Thank you for the tennis
LONDON: At 41, with a string of recent surgeries, it was always unlikely that Roger Federer could have gone much further. But even so, his decision to retire from the professional tennis circuit has sent a wave of shock through the tennis-loving world. In some ways, the same feeling is engendered by the death of people one loves – you may know that it is imminent and inevitable, but it never ceases to leave you with a feeling of disbelief and shock when it occurs.
Federer, however, should not be remembered for his longevity. The last few years of his career were painful for him, his ageing body, lacking the same stamina, and his reflexes perhaps a little slower as well. But he was always a threat and could pose questions of the best, even if he was not the same person who dominated world tennis ever since he picked up his first Grand Slam title, winning Wimbledon in 2003 as a somewhat gauche young man.
It was evident even then, as he downed the towering Mark Philippoussis, that Federer was set for greater things – in fact much greater things. There was a fluid, classical, and almost languid ease with which he played that seemed almost out of place in the modern era, characterised by brute serving, vicious topspin coupled with a lot of un-aesthetic, and arguably unnecessary, grunting. Federer seemed to take tennis back to a more pristine age.
He all but dominated the world over the next decade, his authority diminished only by the painfully slow red courts at Roland Garros (he won the French Open only once) and the emergence of two other all-time greats – Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The latter have managed to nudge past Federer in terms of Grand Slam titles, but this hasn’t quite settled the debate about who is the greatest player of all time.
For one, Nadal’s record is highly lopsided with most of his wins coming at the French Open, with the slow clay at Roland Garros favouring his game. Djokovic has the more even record across surfaces, but assessing greatness is a tricky business – does one only count the Grand Slams? Do other records matter? And, arguably most importantly, does one also need to look at sheer talent and genius, attributes that may not reflect in records and titles?
It is here that Federer stands above the crop. He has left us with a tennis that we will all remember. The incredible angles to the sides of the court, the outrageously casual half volley flicks from the back of the court, and the razor-sharp backhands down the line are only some of the strokes that will stay ingrained in our collective memory. He could make a tennis racquet talk like no other player in living memory – this is why Roger Federer has been such a delight, and this is why he truly deserves his place as the very best of the best.
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