Writing about Roger Federer’s retirement is a nearly impossible task. Not only is he my favorite player of all time—one I could buttonhole you about for hours at a party if you are so unlucky as to ask me about him—but he’s a player for whom it is hard to find original things to say. Media-trained out the wazoo and stoically neutral in a fashion that surely makes his Swiss parents proud, Roger Federer is not given to letting anything juicy slip by accident in an interview or press conference. And writers love Roger Federer, and writing about him, and they’ve been doing it for 20 years now. I mean, one of David Foster Wallace’s best known essays is about Federer! Geoff Dyer’s latest book has his name in its title! What the heck am I supposed to do?
Well, let me start with my candidate for the single greatest point of Roger Federer’s career:
It’s deep in the fifth set of the Australian Open finals of 2017, and it’s improbable that Roger has even gotten this far. Having gone pro in 1998, he’s already been playing for longer, and at a higher level, than anyone previously thought a tennis player could, but he’s also been sidelined with injuries to his back and knee for months, and the year prior marked the first season since the dawn of the millennium that he’d failed to win a single title. It’s been four years since he won a Grand Slam. Nearly everyone thinks he’s past his prime and should retire, and that his stubborn refusal to do so is hurting his legacy.
One does not normally enter a Grand Slam match after a long time off court with injuries and win many matches, but Federer, ranked outside of the top-15, had been doing just that for the past two weeks. At 35, he’s one of the oldest players ever to make it to a Grand Slam final, and to get there he had to win grueling five setters against Kei Nishikori (in the fourth round) and Stan Wawrinka (in the semis). You could be forgiven for wondering if whatever Roger had left in the tank would be enough for the final, particularly since the man on the other side of the net is Rafael Nadal, a man known for grinding down his opponents until, punch-drunk and legless, they collapse under the onslaught of his spinning, lefty forehand. Nadal has also recently been out with injuries, and during both men’s time off the court, a friendship has begun to form that will only grow over the next four years. But that’s not going to change anything happening on court. Nadal has long had the edge on Federer, and has even beaten him on his favorite surface of grass in what many feel is the greatest men’s tennis match of all time. Despite all this, Federer has lasted into the fifth set and kept it competitive, ending points earlier at the net and taking the ball on the rise to deprive Nadal of needed reaction time. Now it’s 4 games to 3, and we’re at deuce, with Nadal serving. If Federer can win the next two points, he’ll serve for the championship.
Nadal immediately has Federer on his heels. The Spaniard is hitting the ball with everything he’s got while Federer flails to block it back. Federer hits a high, slow, deep arcing forehand to reset the point. The men begin trading rally balls, neutral shots to the center of the court that dare the other player to pounce. Nadal tries first, finally getting a ball he can hit to Federer’s one-handed backhand. Traditionally, this has been how Nadal beats Federer. The spin and aggression of Nadal’s forehand makes it very hard to return effectively one-handed, and Nadal uses that to either draw an error from Federer or to put himself in position to hit a winner. When his first shot to the backhand gets a soft return, Nadal hits his forehand much harder, and something shocking happens. Roger replies with a flat backhand so hard, and with such precision, that it cuts through the air, a lightning quick ball at a deadly sharp angle that no one other than Nadal could possibly retrieve. The crowd audibly gasps in shock. The tables have turned, Nadal is now on the defensive. Federer patiently moves him as far off the court as he can before ending the point with an unreturnable forehand down the line. The crowd and sportscasters in the booth lose their minds. Just watch it, at the 18-minute mark below.
Soon after, Federer will win the championship. He will go on to win two more slams in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
I had been watching Roger Federer play for 14 years at that point. The first match I ever watched him in was his 2003 dismantling of Mark Philippoussis in the Wimbledon finals. I was acting in a musical about a sculptor who wants to make a cast of the soon-to-be-dead body of a serial killer who is going to the gas chamber, and the performance space had a bar, and the bar had a television. Arriving early for a Saturday matinee performance, I caught some of the match. Who was this guy flying around the court with his ponytail and babyfat and game of unparalleled compositional beauty?
