Roger Federer’s Other Legacy

Even though rivals ultimately broke his sporting records, the retiring athlete remains unmatched in fan devotion.

Roger Federer giving a thumbs-up
Justin Setterfield / Getty

Of all the achievements that Roger Federer has notched during his stellar tennis career, his 19 consecutive ATP Fans’ Favourite awards are particularly telling. The accolades are not remotely as consequential as his 20 Grand Slam titles (the third-most ever) or the 310 weeks he spent ranked No. 1 in the world (the second-most ever). The Fans’ Favourite award is essentially an annual popularity contest. Still, Federer’s routine collection of the prize in an era replete with likable players reflects the adulation that has trailed him throughout his career. Over the past few seasons, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic may have broken Federer’s most impressive records, weakening his “greatest of all time” bona fides. But Federer, who today announced that he will retire after this year’s Laver Cup, remains the most beloved men’s player in the history of the sport. That is his legacy.

Federer’s unprecedented popularity has never just been because of his results—although those are worthy of admiration. He won his first Grand Slam title in 2003, at Wimbledon, beginning one of the most dominating runs men’s tennis has ever seen. From 2004 through 2007, Federer appeared in 13 of 16 Grand Slam finals. He won 11 of those matches and went on to set the record for most consecutive weeks ranked No. 1. In 2009, he broke Pete Sampras’s mark for most Grand Slam singles titles by a male player, establishing a new standard for excellence in men’s tennis.

During the ensuing decade, Nadal and Djokovic each won more Grand Slam titles than Federer and spent more time ranked No. 1. But their ascension did not diminish Federer’s standing with tennis fans. On the contrary, their scrambly, effortful styles put Federer’s qualities into even sharper focus. He was the only player who glided about the court as if half-floating, and he seldom grunted when striking the ball. Only on the rarest of occasions did he betray any sense of struggle. A running joke for the majority of Federer’s career was that he didn’t sweat.

On a technical level, Federer reconciled the power of the modern game with the finesse of the wooden-racket era, creating an elegant style that was excitingly contemporary yet still felt like a loving homage to the sport’s past. He could carve delicate drop volleys at the net and blast supersonic forehands from the baseline. He was a master of the sport’s fundamentals with a preternatural improvisatory streak. In his best moments on court, Federer produced spontaneous shots—a forehand slice while moving backward, a shruglike backhand flick—that were so unexpected, they felt casual. The magic of his game was that these seeming stabs of whimsy found the exact trajectory required to land as winners.

That Federer’s aesthetically inventive style bolstered his reputation is clear from the reams of essays and books that laud him as the Platonic ideal of a genteel racket-sport champion. He has been eulogized as an artist, “a poetic inspiration with a racket,” and, most famously, a “religious experience.” Certain athletes transcend their fields of play to become symbols for other ideas. Muhammad Ali is inextricably intertwined with social activism, Michael Jordan with a win-at-all-costs mentality. Federer is the athlete continuously cited as evidence that sports performances can approximate artistic ones.

But if Federer is an artist, he has always been an accessible one whose otherworldly talent is matched only by his likability. His persona is as recombinant and pleasing as his playing style. He has evinced a pure love of the game that is redolent of an amateur and the business acumen of a consummate professional. His fondness for bespoke attire can give him the air of a country-club president, and he embraces sportsmanship. But there is also a goofy, dad-humor-loving side to his personality that has prevented him from coming across like a stodgy relic. That he embodies these qualities with a sense of effortless authenticity has only compounded his likeability.

Just as important, Federer talks openly about how much he has enjoyed being a professional tennis player and has never treated his celebrity status as a chore. The history of tennis is littered with temperamental champions who gave the impression that competition was a source of consternation. But the New York Times sportswriter Christopher Clarey once quoted Federer as saying, “I never fell out of love with the sport.” Tennis fans also never fell out of love with him.

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