting through a service game in 55 seconds, hitting every single spot with ease.
While the pure aesthetics of Federer’s game are, to many, more meaningful than the mere numbers, sometimes it obscured his other qualities. He made his tennis look effortless, but it was not. He had on-court intelligence and discipline to harness those talents correctly. He paired his abilities with sufficient grit to survive the many times he didn’t play well. As he remarkably extended his career, the work it took to maintain his excellence for so long became an essential part of his story.
The period that he spent trying to hold off his younger rivals lasted longer than his time as king. Even as the balance of power slowly shifted in favour of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, though, Federer was still always there until the very end.
Questions about Federer’s future began before he was even 30 yet over the next decade, along with the Williams sisters, his longevity redefined how people view the length and arc of a tennis player’s career.
And it provided its own standalone moments, such as his 2017 Australian Open title run in his first official tournament after a half-year layoff, and his 20th grand slam win when he defended the championship a year later.
With his success, Federer has become one of the most famous tennis players of all time – the ‘RF’ caps are still ubiquitous at all events – but he always had time to be pleasant. In press conferences his duties seemed to last an eternity as he graciously moved through the same answers in English, French, German and Swiss-German. He was someone who was so much larger than the entire sport and he knew it, yet he treated the people around him with patience and kindness.
Federer was human, of course. He had his moments of testiness on the court, often when Juan Martín del Potro was on the other side. He was not immune to snide comments, particularly after some tension-filled tussles with Djokovic. But his career is also defined by his sportsmanship, his professionalism and how well he held himself during highs and lows.
For so much of Federer’s career, his longevity was an asset and his efficient style of play allowed him to evade the serious injuries that hurt his rival. But his serious issues have come all at once in this final stretch and it has left him with a difficult ending. It seems unlikely now that he will have anything like the rapturous sendoff engineered by Serena Williams, one month younger, who played at an extremely high level at the US Open in New York.
Federer had been scheduled to compete at his beloved home tournament in Basel, which always seemed like an appropriate ending, but after a year of rehab he has opted out. It remains to be seen what shape he will be in next week.
But perhaps this ending represents something equally meaningful. His love of the sport allowed him to push his career right to the very end, squeezing as much out of it as he possibly could until his 41st birthday. His late-career success offered him innumerable opportunities to exit on top, as Sampras did 20 years ago. But life was too good, he was having far too much fun, and he rode out one of the greatest ever careers until he could no longer do it any more.