Sports is an arena where trained persons compete against each other within well-defined parameters. The unique selling point of sports is its objectivity as the norms governing the winner are laid down in clear terms and understood by all those who follow it. The intensity of competition occasionally creates an edge-of-the-seat excitement and thrill that leave the spectators in thrall, wishing for more of such moments. In the hands of certain purveyors, however, sports gets endowed with unparalleled beauty, as actions involving muscles, bones, and joints that generate litres of sweat suddenly get bestowed with elegance and style that make the audience swoon like mesmerised school kids.
Every sport on earth is blessed with performers capable of elevating their actions to a sublime art form. Gundappa Viswanath used his cricket bat like a magic wand to caress the ball flung at speeds close to 100 miles per hour and, lo and behold, the red cherry would vanish behind the boundary ropes! Diego Maradona could cut through the defences of the opposing sides swerving and dodging past skilled defenders, who were too bewildered to act and place the ball in the net with disarming ease and felicity.
When Dhyan Chand raced ahead on the hockey field his graceful demeanour and superb control made it appear as though the ball was glued to his stick.
Roger Federer, who announced his retirement last week, was an artist of a similar mould who transformed the tennis court into a stage where he performed a heavenly art, fit for being savoured by connoisseurs and common man alike.
The achievements of Federer are too well known and numerous to be recalled in detail. Twenty Grand Slam titles over 24 years, including being the winner of all four championships together, in the harsh and demanding world of professional tennis speaks volumes not only about the skills and expertise of the champion but also about his levels of physical endurance.
Wimbledon was almost his second home as he won eight titles here, with five of them in a back-to-back manner, from 2003 to 2007. He won the Australian Open six times and the US Open on five occasions and his solitary title at Rolland Garros was in 2009. In addition to this, he won 103 titles in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) circuit and held the No 1 ranking for 310 weeks.
Federer arrived on the international tennis scene in 1998, when he won the Wimbledon boys tournament and reached the finals of the Australian and US Open junior championships. He went through the pangs of moving from the junior to senior level and had to wait till 2003 to win his first grand slam title. He had served notice about the enormous talent that he was blessed with, when he defeated reigning champion, Pete Sampras, in the pre-quarter stage in a match that went into the fifth set, at Wimbledon in 2001, but lost in the quarter-finals to Tim Henman.
Though seeded seventh, he was defeated by a young, unknown, and unseeded Mario Ancic in the first round of this championship in 2002. Hence his title win in 2003 was not merely a message that he was coming of age as a player but also served as a much-needed boost for his confidence. And he went on to use this as a stepping stone to winning three out of the four grand slam titles (except the French Open) in 2004.
During 2004, he also reached the No 1 ranking, on February 2, a position he retained till August 17, 2008. This stint of 237 consecutive weeks at the top is the longest one in the history of ATP rankings since it was started in 1973.
The fact that the next longest streak in tennis history was 160 weeks (by Jimmy Connors between 1974 and 1977) shows the magnitude of his achievement. Incidentally, during this period, the top ranking in women’s tennis changed hands 14 times! This record stands as testimony to the complete dominance Federer exercised on the professional tennis circuit during these years.
Amongst the various records set by Federer, this will be, in all likelihood, the most difficult one to beat in coming years.
It was not that Federer did not have any serious challenger during his years at the top. His on-court rivalry with Rafael Nadal is considered to be the greatest of this genre in the history of professional tennis. They played against each other for the first time at Miami in 2004 when the 34th-ranked Spaniard shocked the top-ranked Swiss in straight sets. After that Nadal followed Federer like a shadow, looking for opportunities to unseat the latter from the pole position.
He managed this in 2008, the same year that he managed to break the suzerainty that Federer exercised over the grass courts at Wimbledon by defeating him in the finals in a match that has been hailed as one of the greatest ever in the history of the game. Federer struck back soon enough by winning the 2009 French Open championships but could not have the pleasure of defeating Nadal, who had lost in the fourth round. On the 40 occasions that this duo played against each other Federer could win only 16 times, with their record being 3-1, 11-9 and 2-14 on grass, hard and clay courts, respectively. This shows that while Federer was superior on grass and Nadal held the advantage on clay, both were equally good on hard courts.
Another challenger was Novak Djokovic from Serbia, who held the No 1 spot for 137 consecutive weeks from July 2014 to November 2016. Federer and Djokovic played against each other 50 times, with Federer winning only 24 times. However, here the record is fairly evenly matched on clay and hard court while the Serbian legend has won more matches than he lost to the Wiss master on grass.
Thus, one can see that after 2008, both Nadal and Djokovic attained status almost equal to that of Federer by 2010 and the second decade of this century is considered the era of the “Big Three” in men’s tennis. Federer was plagued by injuries during this period but he kept going. The year 2016 was a particularly bad one for Federer with he being bogged down by a knee injury, for which he underwent arthroscopic surgery and forced him to miss the Olympics, and repeated bouts of viral infection. But, he surprised everyone by bouncing back in 2017, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon. He won his 100th ATP title in 2019 and followed up by reaching the finals of Wimbledon where he lost a gruelling five-set match lasting close to five hours to Djokovic.
However, it was evident by this time that the strain of playing tennis almost continuously for more than two decades at the highest level in the professional circuit was taking its toll on Federer’s body. He underwent knee surgery in February 2020 which forced him to withdraw from tournaments held after that. Though the lockdown on account of COVOD-19 pandemic gave his body some much-needed rest, he was not able to recapture the magic of the old. At Wimbledon, his favourite venue, he lost to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland in straight sets in the quarter-finals. But what was more galling was the fact that he was blanked out 6-0 in the last set, in what proved to be his last appearance at Wimbledon. He underwent another knee surgery in August 2021 and did not take part in Grand slam championships after that.
The career of Federer is not one to be measured in the number of championship titles or other records created on the courts. He was a versatile genius, an all-round player at home on all surfaces, and plays all the strokes in the tennis manual, including difficult ones like the backhand smash, with ease. His strong first serve, clocking a speed over 125 miles per hour was backed up by a ferocious forehand. He was quick on his feet and moved around the court with the grace and speed of a cheetah. He also had some unique strokes of his own like the “between the legs shot”, also known as “tweener”, which he used in critical situations to throw his opponents off balance. Another shot created by him was the “Sneak Attack by Roger” (SABR) wherein he raced ahead to meet the second serve and sent a return to the service line, which invariably became a sure winner. Most importantly, he carried a cool head on his shoulders and refused to get ruffled; nor did he show any signs of anger or irritation, even in the most stressful moments. With such traits, it is not surprising that Federer remains one of the most popular and adored tennis players of all time.
Roger Federer has etched his place in the pantheons of all-time greats who graced the world of tennis. We must consider it our good fortune to live in these times so we could watch him play. Adieu King Federer, the emperor of tennis and conqueror of human hearts.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)