I have always been reluctant to count myself as an unabashed fan of anyone though I have admired many. The one glorious exception: Roger Federer. He is a joy forever. More graceful than the best of dancers. Music or poetry in motion. A moving cloud on the sky. A swallow in flight. At a time when the game was getting more and more physical, his sublime skill and smooth style, the blend of power and poise, the economy of effort and fluidity of movement, the control and awareness all made him transcend space and time. He was an artist standing up to the advancing army tanks with a paintbrush in hand. A flautist drowning out the noise of a hundred horns on a crowded lane with his flute. A gracile gazelle locking horns with a rampaging bull. Federer always seemed invincible if he played at his best, especially on grass. And yet he was vulnerable, with two relentless contemporaries who found ways to beat him more often than not. Close losses left him feeling devastated but did not diminish his passion for the game.
Dravid once said it would be selfish to retire at the top. One cannot say the same about an individual sport. Nobody could have faulted Federer had he, like Sampras, chosen to go out blazing after breaking Sampras’ record for maximum slams a few years ago. Still the master artist chose to labor through his sunset years, offering us an extended peek into the greatest show on a tennis court. I once heard Geet Sethi answering a question on why legends like Tendulkar refuse to retire; was it because they were chasing records? Sethi said, for someone for whom playing the game has been everything since an early age, it was not easy to let go of it. Juan Martin Del Potro, who, in his prime, was able to overcome a red-hot Federer to win the US Open and break his five-year winning streak, recently rued thus, months after retiring due to a recurrent knee injury: ‘I cannot psychologically accept a life without tennis. […] I have no idea what the other athletes did to live this process peacefully.’ Federer, too, might have felt the same. He, no doubt, loved winning, and was very conscious of the legacy he was creating, and no man wore the ecstasy of success and the pain of loss more plainly than Federer. He smiled whenever he pulled off something outrageous. He shed tears of overwhelming joy or tears of unbearable loss. He was no imposter who could pretend to treat triumph and disaster just the same.
But, win or lose, he kept on playing as his love for playing the game was probably more important than even winning. Isn’t that why he often went for the spectacular, which he could conjure effortlessly and exquisitely, than merely a safe and sure shot? He preferred to wield the racquet like the bow of a violin when he was equally capable of using it like a bludgeon. There is a certain charm in seeing old champions valiantly recreate their magic momentarily, if not persistently. It is even more remarkable to see the old champion play at a highly competitive level till almost the end, and remain a realistic contender than just an old horse who can upset the apple cart. Federer won a Wimbledon in 2017, reached the finals in 2018, the last 8 in his last tournament, and in fact regained the number 1 slot for a while in 2018. In a game which requires increasingly supreme fitness just to stay afloat and relevant, it is inconceivable that someone could remain in the topmost bracket for nearly two decades.
Now may be the right time for the master to retire. Another new crop of promising players have emphatically announced their arrival. Some freakish shots of Carlos Alcaraz already almost rival that of early Federer. A 3-in-1 package, Alcaraz surely channels the inner Federer in him while producing the beautiful behind the back backhand or a feather-touch dropshot. Federer may not after all be missed now as much as we feared earlier. But I don’t think I am going to write another farewell note for any sportsperson for a long time to come.
With his retirement, Roger Federer has, in fact, scored a final win, the ultimate one. I doubt if any sportsperson before or after him could or would get the farewell he got. Not just from his team or his fans, but a tearful farewell from his fiercest rivals. He may or may not be the greatest tennis player of all time but he is most certainly the most loved sportsperson of all time.