Roger Federer didn’t always play perfect tennis – but he made it look perfect

Already at the French Open 2009, Roger Federer was considered by many observers to be the greatest tennis player of all time. With 13 Grand Slam titles already and many good years, it seemed a formality that he would win two more and overtake his idol Pete Sampras.

However, it was very questionable whether Federer could win in Paris.

However, when Federer woke up on June 1 of this year, things had changed significantly. Rafael Nadal, the rival he failed to beat at Roland Garros, had suffered a stunning defeat to Robin Soderling in the fourth round. Federer was suddenly staring at the biggest chance he would ever have to finish the career grand slam.

Federer is retiring: The 20-time Grand Slam champion makes it official

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But exactly two hours into his fourth-round match against Tommy Haas, it looked like a missed opportunity. Two sets down and serving 3-4, 30-40, Federer was a point away from being broken and likely to be finished in the next few minutes.

When Federer kicked wide on his second serve, he immediately moved to the backhand corner, expecting Haas’ return to come across the court. But instead of playing for a safe target or rallying Haas, a retreating Federer leapt off the red dirt and lashed an inside-out forehand – the most dangerous shot he could have chosen at the moment – to the opposite touchline, where Haas had left only a sliver of an opening. It hit the line with the smallest margin. He won the game, the match and the tournament – a scene of joy and relief that only Federer could have written.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer

It’s impossible to know how much depended on that shot, how many demons Federer would have fought if he hadn’t made it. But his very existence and the daring spirit from which he was born explains what it was like to watch Federer on a tennis court for two decades.

Whether you think of Federer as the greatest of all time or not, there has never been a player who evoked a sense of history with every swing of his racquet whose play was so beautiful it would have painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and his mentality was so bold that the difference between brilliance and crushing defeat was often not more than an inch.

Federer announced on Thursday that he is retiring from professional tennis after next week’s Laver Cup, a glorified exhibition that will likely put him squarely with Nadal one last time. It will also allow fans to give Federer the proper send-off, which he didn’t get at Wimbledon a year ago when he lost his last competitive set 6-0 to Hubert Hurkacz and then underwent a third knee surgery within 18 months.

Since then, there has been no expectation that Federer could return at the age of 41 and play at a level commensurate with his size. Even if everything had gone perfectly in his recovery, playing in 2023 would be little more than a farewell tour. Still, it feels wrong that Federer, perhaps the most universally popular athlete of modern times, isn’t even getting that much.

But tennis doesn’t lend itself to fairytale endings, save for a relegated Sampras, who worked magic one last time at the 2002 US Open and never set foot on the court again.

More often, the greats of all time endure a degree of outrage in their final act. Bjorn Borg lost back-to-back Grand Slam finals to John McEnroe in 1981 and decided he had lost his passion. Andre Agassi poured everything out at 36 to upset Marcos Baghdatis in his last US Open and had nothing left in the tank for the next round against the unknown Benjamin Becker. Steffi Graf was unable to finish a match against Amy Frazier in San Diego due to a hamstring injury and announced her retirement a week later.

And just as we were watching the US Open, Serena Williams turned back the clock far enough to reach the third round, but eventually left feeling like she had let the win over Ajla Tomljanovic slip away.

It feels like a shock to everything we’ve come to expect from tennis to see Williams and Federer walking away together. Though Williams had already won six Grand Slam titles when Federer won his first in 2003, they topped their respective tours simultaneously for two decades, even at times when they didn’t win everything in sight. It’s not often that one sees great athletes of all time traverse the entire path from teenage through dominance to parenthood and inevitable sporting death, but they made aging seem far more ambitious than any that had come before them.

There was certainly a lot of hand-wringing in the coming weeks about what it means for the sport of tennis that these global superstars who have lured millions to stadiums around the world are leaving the scene. The reality is that Federer and Williams, along with Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have been around longer than anyone could reasonably have expected. There may be a period of transition and it may be generations before someone can match their achievements, but the sport doesn’t stop.

Roger Federer claps for the fans who greeted him after the Western & Southern Open match on August 13, 2019.

Roger Federer claps for the fans cheering him on after the Western & Southern Open match on August 13, 2019.

As we saw at the US Open 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz wins the title after epic battles with Jannik Sinner and Frances Tiafoe Along with Iga Swiatek asserting her dominance on the women’s side, there are plenty of exciting young stars ready to take the baton.

Whether it’s them or someone else coming in the future, we’ll see players pushing the boundaries of the game just like Federer and Williams. This is how tennis works, a constant evolution of technology, athleticism and strength that demands more and more players looking to win at the highest level.

What will be more difficult to recreate for the next generation is the feeling Williams and Federer created when they were on the pitch. They didn’t play matches so much as they were main characters in a human drama where their vulnerability was as much part of the story as their unique talent.

There is an alternate world where Federer finishes the career grand slam in 2009, overtakes Sampras at Wimbledon for the all-time slam record and retires shortly thereafter. It would have been arguably the most dominant run in men’s tennis history, winning 90 percent of his matches over a six-year period while accomplishing virtually everything he could in the game.

But Federer wasn’t afraid to fail or see his dominance wane. It only challenged him to keep evolving and getting better, though the next seven years of his career were marked by some painful defeats to his rivals, games he failed to finish and missed opportunities to add more majors.

Back then, Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon title seemed like one last hurray. In 2015 he lost close matches to Djokovic in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open and it seemed unlikely that he would ever hold another major trophy. Then, in 2016, he closed it after Wimbledon to deal with a back injury.

The odds seemed great that he could come back and be a factor at the age of 36. Instead, not only did he come back, he won three more Grand Slams, returned at No. 1 in 2018 and beat Nadal in five of his last six matches. And he did it because even after all the victories and successes, Federer kept refining his game, kept making adjustments to his backhand and kept working on solutions against players who gave him seizures.

Every part of this journey made Federer magnetic; not just the ease with which he won, but the devastation of so many losses – perhaps no more so than the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic, when he saved two match points in the fifth set, missed an ace by an inch and then failed to make the win title.

Those moments could very well earn him the nickname of the greatest of all time. But even someone who knows nothing about tennis could watch Federer and see the artistry and genius at play.

When Federer showed up, the men’s game was struggling. It was about big serves and quick points, a paint-by-numbers game that had lost too much creativity and skill.

Federer turned that on its head. He didn’t have the fastest serve, but he did have the deadliest. He gambled away more balls than any other top player, squandered countless break points and often got himself into situations where he had to dig his way out of trouble. What he had was a variety of shots like no other, a backhand slice that he turned into a weapon, and a willingness to come forward for volleys that was unusual for his time. And when Federer got a forehand to hit, he really hit it – a signature shot that kept his eyes on the point of contact that everyone who’s picked up a racquet for the last 20 years has tried to recreate.

Federer didn’t always play perfect tennis, but it always looked like perfection. And in the moments when he needed to be great – like at the 2009 French Open – he so often found the right balance between brutality and grace.

Federer will not only be missed by tennis but by all who remember what he was like at his best. Whether the numbers say he was the greatest player of all time is irrelevant. For nearly 20 years, no one has written moments that made their fans feel something they’ve never felt before.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Roger Federer retired after making tennis look perfect in his career

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