Sshortly after Pete Sampras left the 2000 Wimbledon final as a 13-time Grand Slam champion, he was asked a simple question at his press conference: “Can you think of anyone breaking the record?” At the time, many people were asking the same question as Sampras gained a seemingly untouchable position in the game. Now that seems ridiculous. Exactly one year later, this man toppled him on Center Court.
So often in sports, the concept of a young upstart taking over from a veteran is more myth or narrative than reality, but in Roger Federer’s case, it was a defining moment in tennis history. He marked his arrival at the pinnacle of the sport by defeating Sampras, his idol, aged 19 in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001.
Two years later, Federer won his first Wimbledon title, ushering men’s tennis into a new era. The way he ruthlessly tore his way around the field, playing at a higher level than anyone before, is still unlike anything seen. Despite the best efforts of poor Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and many others, he had no rivals. In some ways it’s even more impressive – at one stage there was no other player to really push him, as was the case with most of the greats. He was just so nice. Between 2004 and 2007 alone, he won 11 Slams, piling up wins and titles at a staggering rate.
The spectacle alone made its majesty more special. Federer suffocated his opponents with his fluid, all-out aggression, consistently landing a forehand, one of the greatest ever, so early. He continued to rush to the net even as his competitors remained tied to the baseline. Federer’s arsenal of shots was endless and he moved like the wind on the court, yet he was so efficient. Throughout his career, especially as his athleticism gradually waned, he produced one of the greatest innings of all time. As long as the sport exists, there will be few spectacles as impressive as Federer completing a serve in 55 seconds, hitting every point with ease.
While the sheer aesthetic of Federer’s game is more meaningful to many than the sheer numbers, it has sometimes overshadowed his other qualities. He made his tennis look easy, but it wasn’t. He had the intelligence and discipline on the court to put those talents to good use. He combined his ability with enough resilience to survive the many times he played poorly. As he expanded his career considerably, the work required to maintain his excellence for so long became an important part of his story.
The period he spent trying to contain his younger rivals lasted longer than his time as king. Although the balance of power slowly shifted in favor of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Federer was still there until the very end.
Questions about Federer’s future arose before he turned 30, but over the next decade, along with the Williams sisters, his longevity redefined how people view the length of a tennis career.
And it gave its individual moments, such as his Championship for the 2017 Australian Open title in his first official tournament after a half-year layoff, and his 20th Grand Slam win as he defended championship in a year.
His success made Federer one of the most famous tennis players of all time – “RF” caps are still ubiquitous at all events – but he always had time to be nice. At press conferences, his duties seemed to last an eternity as he gracefully rattled off the same answers in English, French, German and Swiss-German. He was someone who was so much bigger than the whole sport and he knew it, but he treated the people around him with patience and kindness.
Of course, Federer was human. He had moments of testimony on the court, often when Juan Martin del Potro was on the other side. He wasn’t immune to scathing comments, especially after some tense matches with Djokovic. But his career has also been defined by his sportsmanship, professionalism and how well he has handled the ups and downs.
For most of Federer’s career, his longevity has been an advantage and his efficient style of play has allowed him to avoid the serious injuries that have plagued his opponent. But his major problems came straight into the final stretch and it left him with a tough finish. It now seems unlikely that he will have anything like the rapturous wires staged by Serena Williams, a month younger, who played at an extremely high level at the US Open in New York.
Federer was due to play in his favorite home tournament in Basel, which always seemed a fitting end, but he pulled out after a year of rehabilitation. It remains to be seen what form he will be in next week.
But perhaps this ending represents something equally significant. His love of the sport allowed him to push his career to the very end, squeezing as much out of it as possible before his 41st birthday. His success late in his career has given him countless opportunities to rise to the top, as Sampras did 20 years ago. But life was too good, he was having too much fun, and he left one of the greatest careers until he couldn’t do it anymore.