India, Sept. 16 — What is a sport if not a saga of legendary stories that offer life lessons, such as Roger Federer, on how to win, how to lose, how to strive for excellence, and how to never give up.
What is a sport if not a pantheon of icons whose exploits mark our personal histories and change the world we inhabit?
Roger Federer entered our consciousness two decades ago, and he brought with him implements and values that would redefine our worldview – for some fanatics in large measure, but even for the more detached in tiny ways that may not immediately make themselves apparent.
First, came tennis. The uncomplicated serve, the inside-out forehand, the shots behind the body and between the legs, and the ethereal single-handed whiplash backhand that was an offering to the gods.
There was a grace to Federer’s movement on the court that seemed unworldly, the silhouette in each stroke appeared designed to a fault – like a perfectly constructed film shot, or a perfectly blended sonata.
Sport is usually a series of imperfect motions that come together to create perfection, but this was different; every tiny motion was perfection in itself. When we saw him play, it was like witnessing not just a person on a tennis court but bigger things that chart the march of the human race – science, architecture, engineering, art.
Then, came the reign. The joy that Federer unleashed on a tennis court appeared to mesmerise his followers and opponents alike. Though we saw him at his best on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon, where he won six titles in seven years between 2003 and 2009, the title counter started ticking at an unreal pace. Ten, 12, 14, 16, 18 Grand Slams (it eventually stopped at 20); 25, 50, 75, 100 victories (it eventually stopped at 103).
Through the 2000s, he was an all-consuming force that graciously swallowed up all who stood before him. His great rival, Rafael Nadal, had Roland Garros. Federer seemed to have all else (and even got a French Open crown to boot).
Then, we got to know him. Federer’s personality as a champion was only less beguiling than his craft. For two decades, the world looked for flaws in his character – not humble enough, not polite enough, not punctual enough, not faithful enough, not kind enough – in vain.
He would smile at all his fans, applaud all his opponents, speak immaculately in all his interviews, dress perfectly for each occasion, weep at all his defeats, sometimes even at his victories.
Then, came the competition. The Federer years were not a tyranny of grace and beauty. The last 15 years also gave tennis its greatest rivalry – first Roger vs Rafa, and Novak Djokovic later expanded it to a triopoly sport may never witness again.
The three sparred from surface to surface, country to country, Slam to Slam, sparking a legitimate debate on who between them is the greatest men’s player of all time. Nadal and Djokovic now have more Slams, and better head-to-heads against Federer, and may well be stronger candidates on those parameters. In truth, it becomes a futile discussion once you zoom out far enough.
For, as Federer finally walks into the sunset at 41, will he be remembered as the greatest tennis player to walk the planet? Perhaps not. Will he, however, be remembered as one of the greatest sporting icons of all time? Undoubtedly. He redefined excellence on court and what being a role model is off the court in a way few others in public life do.
Michael Schumacher could be arrogant to the point of being unfair, Lance Armstrong could cut corners to the point of cheating, and the outing of Tiger Woods’s troubled personal life took a toll on his image and his craft.
In the middle of these other legends of his time, Federer stood luminescent on the court and unblemished off it. Not just shoulder to shoulder with them, or Ali, Phelps, Bolt, Maradona, Jordan; but with other pathbreakers across sectors. For, what is sport if not a saga of legendary stories and a pantheon of icons. What is sport if not about Roger Federer.
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