“I think Roger is something extra special,” said Pete Sampras in 2001, when 19-year-old Roger dethroned Wimbledon’s most revered champion of the time. No one at the time knew that the Swiss teen will leave behind a legacy all too great, all his own.
Two decades of beautiful tennis, 20 grand slam titles and more than 1,500 matches later, 41-year-old Roger Federer bid farewell to the game as the most idolised tennis player of all time. Revered by peers, and veterans, and adored by fans, Roger leaves the sport more beautiful.
What was it about Roger that so inspired people? They say he is the most natural player ever, that he made the game look so effortless.
Was it his balletic movement on court, his racquet head speed, and his signature single-handed backhand, the flick of his wrist or the matchless quality of his shots?
What made Roger’s game — a game for all surfaces — so mesmeric? Was it his resolve? His willingness to forever evolve and perfect his talent? It was all of the above but more.
Men in sport are often admired for their antics on court, their bravado, their aggression and machismo. They rile up crowds, clash with opponents, and argue with the umpires, all in fighting spirit. Yet here was Roger, the ultimate nice guy. A lover of the game first, then a player. A player that loved players and one that players loved.
His camaraderie with fellow players, especially Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the duo together with whom he dominated the sport for nearly two decades also set him apart.
“Tennis is a tough sport, there’s no draws. But if there was going to be one I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa, really,” he said after beating long-time rival and friend Rafael Nadal in 2017 Australian Open final; his comeback year.
Always humble, grounded and gracious, and not afraid to be vulnerable in front of audiences, Roger treated the game with the greatest respect and connected with fans like no one before.
“It’s what he does when no one’s looking, that will be his legacy,” said Andy Roddick, the American who lost four major finals to Roger Federer.
After a truly disappointing loss to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon 2019, despite having played a match to remember for the ages, Roger said: “I didn’t become a tennis player for that (title count). I really didn’t. It’s about trying to win Wimbledon, trying to have good runs here, playing in front of such an amazing crowd, in this Centre Court against players like Novak and so forth. That’s what I play for.”
Roger inspired not only by the level of his game, but his presence on the court as well. A man so extraordinary, yet so approachable.
Speaking about his manner on court, the Swiss said, “You need everything including grit and determination, fight and toughness to stay at the top, even if people will talk about the other things. It’s not gifted to you. For some players it is easier and more ingrained in their DNA. I had to go and find it.”
“Why wouldn’t I fight more when I was losing? It was thought I didn’t give it all I had when losing – even though I cared probably more than most players. Was I supposed to run more, sweat more, shout more, be more aggressive towards my opponent?
“But that wasn’t me, I am not like that and it wasn’t my personality. I was told to be tougher and not so nice. I tried that – but it was all an act. So I decided ‘try the nice way, and let’s see where that takes me. Be normal and authentic, and be myself.”
It took him far enough. To a place reserved for great men. Roger is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last, that nice guys can become winners, that nice guys can be legends and that nice guys can also make history.
There will be champions after him, as there have been champions before him. But Roger Federer will forever be in a class of his own.