Roger Federer: Tennis God and man of the people

Unlike some giants of sport, Roger Federer never sought out controversy, but he never feared debating the great tennis issues of his era either. And, in an unusual twist for an individual sport that breeds intense and sometimes bitter rivalries, he became the best of friends with his archrival, Rafael Nadal, during their primes.

Lots of love: Switzerland’s Roger Federer does a lap of honour after playing his final match, a doubles with Spain’s Rafael Nadal of Team Europe against Team world in the 2022 Laver Cup at the O2 Arena in London.

Lots of love: Switzerland’s Roger Federer does a lap of honour after playing his final match, a doubles with Spain’s Rafael Nadal of Team Europe against Team world in the 2022 Laver Cup at the O2 Arena in London. | Photo Credit: AFP

Unlike some giants of sport, Roger Federer never sought out controversy, but he never feared debating the great tennis issues of his era either. And, in an unusual twist for an individual sport that breeds intense and sometimes bitter rivalries, he became the best of friends with his archrival, Rafael Nadal, during their primes.

Champions are people who want to leave their sport better off than when they started.” — Arthur Ashe

Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” — Edgar Allan Poe

Wherever historians may place Roger Federer in the tennis pantheon, he ranks No. 1 in the hearts of the sporting masses this century. For 24 years, the kinetic beauty of Federer’s game, his passion for competition, and his common touch enthralled and endeared us. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous, but he also used his own wealth and fame to support the underprivileged around the world. More than any other tennis champion, Federer cried tears of joy and sadness, and many of us shared his great highs and lows. We cared so much about him not just because of his athletic genius and charisma, but because we could relate to him on many levels.

Unlike some giants of sport, such as Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Diego Maradona, Federer never sought out controversy, but he never feared debating the great tennis issues of his era either. And, in an unusual twist for an individual sport that breeds intense and sometimes bitter rivalries, he became the best of friends with his archrival during their primes.

Let’s look back at the highlights of the life and times of this sports immortal.

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The beauty — Much of Roger’s enduring appeal came from his uniquely elegant style. Ironically, his graceful one-handed backhand earned the most praise though it was often the weak link that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic exploited when they dethroned him. However, all his strokes, along with his ethereal movement, captivated players, coaches, and fans from all walks of life.

John McEnroe, who once owned an art gallery and said the compliment he relished most during his 1980s halcyon days was being called an artist, commented, “Roger Federer is the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen on a tennis court, without question.”

The renowned writer David Foster Wallace, a tennis lover, invoked religion to praise the beauty of Federer in his 2006  New York Times essay “Federer as Religious Experience”:

“The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws,” rhapsodised Foster. “Good analogs here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to.”

Kathryn Bennetts, who runs the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium, likened the graceful, coordinated, and skilful movement of Federer to Mikhail Baryshnikov. “He has this smoothness to him,” Bennetts told the  New York Times. “An ease that makes him special. He’s an artist, so refined. Like how dance transports you to a different place, so does he.”

Emotional: Federer and Nadal cannot control their tears after the Laver Cup match. The two players were best friends on the Tour.

Emotional: Federer and Nadal cannot control their tears after the Laver Cup match. The two players were best friends on the Tour. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Roger’s records — When you’re the ultimate superstar in your sport, you set a record for the most records. The Mighty Fed won a record 33 ATP World Tour Awards, including the most consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 (237), and becoming the oldest world No. 1 (36 in 2018). He boasted Open Era records for the most titles at six tournaments: Basel (10), Halle (10), Wimbledon (8), Dubai (8), Cincinnati (7), and the ATP World Tour Finals (6). Federer tied for the most U.S. Open titles with Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras at five. Transcending his own sport, this super athlete also received the Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsman of the Year a record five times.

The greatest grass-court performer in history, he won a record 65 matches in a row on grass between June 2003 and July 2008. As a testament to his career longevity and durability, Federer amazingly never retired during 1,526 singles matches and 223 doubles matches. (He conceded three singles walkovers, all due to back injury).

With two unbreakable “character” records to his credit, Federer proved he’s more than a sports superstar. He won the ATP Fans’ Favourite Award an astounding 19 times and the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award 13 times. Edberg, who received this prestigious award five times, generously suggested the award be renamed to honour Federer.

Early evolution — Much like enfant terrible Bjorn Borg, Roger behaved badly as an immensely gifted but tempestuous teenager. “When I was 12 years old, I was just horrible,” he recalled. “My parents were ashamed to watch my matches. I would play on a court at the local club, and they would watch from the balcony. They would scream, ‘Be quiet’ to me and I would scream back, ‘Go and have a drink. Leave me alone.’ Then we would drive home in a very quiet car. No one speaking to each other. It took me a long time to figure out that staying calm was going to be better for my game than not. I realised that only about at 20 years old. A long time coming sometimes.”

