Roger Federer’s beautiful game | The New Yorker

From its beginnings on the close-cropped greens of Victorian England, tennis has been prized for its beauty, or at least its potential to display it. Among the English elite of the 1970s, when lawn tennis was catching on, there was a fascination with the culture of ancient Greece: its sculpture, its plays and poetry, its appreciation of (male) youth, its aestheticization of the human body in motion. Lawn tennis – originally introduced by its inventor, Major Walter Wingfield of His Majesty’s Bodyguard as ‘sphairistike’, ancient Greek for ‘skill at playing the ball’ – quickly supplanted croquet as a weekend game on estates and at private clubs such as the Wimbledon All England Croquet Club. You moved with tennis. There were moments of grace, even loveliness. With tennis, as Matthew Arnold explained in his High Victorian Manifesto on Hellenistic Gymnastics: “culture and anarchy‘ There was an opportunity, unlike anything with a croquet mallet in hand, to practice a sport ‘related to an ideal of perfect human perfection’.

Was there ever a player who approached a formal ideal of tennis, who pursued its possibilities for transcendent beauty with greater impact and results than Roger Federer? On Thursday, he announced he was retiring from the tour after a final event later this month. It wasn’t a shock; He’s forty-one years old, hasn’t played in fourteen months and hasn’t played much at all in 2020 or 2021 as he struggled with knee injuries that required surgery. “I’ve been working hard to be fully competitive again,” he said in one Video he posted on twitter. “But I also know the capacities and limitations of my body and his message to me has been clear lately.” He will play next week in London as a member of Team Europe at the Laver Cup, a men’s event he has been instrumental in creating was involved. He has long spoken of his admiration for Rod Laver, the great Australian player, and his respect for football’s history. A cultural critic like Arnold, who pushed for the study of the classics, might argue that Federer could never have achieved the beauty of his game without thoroughly understanding how it was played in the past.

After all, who knows where this beautiful game of his came from? He’s been trained well, but how many players in the top hundred aren’t? And how do you even teach excellence? Federer arrived at one on the tour moment of transition for the men’s game. With the help of advanced racquet and string technologies, players no longer tried to score as many points as possible on a serve or at net, but instead played out points at the baseline, hitting booming shots and fighting fast to defend. There were other players Federer’s age, like Argentina’s David Nalbandian, who played much the same style of game as he did, relying on a dynamic forehand, clean ball strikes and surprising off-chip breakouts of the net. Nalbandian was good; he beat Federer five times in a row in 2002 and 2003. But Federer already had the polished style on the pitch that much of the world would learn of in the summer of 2003 when he won Wimbledon, his first of twenty Grand Slam singles titles. Federer was an instantly indelible presence. It wasn’t just the win that became impressive in the four seasons that followed. It was so that he never seemed unprepared, crooked, or off-putting. He wasn’t just “too good,” as a tennis player mutters to his opponent after seeing an impossible-to-conjure victor zoom past him. Like Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordanhe was incredibly handsome.

His serve was delivered from a platform stance reminiscent of that of his teenage idol, Pete Sampras. It wasn’t as big a serve as Sampras’s, but it was big enough and consistently well sighted. And somehow it was less lanky; His trophy pose was pure geometry, statuesque. His basic strokes: how calm they looked, how smooth. Whenever they were on target, after hitting the ball, his gaze would remain fixed on the racquet’s contact point for a shot. He almost stood still for a moment.

It was, to use George Harrison’s expression, something in the way he moved. Even when stepping onto the baseline – key to his attacking game – or ducking into the corner to retrieve a ball, he exuded an enticing composure. In his prime he refused to appear forced. White outfits became the dress code at Wimbledon in the 1880s because of the belief that white was the best at covering up sweat. But it wasn’t always a sweat with Federer, especially at Wimbledon, his favorite place to play. For others there, on the turf, a change of direction might be a slippery proposition. But not for him, not in his prime. It was like he learned his net frenzy and crossover step from Gene Kelly.

Looking back, Federer’s rain-delayed five-set loss at Wimbledon to Rafael Nadal in 2008 was the beginning of the end of his undisputed dominance. The beauty of his backhand was no match for the strong topspin from Nadal’s forehand that day and numerous other days. Federer’s best shot, his most accurately timed and gracefully hit, was perhaps his reversed forehand against a right-hander’s backhand. It was a shot that Novak Djokovic learned to use his backhand to deflect the line to deadly effect on the stretch. I was at Wimbledon in 2019 when Djokovic defeated Federer in a five-set final that lasted nearly five hours. It was Federer’s last major performance and was one of his heaviest defeats. He had two match points on his serve and the crowd behind him but couldn’t make it. He hit more aces, hit more winners and gained a higher total score than Djokovic, but that wasn’t enough. Tennis, beautiful as it is, can be cruel.

What I particularly enjoyed watching Federer in person in his later years was seeing him train. A sun-soaked afternoon in Indian Wells in 2014: Federer is said to be training on an outfield rather than a practice pitch to better cope with the hundreds of fans who gather to catch a glimpse of him. He arrives to applause in a gray T-shirt and black shorts and wields the new larger-headed racquet he’s recently switched to – a racquet he hopes is forgiving, especially on the backhand. He’s mostly backhand practice this afternoon, and since I’m sitting right behind him – seven, eight rows up, on the stairs – he hits maybe four dozen backhands before pausing for a sip of water and then hitting some more. There were no points or games, no winning and losing, just his focus and our focus on him, and that rolling, arm-width, Baryshnikov-in-second-position finish that’s a perfectly hit one-handed drive backhand. It was Roger Federer and it was beautiful. ♦

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