By Swiss standards, the excitement was high.
That was not always so. In the year 2005Federer has won eleven tournaments on the ATP Tour, including the US Open and Wimbledon. His game record was 81-4. He played more successfully than almost any other player before him. He was at the peak of dominance. But when the Swiss population voted on the national broadcaster’s annual award for athlete of the year at the end of the year, Federer took second place. He was beaten by a motorcycle racer who, despite not having done exceptionally well that year, seemed a little more likable.
The tennis champion took a while to recover from the sting. But while his home country denied him the recognition he rightly deserved, he began to get it elsewhere. Shortly after the disappointing Swiss award ceremony, Federer was voted world athlete of the year the first of five timesand when David Foster Wallace had made him a literary character in a Article from the 2006 New York Times magazine, was clear to everyone in Switzerland: Roger Federer is a global presence, a world star, an icon. And hey – he’s one of us!
The reluctance with which we Swiss embraced our greatest athlete has a lot to do with Swiss nature. For a long time, the world viewed us only through clichés: chocolate, Nazi gold, cuckoo clocks (which have nothing to do with Switzerland). In films and books, Swiss characters appear as sinister bankers – uptight, greedy and basically evil.
But in our own imagination, we are not just different from other nationalities – we are special. We even have a word for it: “Sonderfall”, a kind of alpine special case. We are a nation of hard working ordinary people, always polite and in control. Not too intrusive, not too loud, not too pretentious. We function in an egalitarian and democratic manner. We’ve never had a king, and we don’t tolerate grandiosity.
Anyone who achieves something extraordinary in this system is critically questioned. That’s why the motorcycle racer was voted Sportswoman of the Year. The message to Federer wasn’t very subtle: don’t get big ideas.
Federer just kept doing what he had done before. He dominated the tennis world. And he did it like a good Swiss: politely. Severin Lüthi, Federer’s longtime coach, told my newspaper that on the day Federer announced his retirement, he called Lüthi three times to ask how he was doing. “I think many will remember him as a nice person,” said Lüthi. “That’s more important than a title more or less.”
The longer Federer’s career lasted, the more the Swiss became aware that he was finally reconciling our worldview with our self-image. Suddenly we were no longer just greedy dwarves from Zurich Bahnhofstr; we were Federer’s countrymen. On the world stage of tennis, people waved Swiss flags who could not have found our country on any map. Roger Federer shone and we shone with him.
We forgave him a lot for that: His second home in Dubai. His deliberately evasive way of commenting on anything unrelated to tennis (ah, neutrality, another cliché). Or his excessive advertising activities (also for watches and chocolate. Of course).
For this, we Swiss got a place in the front row of sports history. It was our Roger, who played arguably the best tennis match of all time against Rafael Nadal 2008 (and sadly lost); it was our Roger, who produced one of the biggest comebacks at the nine years later Australian Open; it was our Roger, who took an entire sport to a new level.
Now he’s giving up and leaving us as we were before. In the days following his departure, a newspaper ran a rather fitting cartoon. It showed two Swiss people watching a giant in tennis gear as he stalked away. “And we’re little again,” read the caption.
Yes we are. But it was great while it lasted. And for that we will forever be grateful to Roger Federer.