What else accounted for Roger’s transformation? “We put him with a sports psychologist [Christian Marcolli] who worked with him from 18 to 20,” Paul Dorochenko, Federer’s first fitness trainer, told  La Razon. “Afterwards, he had little experience with girls, he had a little girlfriend, and immediately he found his wife [Miroslava Vavrinec], who is an ambitious person, who comes from Czechoslovakia, likes money, power, and in the end she has protected Federer a lot. [She] made a bubble where Federer was just for tennis. And the third [factor] was  Nike. It paid him a lot of money, and the marketing department told him: ‘Look, we want you to be a gentleman.’”

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At age 19, a more mature Roger gave the tennis world a snapshot of his future greatness when he shocked seven-time champion Sampras in five sets in the Wimbledon fourth round. “He has a great all-around game, like me doesn’t get too emotional, and is a great athlete,” said Sampras. Two years later, Federer easily captured the 2003 Wimbledon for his first Grand Slam title. He became a Swiss hero, and a tennis arena, postage stamps, coins, and streets honoured him. The city of Basel even inaugurated a tram named after him, the “Federer-Express.”

But the hyperactive, angry boy from Basel who cursed and threw racquets left another less noble legacy. The national tennis centre in Switzerland started a fine system for misbehaviour.

Symbol of strength: Federer’s wife Mirka and his children watch him in action at Wimbledon.

Symbol of strength: Federer’s wife Mirka and his children watch him in action at Wimbledon. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Passion for tennis — Unlike Andre Agassi, who had a love-hate relationship with tennis, and Bjorn Borg, whose passion for tennis burned out at 26, Roger loved everything about the sport. He enjoyed the travel that some found gruelling, and he shrugged off heartbreaking losses better than any champion.

“I live and breathe tennis,” he said in 2008. “I get away from tennis, but subconsciously I always have it right there. It’s what I love doing the most. That’s why I’ll do anything for it. I’d like to play through as many generations as possible. It’s so fascinating to see in golf when the greats are still around to face the juniors. What I’m striving for is longevity.”

Little did the 27-year-old superstar then imagine that his longevity would turn into a 24-year career stretching into his 40s. A man of stylish elegance, Federer also said he loved tennis “because it’s such a classy sport with a great, competitive flair to it.”

Not even the drudgery of long flights and airport delays bothered him. “The travelling gets hard after 12 years,” he said in 2011. “But I know how lucky I am to be travelling to the best places in the world. Sure, I wake up tired in the mornings, but that’s 10 minutes, and then off you go. Never have I booked a practice [court] and said, ‘You know what? Today I just don’t feel like practising at all.’”

After he lost 7-6, 7-5 to Novak Djokovic in the final of the 2012 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, Federer gave still more reasons for undying passion and longevity. “I think it’s the love for the game, the appreciation I get from the crowds,” he said. “I guess playing for records from time to time, and playing against different types of generations and playing styles.”

Greatest matches — How ironic and a bit sad that The Mighty Fed lost the three most memorable matches in his storied career.

The epic 2008 Wimbledon final showcased four hours and 48 minutes of brilliant tennis that finished in the gloaming at 9:16 p.m. Nadal, an irresistible force of nature, dethroned Federer, the champion for the previous five years, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. Roger valiantly staved off two championship points in the fourth-set tiebreaker, but much like Borg after losing the famous 18-16 tiebreaker to John McEnroe in another Wimbledon classic 28 years earlier, super-competitive Nadal eventually prevailed. Afterwards, McEnroe, a respected TV analyst, called the spellbinding duel “the greatest match I’ve ever seen.” Most veteran observers agreed. Federer graciously said, “Rafa’s a deserving champion. He just played fantastically.”

More than any of Federer’s 1,526 career matches, the 2009 Australian Open final endeared him to the sporting public. Rafael Nadal outlasted Federer in a dynamic and dramatic 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 encounter. Spectators were riveted by the “Did you see that!” shot-making from the titans of tennis. During the trophy ceremony, the devastated Federer wept uncontrollably. In a poignant scene, Nadal put his arm on Federer’s shoulder and his head against Fed’s to comfort him. “Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now,” Nadal said to the crowd. “It’s really tough, but remember you are a great champion, one of the best in history, and you have proved that.” Roger also proved that real men cry.

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Much like Federer’s classic 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal, his spectacular 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic featured unpredictable fluctuations and superb shot-making. And, like the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, Fed failed to convert two match points against the Serb. This time, Roger had two championship points at 8-7, 40-15 on serve, in the fifth set. Novak escaped again with an aggressive serve return forcing a forehand error and a laser-like forehand passing shot winner. In Federer’s last hurrah for a 21st major title, Djokovic eventually pulled out a thrilling 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3) victory. Afterwards, the heartbroken loser said, “I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it.”

Trick master: Federer showed off his bold, jaw-dropping shots in big matches like his 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals. On the penultimate point, the Swiss maestro conjured up a spectacular back-to-the-net, between-the-legs flick forehand passing shot winner that he called “the greatest shot of my career.”

