Roger Federer is human, and he always has been, and he always will be.
He demonstrated that with a lopsided loss that saw him bageled in the last set by Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz, 6-3, 7-6(4), and of course the deflated 6-0. “He needs to go” some have said. Is that how we treat the greatest player the game has ever seen?
For over two decades we’ve gotten used to Federer’s sublime gifts as an athlete, person, and inspiration to his peers. Is it any wonder that we demand perfection every time? And is not a wonder that the Swiss legend wants to leave the game on his own terms?
For decades, Roger Federer has been tennis.
And his court has remained the All England Club at Wimbledon, where he has reigned supreme for so long. He has held sway over an emotionally connected audience who fought alongside him, point by point. And it wasn’t just the eight title wins that inspired the crowd, but the heartbreaking losses that endeared him as well. When he watched Rafael Nadal hoist the Men’s Trophy against a dark backdrop only lit by photographer flashbulbs in 2008, we felt every ounce of pain that the 39-year-old Federer internalized. We also knew that we had witnessed the greatest match ever fought, so much so that a book and documentary were done about it. More so, the gut-wrenching loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2019 final was perhaps even more painful, after holding two match points.
In these defeats, Federer handled himself with grace and humility. The same as he’s always done throughout his career, no matter what the outcome. For young fans of the sport, they have witnessed his spectacular display of variety after his last comeback in 2017. For an older generation, Roger Federer has been a bridge to the last generation where he defeated previous legends Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. And to historians, Fed is simply a portal to all the generations before, such as Ken Rosewall and the other GOAT, Rod Laver, to whom Federer graciously pays homage to every year with the Laver Cup.
And through it all, not only has he inspired countless generations to be better players, but to be better people as well. His penchant for decency and ethical contribution to the betterment of sport is why he is—and will remain—such a beloved figure in our social lexicon.
For so long, for decades, we’ve become accustomed to his elegant presence on the Tour, where he’s produced every shot—and added quite a few of his own—delivered from impossible angles all over the court, effortlessly, and with astounding movement. There is simply no one who moves with the kind of breathtaking aplomb that personifies Roger Federer. We will never see his like again. We’ve simply gotten used to him taking our breath away. Is it any wonder that we demand artistic perfection to last forever?
Of course, there is a great cost to showing us such excellence. We’ve been dazzled for so long, we’ve lost all perspective on the process. I, for one, have been fascinated to witness the struggle to bounce back after devastating loss. Fed’s ability to reinvent himself—like when he opted to adapt his game to a larger racquet and hone his weaker backhand—has been an elixir to the sport. We simply think he can do it again, and again, and again.
Any why not? The 20-time slam champion has defied expectations of his demise for the better part of a decade. Calls for his retirement have been issued since 2011, demanded by our quest for perfection. What’s wrong with continuing to play the game that he loves dearly, a game which loves him right back?
Ask Martina Navratilova, who, at the age of 37, surged through her last Wimbledon singles run, an inspiring opportunity to fight one last time in a final that almost gave her a 10th singles title there, before succumbing to a three sets loss from Conchita Martinez in 1994. Or Jimmy Connors egging on the 1991 U.S. Open crowds for one last thrilling semifinal at age 39. Or Sampras achieving one last slam at Flushing Meadows—after his downturn—to achieve greatness before retirement. Each of those efforts came with their fare share of doubt along the way, doubt that is easily forgotten in the light of those herculean feats.
Fed’s been a staple on the tour for decades. He’s the only tennis player to top the Forbes Highest Paid Athlete list. During his tenure, the sport of tennis has grown in tandem along with his own popularity. Prize money has ballooned simply because more people want to see him play. Sure, there are other factors, but there’s no denying the Federer principal, where his name has made the sport of tennis exponentially greater.
I’ve sat in a press room with him late at night, where I’ve watched him stay for hours, giving interviews—and his endless time—in several languages, and long after most of us had left the press room. His capacity to give to the sport of tennis is boundless.
And let’s not forget that Roger Federer is still in the Top 10 and ousted players much younger than him during the clay season and Wimbledon. This after two knee surgeries and a difficult recovery during the pandemic.
If he wants to take the time to determine his own fate, he has earned all the time in the world. As a top 10 player, if he wants to take his chances at slams, he has earned that right as well.
We, as fans, need to give him the space to come to grips with that decision. He would do the same for us.