“That’s Roger Federer,” the bartender replied, as if I were an idiot. Had I been following tennis I would’ve known he had made a huge splash two years before when he beat Pete Sampras, the then–Greatest Player of All Time, on grass (Sampras’ best surface). But the attention had seemingly derailed Federer, and he had struggled to win tournaments ever since. Everyone was waiting for him to really make good on his promise, since it seemed potentially limitless. In particular, people were mystified by how Federer made his game seem so effortless even though it was obviously anything but, and by how he seemed to remain so calm all the time. (The answer to the former is that he trains unbelievably hard, the answer to the latter is his wife Mirka Federer, who helped him learn how to master his volatile emotions when they were both teenage tennis phenoms).
The 2003 win was the beginning of a period of dominance rarely seen in tennis. In 2004, he won his second slam, against Marat Safin, in Australia. Beginning with 2005’s Wimbledon, Federer made it to the final in 17 out of his next 18 slams. For several years, he was the best hard court and grass court player in the world, and the second-best clay court player next to Rafael Nadal, who is the greatest clay court player ever. The Federer-Nadal rivalry would come to define men’s tennis over the first two decades of the 21st Century, especially once that rivalry expanded to include Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Together, the men became known as the “Big Four,” a group whose dominance of men’s tennis—seriously, the statistics are mind-boggling—has led many to label this period the sport’s golden age.
Federer’s retirement this past weekend—a deeply moving affair in which he played doubles with Nadal as his partner, and then held the Spaniard’s hand as both men cried while the arena paid him tribute—was largely symbolic. His real final match came last summer, when the talented Polish player Hubert Hurkacz crushed him in straight sets, winning the final one 6–0. It was one of only six times in Federer’s entire career that a player had kept him from winning a single game in a set. He would later call it “one of the worst moments of my career.” What it really meant was that career’s end.
During the period of Federer’s fleeting GOAThood, it was impossible not to read him as a symbol of one kind or another. His own controlled nature, the studied boringness of his answers in press conferences, and blank expression whether he was winning or losing, helped encourage this. Surely this brilliant athlete, this artist with the racquet, must have deeper, hidden meanings. Surely he could not simply be a goofy father of four who works very hard and doesn’t have a very complex inner life. Perhaps he symbolized old world continental European reticence and elegance, or the triumph of logos over pathos. For David Foster Wallace, Federer’s meaning was tied up in “human beings’ reconciliation with having a body,” the way his brilliance, force, and grace “exposed the limits, and possibilities” both of men’s tennis and the self.
I wonder what Wallace, who died by suicide two weeks after Roger Federer won the U.S. Open in 2008, would make of this argument today. Do we still see the possibilities when the limits become more and more, well, limiting? Roger Federer transcended the limits of the human body for longer than most, but the body keeps the score, and eventually it wins. Or, depending on how you look at it, it loses. When I heard that Federer had announced his retirement, I called a friend who asked how I was doing. “Heartbroken,” I said, “even though I knew it was coming. We’re all going to die.”
With Federer’s retirement, Murray’s slip in the rankings, Nadal’s persistent health problems, and Djokovic being DQ’d from tournaments for refusing to be vaccinated, the golden age of men’s tennis is over. Yet its impact on the sport will be felt for years to come. Beginning with Federer’s ascendency, the Big Four wrestled the sport away from the serve-bots—players who had huge serves and even bigger forehands and could win tournaments while barely seeming to move their legs—and ushered in an era of variety that continues today. More than at any time since the McEnroe-Lendl rivalry of the early ’80s, men’s tennis has a sense of individual style and panache from its players. When you see them face off, you are watching not just a competition of abilities but of sensibilities, of ways of conceptualizing the sport and how it is played that often seem to reflect the character of the person playing it. If Federer’s retirement is a reminder that all things must pass, his career and its impact are also reminders of how long our choices linger after we’re gone. That’s a different kind of a transcendence, a different interplay of possibilities and limits, but one just as moving as watching Federer hit his beautiful inside-out forehand one last time.