Trick master: Federer showed off his bold, jaw-dropping shots in big matches like his 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals. On the penultimate point, the Swiss maestro conjured up a spectacular back-to-the-net, between-the-legs flick forehand passing shot winner that he called “the greatest shot of my career.” | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Worldwide popularity — Federer was voted  ATPWorldTour.com Fan Favourite for 19 consecutive years from 2003 to 2021, another record that will never be broken. “It seems I have incredible fan support, not just in one area, but in most places,” Federer said in 2013. “The demographic is also from young to old, so that’s where the support is amazing. I try to take the extra picture, sign the extra autograph, just give back as much as I can because without a full stadium it’s not the same.”

In May 2009, Federer placed 22 positions ahead of President Barack Obama on  Forbes magazine’s “most powerful celebrities list,” at No. 27, compared with President Obama’s standing at No. 49. Federer showed his popularity when named one of  TIME magazine’s “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2007 and 2010.

During a 2012 South American exhibition tour, wildly enthusiastic crowds embraced Federer. In Argentina, spectators cheered even more for him than for national hero Juan Martin del Potro. This phenomenon played out throughout the world.

On the great support from the French people, the French-speaking Federer, who received bigger cheers than French standout Gael Monfils before their 2009 Roland Garros quarterfinal, said, “I’ve felt it for a few years, but this year it’s even more extreme. When I walk on the streets or go to dinner, everyone is like, ‘This is your year. You’ve got to do it.’ They’re screaming from their scooters and out of the car. They even get out at red lights and want me to sign an autograph or take a picture. It’s quite incredible the last couple of weeks.”

Roger got a similar reception when he played the U.S. Open in New York. “Cab drivers here scream out that I’m still the guy. There’s a warmth here.”

As 1980s superstar John McEnroe pointed out, “If you don’t think a crowd can be the difference between winning and losing, you haven’t watched enough tennis.”

By 2012, Federer had 11,829,108 Facebook followers, much greater than the 7,971,000 population of Switzerland, where Federer was born and lives.

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As vastly popular as he was, he knew no one was bigger than the game. So when a reporter asked him “What will your fans do when you retire?” Roger smiled and replied, “They’ll fall in love with someone else.”

Philanthropist: The Roger Federer Foundation, which he founded in 2003, has invested more than $28.5 million in educational programmes, reaching out to 650,000 underprivileged children. In recognition of his dedication to such causes, the ATP twice gave Federer the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award.

Philanthropist: The Roger Federer Foundation, which he founded in 2003, has invested more than $28.5 million in educational programmes, reaching out to 650,000 underprivileged children. In recognition of his dedication to such causes, the ATP twice gave Federer the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award. | Photo Credit: R. RAGU

Career renaissance — When Federer didn’t win a major from 2013 to 2015 while Djokovic captured five and Nadal three, naysayers claimed Fed was over the hill. Some even suggested he should retire. After all, he was 34, an age long past the prime of most past champions. That drumbeat increased in 2016 when he tore his left meniscus in a fluke accident, undergoing knee surgery in February, the first surgery of his charmed career. Also hampered by an aching back, Federer played only six tournaments that year and dropped to No. 16, his lowest ranking since 2002.

To reassure his millions of fans, Roger made a pledge on Facebook, “I am as motivated as ever and plan to put all my energy towards coming back strong, healthy, and in shape to play attacking tennis in 2017.”

The Great One did exactly that starting at the Australian Open, thanks mostly to his much-improved backhand. “It’s like the birth of a new great shot in the game,” said  Sky TV commentator Peter Fleming.

In the hugely anticipated, throwback final, Federer trailed Nadal 3-1 in the deciding set. Then, taking the ball early on the fast Plexicushion hard courts, he conjured up dazzling shot-making from yesteryear to grab the last five games and overcome Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 for his first major title since the 2012 Wimbledon.

The renaissance of Roger gained momentum when he won Indian Wells and Miami. At Wimbledon, he summoned his supreme athleticism and grass-court wizardry. After outclassing Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 in the final, he candidly said, “I am really proud of myself for everything I did in these two weeks over here. I played, I would say, probably the best tennis of my life.”

The ageless legend once joked about winning 20 majors and playing until he is 40. Suddenly, these two scenarios, which appeared implausible just a year earlier, seemed doable, especially the magical milestone of 20. He achieved that six months later by seizing his sixth Australian crown for his 20th Grand Slam title.

Top-notch team — In his moving retirement speech, Federer paid tribute to his coaching team. “I really want to thank my amazing team, Ivan [Ljubicic], Dani [Troxler, his physiotherapist], Roland [Biedert, his orthopedic surgeon], and especially Seve [Luthi, his longtime coach] and Pierre [Paganini, his fitness trainer], who gave me the best advice and were always there for me. Also, Tony [Godsick, his agent], who has creatively led my business for over 17 years. You are all amazing and I loved every minute with you.”

Godsick masterminded Fed’s burgeoning endorsement portfolio at  IMG until 2014, when he left and they created their own management company,  Team8. In 2018, Roger left  Nike and signed a 10-year apparel deal with  Uniqlo for a staggering $300 million.

Peter Carter, a South African coach who died in a tragic car accident in 2003, deserved much credit for the Federer game. “People talk a lot about my technique,” Federer told Christopher Clarey in his revealing biography,  The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer. “If it’s so good, it’s had a lot to do with Peter.” Tony Roche, the 1960s Australian star, instilled the work ethic which Federer took to heart in his early 20s. At different stages in Federer’s career, Peter Lundgren, Paul Annacone, Stefan Edberg, and Ivan Ljubicic also coached Roger.

The unsung hero of Team Federer was his devoted wife and the mother of their two sets of twins, Mirka. “She has always been the most important person in my career,” Federer told  ESPN The Magazine in 2010. Mirka, a former top-100 player, served as his de facto agent and media liaison when he won his first six majors. When she had to, Mirka played bad cop to conflict-avoidance Roger’s good cop. He also liked to pick her brain about his game because highly-knowledgeable Mirka had seen more of his matches and practices than anyone.

Roger often called his wife Mirka “my rock” and for good reason. Her constant support was fundamental to Federer’s longevity. In his retirement speech, Roger said, “She has warmed me up before finals, watched countless matches even while over eight months pregnant, and has endured my goofy side on the road with my team for over 20 years.”

The beginning: Federer holds the men;s singles trophy after defeating Australia’s Mark Philippoussis in the Wimbledon final for his first Grand Slam.

The beginning: Federer holds the men;s singles trophy after defeating Australia’s Mark Philippoussis in the Wimbledon final for his first Grand Slam. | Photo Credit: AP

Tennis brain — The most intelligent champion since Bill Tilden a century earlier, Federer often invited promising young players to train with him in Switzerland and Dubai. It wasn’t entirely altruistic; he wanted to analyse their games. Federer’s own game evolved quickly from a confirmed server and volleyer when he upset Pete Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon to a highly aggressive and effective groundstroke and volleyer.

(When Roger Federer upset Pete Sampras in the 2001 Wimbledon fourth round, they had 254 serve-and-volley points. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick had 11 serve-and-volley points in their 2009 Wimbledon marathon final. And when Rafael Nadal outclassed Tomas Berdych in the 2010 Wimbledon final, they never served and volleyed.)

Besides picking up serve-and-volley tips from Sampras, Edberg, and Tim Henman, the Swiss maestro credited Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, and Nadal for making him a more versatile player. “Those two [Agassi and Hewitt] really made me feel like a bad baseliner to an extent, until I realised I had to move better and be more consistent, have variation in my game,” Federer said in 2015. “Rafa challenged my backhand the most throughout my career. I had to return [serve] differently every single time I played against him.”

This never-ending quest for perfection paid off. During Federer’s prime, all-time great Jimmy Connors said, “In modern tennis, you are either a clay court specialist or a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist… or you are Roger Federer.”

Along the lines of Tilden, Federer left posterity timeless maxims, such as these.

“I do believe as a tennis player, it’s constant problem-solving.”

“My game is a lot about footwork. If I move well, I play well.”

“You have to believe in the long-term plan you have, but you need the short-term goals to motivate and inspire you.”

“You’re never really in control of a match. That’s the beauty of the scoring system in tennis.”

“Power-baseline is OK, but fans deserve a mix of style. It’s like chef trying to pass a bowl of apples for a fruit salad.”

“Tactics? People talk about tactics. But a lot of the time at this level it just comes down to instinct. It happens so fast that you have to hit the shot almost without thinking.” (From the 2021 book,  The Master).

Tennis politician — Federer assumed a leadership role by serving as the President of the ATP Player Council from June 2008-2014 and often voiced his views.

After Novak Djokovic told reporters at the 2011 Australian Open that he hadn’t been drug tested in the previous six months, Federer advocated that pro tennis should increase funding and testing to ensure transparency and thoroughness. “The players need to be scared if they cheat,” he told  CNN. “Of course, some players do it by mistake, but unfortunately it falls into the same situation and you have to pay the price for it.”

Federer was rightly critical of players who competed at Wimbledon despite major injuries but then retired during first-round matches to take the sizeable prize money. After Alexandr Dolgopolov retired to him and Martin Klizan to Djokovic and five other players did the same in the 2017 Wimbledon first round, Roger said, “A player should not go on court if he knows he should not finish. The question is, did they truly believe they were going to finish?”

Federer rightly opposed the deeply flawed Player Challenge system, but his stance was based on the wrong reason: opposition to a video replay system. “What I like without Hawk-Eye is just the players challenging the umpires more often,” he said. “So I see fans liking that [Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling], but then those are maybe the ones who don’t remember the arguments back in the day with the umpires, which was when the booing starting, fans getting behind you or against you. I mean, those were the good days, sometimes.” Strangely, the usually perceptive Federer missed the overriding point. Hawk-Eye got the line calls right, which easily trumped losing the “human element” that arguments created.

Adam Helfant, ATP Executive Chairman, had high praise for Federer and Nadal, the Players Council vice-president. “I’ve been impressed by their judgment,” Helfant said in 2011. “They are active participants in those meetings, and they care deeply about the governance of the sport. Their accomplishments on the court will speak for themselves over time, and they’ll obviously be linked together forever in tennis history. But I would hope in the history of tennis, people will also remember all the work they put in off the court.”

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As prize money soared for the winners and finalists at pro tournaments, Federer advocated that early-round losers receive more prize money. (Seventy-five percent of entrants lose in the first two rounds.) Equally important, in 2018, he and Djokovic contended the Grand Slam tournaments should substantially increase the total prize money. They argued that male players, who received only 7 or 8% of total revenues — which rose to 14 to 16% when female players were included — compared poorly to NBA players, who received around 50% of revenues generated by their league.

Popular among peers: Team World and Team Europe players give Federer a fitting farewell.

Popular among peers: Team World and Team Europe players give Federer a fitting farewell. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Regular guy — “Tennis is like boxing,” 1990s superstar Sampras once said on National Public Radio. “There aren’t too many boxers who are good friends.” Federer changed that culture to one of bonhomie. It’s no coincidence that during Roger’s career hugging and respectful taps on an opponent’s chest became the usual post-match men’s gesture at the net, replacing the more formal, traditional handshake.

James Blake, a tour standout during the 2000s, said, “You go out there, he beats the crap out of you, you come back in the locker room, and he’s one of the guys.”

Federer also showed compassion in the locker room. When fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev was upset by Hyeon Chung in the 2018 Australian Open third round, he comforted the disconsolate, 20-year-old German.

Despite the adulation showered on him everywhere he travelled, he never put on airs. “I consider myself really like a regular guy with a fascinating life as a tennis player, because the life as a tennis player has become very much living in the public eye, travelling the world, live audience,” Federer told Clarey in  The Master.

No tennis champion — not “Big Bill” Tilden or Suzanne Lenglen in the 1920s, or Bjorn Borg or Jimmy Connors in the 1970s — ever inspired such adoring, hero-worshipping fans like Roger. “They are so passionate,” he told Clarey. “I’ve had more fans break down here in South America than anywhere else in the world. They cry, and they shake, and they are just so, like, not in awe, but so happy to meet you that it’s disbelief for them…. Here [in Argentina] I must have had at least 20 people probably hugging me and kissing me and so happy just to get a chance to touch me even.”

Philanthropist and humanitarian — The Roger Federer Foundation, which he founded in 2003, has invested more than $28.5 million in educational programmes in Africa and Switzerland, reaching out to 650,000 underprivileged children.

“I know my life is busier than ever, but I try to generate as much money as possible for people in need,” Federer told  The Independent (UK) in 2009. “I definitely want to find more time for that. I’ll try to go to South Africa next year. I want to visit the projects I support now. I have one in Mali, one in Ethiopia, and one in South Africa. For me that’s important.”

“There’s a responsibility that comes with what we do. We have the [platform] to do more than hit tennis balls,” explained Roger Federer about why he organised a January 17 exhibition in 2010, Hit for Haiti, that raised $150,000 for earthquake victims and why he made a humanitarian visit to Ethiopia in February.

His “Rally for Relief” fundraiser attracted 15,000 fans and raised $1.8 million for Australia’s flood victims. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said, “to give a little bit of our time for people who need it much more than we do.”

In recognition of his dedication to these and other causes, the ATP twice gave Federer the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award.

Flaws and missteps — In an interview with  The Times (UK), Roger once attributed his teenage meltdowns to “the two voices inside me, the devil and the angel … and one self couldn’t believe how stupid the other one could be.” Those duelling voices occasionally reappeared in pro matches.

In an error-ridden 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2009 Sony Ericsson semis, an angry, exasperated Roger Federer smashed his racquet on the hard court. The unusual display of temper provoked jeers from the Miami spectators.

Like Serena Williams, Federer did not always handle losses well. In 2010, he diminished Rafael Nadal’s fifth French Open title and mischaracterised Nadal’s game. “I’m not trying to take anything away from Rafa, but on clay, you don’t need to have a volley,” Fed said. “You almost don’t need a serve. All you need to have is legs, an incredible forehand and backhand and to run things down.”

Federer ungraciously attributed his 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych to back and leg injuries when he was asked about heavy hitters Berdych, Robin Soderling, and Juan Martin del Potro, who recently upset him at major events. “I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play,” he said. “You just don’t feel as comfortable. You can’t concentrate on each and every point, because you do feel the pain sometimes…. Well, if I’m healthy, I can handle these guys. I’ve played these guys 10 times, and they’re not going to reinvent themselves in a year, you know.”

Federer wrongly denigrated the sensational forehand service return Djokovic belted off a slow (108 mph) first serve on match point in their 2011 U.S. Open semifinal as “the lucky shot.”

After Federer was upset by No. 19 Tommy Robredo at the 2013 U.S. Open, he once again wanted to have it both ways: he claimed he didn’t want to take credit from Robredo while actually doing exactly that. “I kind of feel like I beat myself, without taking any credit away from Tommy,” said Federer. “Clearly he was making sure he was making many balls. It was up to me to make the difference and I couldn’t. I kind of self-destructed, which is very disappointing, especially on a quicker court. I just couldn’t do it. It was a frustrating performance today.”

In a recent appreciation piece about Federer, Stuart Fraser, tennis correspondent for  The Times (UK), noted Federer wasn’t always gracious in defeat. “One member of [the ATP] tour staff once privately described him as the ‘worst sore loser’ of the Big Three, such was his will to win every match he played. This correspondent also occasionally got the sharp end of his tongue after asking what were thought to be reasonable questions in the heat of the moment.”

As a longtime tournament player as well as a veteran journalist, I can empathise with both Federer and Fraser.

Role model — In a 2011 global study of more than 50,000 people in 25 countries conducted by The Reputation Institute, Roger Federer ranked No. 2 among the world’s most respected, admired, and trusted personalities, just behind Nelson Mandela but ahead of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono.

In a 2010 poll of 1,400 fans conducted by Barclays Spaces for Sport, Federer and Steffi Graf were selected as the top male and female sports role models.

“Of all the athletes I’ve ever met, Roger [Federer] is the kindest and most genuine,” said Olympic downhill skiing champion Lindsey Vonn. “He really cares about people and what he’s done with his foundation and his humanitarian efforts has been incredible. He’s hard-working and extremely humble, but the thing I respect most about him is he’s the same person every day whether he wins or loses. He cares about being a role model and that kids can look up to him. I consider him a hero because I want to be like him. I want to be a good role model for kids, too.”

In 2010, Chris Evert told the New York Times why Roger was her favourite player. “He’s a gentleman. You would want to have him as your son, or your boyfriend, or your brother. He’s just a wonderful human being.”

Federer was always well-aware of his responsibility as a role model. When asked about what he would want young players to learn from him, the Swiss icon said, “I think to play fair and play tough. I hope they look to me or parents look to me and think that they will be happy that maybe their son would behave like this on a tennis court or try as hard as I did.”

Sense of humour — Roger described himself as “a funny guy” in an interview quoted on  tennis-x.com. “I’m outgoing. You can have a lot of fun with me.”

Nadal enjoyed Federer’s fun side on more than one occasion. The superstar pals cracked up laughing 11 times when they tried to film a promotional announcement for their 2011 charity exhibition.

Federer also used his multi-lingual flair — he speaks French, English, German, and Swiss-German — to express his sense of humour. “Sometimes I wish I never told anybody I learned French or something like that!” he once admitted about the added media demands that created. “I don’t mind it. I try to have fun with it. I have different humour in all the different languages.”

Fed was also quite a prankster. “Roger is very light-hearted. He loves practical jokes, and he loves laughing. He’s just a normal guy,” Pete Sampras told  The Tennis Space in 2013. “When you’re playing and competing, you’ve got your game face on; it’s only when you hop in the car and head back to the hotel that you’re done with your day. I’ve always found him very easy to be around, and an all-around good guy. We were travelling in Asia in 2007 on an exhibition tour and I thought to myself, ‘this guy is like he’s in high school’. I’m slightly embarrassed to be telling you this but he would come up and blow in your ear or scream in your ear. He did it to his trainer a few times, and I thought they looked like a couple of kids from high school.”

Fashionista — It’s no surprise that the most effortlessly elegant player in history had a passion for fashion. After all, his classic tennis game required stylishly classic attire. No denim shorts (Agassi) or pirate pants (Nadal) for Roger, who knew tennis history and revered well-dressed, past champions like Rod Laver and Stefan Edberg. It was also natural that the racquet-wielding genius — who expressed his risk-taking nature on the biggest stages — would express himself with memorably distinctive outfits while performing.

With his friend Anna Wintour — the renowned  Vogue magazine editor — as his informal adviser,  Nike’s marketing experts, and his wife, Federer also led the men’s tour in fashion statements. Wimbledon, the most famous tournament and the foremost bastion of tradition, made the perfect venue to display his imprint on timeless creations.

In 2006, to symbolise his three previous Wimbledon titles,  Nike designed a creme jacket emblazoned with a crest of three tennis racquets.  Nike continued the line in 2008 and 2009 with a personalised cardigan, featuring Federer’s own logo, an R and an F, originally designed by Mirka.

Fashion and sports magazines loved the chic Federer look.  GQ Germany named him the International Man of the Year in 2005.  Forbes magazine selected four tennis players, led by Roger, among the top 15 best-dressed people in sports in 2010. Federer was honoured as 2016’s most stylish man by  GQ magazine (U.S.), outclassing the 64-man competition and winning more than 60% of the votes.

A year later,  Sports Illustrated again named Roger Federer to its “Fashionable 60” list. “His timeless style extends to his looks on and off the court, but he really excels in classic pieces, such as blazers and slim suits,” wrote  SI. “Lately, he’s been taking risks with these staples, adding in different fabrics, textures, and designs, including a Gucci tuxedo with an embroidered crystal king cobra at the 2017 Met Gala.”

Once again, the inimitable Federer had left his mark on tennis — but not only in epic Center Court matches. He’ll also be remembered as an exemplar of stylish elegance.

Trick shot artist — Federer matches became must-see TV for the sporting public not lucky enough to watch them in person. My favourite expression capturing Federer’s multifarious genius was “The Federer Fun House,” coined by Patrick McEnroe, the  ESPN analyst and John’s brother. When you entered this delightful domicile, you were treated with a fantabulous array of shots — back-to-the net, between-the-legs winners, half-volley flick passing shots, angles that seemed to defy the laws of geometry, razor-sharp reflex put-aways, lunging drop volleys that landed with the softness of a feather, disguised drop shots that stripped the gears of opponents, and bounding topspin and devilish slice (and sidespin) that confounded them. All of which were deployed masterfully with clever tactics, uncanny anticipation, ideal positioning, and ethereal movement.

Federer showed off his bold, jaw-dropping shots in big matches like his 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals. On the penultimate point, the Swiss maestro conjured up a spectacular back-to-the-net, between-the-legs flick forehand passing shot winner that he called “the greatest shot of my career.”

An outclassed Sam Querrey served as Federer’s foil at the 2015 Wimbledon. Roger produced a sensational, on-the-run, between-the-legs lob that sailed over 6’6” Querrey’s head and landed a couple of inches inside the baseline to force a forehand passing shot error in Federer’s decisive 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 second-round win. Afterwards, a reverential Querrey confided, “You want to go over and give him a high-five sometimes, but you can’t do that.”

Federer has every shot in the book plus some he invented. A new tactic — charging powerful serves and virtually half-volleying some of them and called SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) — helped him surprise and beat Djokovic and Andy Murray at the 2015 Cincinnati Masters. “I’m not going to play the way they like it,” Federer explained. “I’ll come out and make it an athletic match or make it uncomfortable in the sense that they don’t know what’s coming. I’m happy it worked out well, and I would like to give Stefan [Edberg, his coach] a lot of credit, he has helped me in a big way.”

The Swiss genius offered two more reasons for his crowd-pleasing creation. “Then with the SABR, I think it makes it more fun for me,” he said. “That’s always the idea for me in practice or matches, keep it entertaining, keep things going. I always look for new ways to win the point.” (Shouldn’t every serious player?)

His magic talent became a big hit on the Internet. When asked whether a  Gillette TV commercial on  YouTube ( https://tinyurl.com/7t2e5cj) — featuring him, dressed in a sports jacket, twice knocking a can off a crew member’s head with a serve — was authentic, Federer answered coyly, “I don’t do it that much, but yeah, it was shot in one piece. The guy took a chance. It worked out. I’m happy. Well, I had to do it before, so I knew I could do it. Otherwise, it was risky for him, right?…. A magician doesn’t tell how his tricks work.”

How can one best explain the Federer magic?

“One of his superpowers was his love for the game,” said Mary Carillo, a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer, who called pro matches for 10 networks during the past 40 years. “Roger was a born show-off, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. He knew his talent for the game and his devotion to making it look incandescent never left him. I once asked him, early in his career, if he were aware of how beautiful his tennis was. He smiled and giggled a bit, then said, ‘Yes. I know.’ I loved him for it.

“He made a very difficult game look easy,” continued Carillo. “He made the complicated simple, the way you can listen to a piece of music and think to yourself, ‘Of course. That’s perfect. Why hadn’t that existed before?’”

How will the incomparable Roger be remembered?

“For me,” Carillo said, “his legacy is that for all of his titles, records, and rivalries, more than anyone else he always made the sport look like a game — like the best game in the world. He treated tennis with intensity, passion, imagination, wonder, and surprise at what his own gifts could bring — to himself and his fans. He made the game look like great fun, even under intense pressure. And the things he could  do under pressure — the lightness he brought even in dark moments of a match — often made me laugh right into my microphone.

“He brought joy to his tennis, and he brought a look at tennis the likes of which we had never seen before. Tennis will never again look that pretty, that radiant, that breezy. That graceful. And Roger was that way off the court as well. People recognise grace when they see it, in motion or when grace stands still. His grace is what I will hold on to long after Roger Federer is gone from the sport.”

Sidebars

Fascinating Facts

The Townsville Bulletin, an Australian newspaper, reported that a local woman inadvertently threw away her false teeth because she was so excited watching Roger Federer, her favourite player, win the 2006 Wimbledon.

Roger Federer cited the Boris Becker-Stefan Edberg rivalry as the reason he chose tennis over soccer as a boy.

In 2020, Roger Federer became tennis’ first billionaire in career earnings (on and off the court) and just the fourth professional athlete to crack the billion-dollar mark, joining Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Floyd Mayweather.

The superstitious Roger Federer, born on the eighth day of the eighth month, kept eight bottles of water ( Evian only) in his bag; brought eight racquets and eight shirts to the court for matches; and usually had eight members of his entourage in his Player’s Box.

In 2018, Roger Federer said, “Down the road, my dream would be to be as well-known for the foundation [funding early childhood education] as for tennis.”

Roger Federer lost his first 11 matches on the pro tour.

Roger Federer revealed he used to have a sore arm every day when he was 20 and 21.

In 2014, Roger Federer said he was very proud that “I haven’t had a cramp since ’99.”

Roger Federer revealed what changed his career in 2003 and turned him into a champion. “I got stronger physically and mentally — because I was always a good shot-maker,” he said.

Roger Federer and Tiger Woods texted each other “every day,” according to Sports Illustrated in 2009.

In 2010, Roger Federer said, “I play in pain” 80 percent of the time.

To avoid injuries, in 2011 Roger Federer said he would discontinue playing other sports, except for table tennis.

Roger Federer lost a record 22 times after holding one or more match points.

Roger Federer received 132 write-in votes in Switzerland’s November 2011 federal elections.

Roger Federer’s oldest fan is a 107-year-old Argentinian named Dorothea, who, in 2020, said she watches all his matches.

Roger Federer said explaining your losses at press conferences is “the worst feeling you can have as a tennis player.”

Federer claimed he sleeps around 11-12 hours, about 10 hours at night and a one-hour or two-hour nap during the day.

Australian great Ken Rosewall wrote a half-page letter of support to Roger Federer and dropped it off at the Australian Open locker room every year.

Until he missed the 2016 French Open, Federer was the only player to have competed in every Grand Slam tournament in the 21st century.

In a 2021 tweet Federer titled “Dancing on clouds and floating above the sand,” he referenced how much he moved his very active feet for one shot and for one point.

Roger Federer revealed he always dreamed of having a two-handed backhand, especially Andre Agassi’s.

Roger Federer had a 1-9 career record in deciding-set tiebreakers in tournament finals.

Roger Federer’s 2019 tennis exhibition in Mexico City drew 42,000 spectators, a record, far surpassing the then-record 30,472 crowd that witnessed the famous “Battle of the Sexes” at the Houston Astrodome in 1973.

Queen Elizabeth, seated next to Roger Federer at the 2010 Wimbledon player luncheon with the Queen, said to him, according to Federer: “She said I should hit more backhands down the line.”

Tributes to Roger Federer

“I’ve always been a big fan of tennis, there’s nowhere better than Wimbledon. I’ve been watching Roger for the last 10 years so here I am again to support him. I think as a sportsman and tennis player he is someone the whole world admires, but I know Roger as a person and I admire him more as a person. I think he’s such a down-to-earth, humble man. After having achieved so much in life to be like that, it’s always nice to be around him.” — Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, who was in the Royal Box to cheer on Roger Federer in the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals, talking to the Wimbledon Channel.

“At 36, he’s still winning Grand Slams with a combination of grace and grit. But not as many fans know about what Roger is doing off the court. Twice I’ve had the thrill of being his doubles partner to help raise money for his foundation, and we’ve become friends in the process.” — Billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, hailing the 36-year-old Roger Federer in an essay in TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the world.

“He’s looked so smooth. I’ve seen a lot of tennis on TV, but you never really understand how smooth and relaxed and fundamentally sound he can make this game look.” — Basketball legend Michael Jordan, a big tennis fan and a U.S. Open spectator, admiring Roger Federer.

“I could never understand how Federer manages to deal with the massive crowds that surround him. In Rome, it’s amazing how many people were trying to get his attention. But yet again, he’s such a classy person. I guarantee you that we will never see such an amazingly courteous player of such skill ever again on the tour.” — Seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander, paying tribute to world No. 1 Roger Federer, on Eurosport.com.

“Roger, Where do we begin? It’s been a privilege to witness your journey and see you become a champion in every sense of the word. We will so miss the sight of you gracing our courts, but all we can say for now is thank you, for the memories and joy you have given to so many.” — Wimbledon, where he has won a record eight titles, issued an emotional statement in the wake of the September 15 news of his retirement.

“He’s just a synopsis of greatness and class and amazing and really changed the game. You see players playing like him, moving like him, doing his techniques. The guy is [a] genius. I just feel like he is really the greatest player. You can’t not like the guy, that’s how I feel. His game is so fantastic. If I could only play like him.” — Serena Williams, a self-described “superfan” of Roger Federer, praising the legendary Swiss as “a genius and the greatest.”

“This is a guy who buys drinks for photographers and thanks reporters who show up for his press conferences.” — Swiss sportswriter Rene Stauffer.

“Well at home, we used to watch a lot of sports, the TV was always on, and the sport we watched the most was football, followed by tennis. I always had a lot of admiration and respect. I liked Roger Federer’s style. I believe that I and many people have him as a tennis reference. We try to watch his matches, he has a style and elegance that makes everyone want to be like him. I always tried to watch him play so I love tennis because of him.” — Juventus striker Paulo Dybala, telling Tennis Channel he is a huge tennis fan — and primarily because of the great Roger Federer.

“Roger Federer is a champion’s champion. He has the most complete game of his generation and captured the hearts of sports fans around the world with an amazing quickness on the court and a powerful tennis mind. He has had a historic career with memories that will live on and on.” — Billie Jean King, 1960s-1970s superstar and women’s tennis pioneer.

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