Roger Federer – the ball-boy from Basel leaves an undying flame

The free-flowing style, the one-handed backhand and forehands that married aesthetics and geometry, all found an ally in endurance, a trait that held him in good stead when nerve-wracking five-setters often shadowed him in the business end of the Slams

The free-flowing style, the one-handed backhand and forehands that married aesthetics and geometry, all found an ally in endurance, a trait that held him in good stead when nerve-wracking five-setters often shadowed him in the business end of the Slams

Time flies, careers end, memories linger and eyes turn moist.

Sport isn’t immune to this truism which got reiterated when Roger Federer bowed out of tennis with a final ballet in London, with his great rival Rafael Nadal staying in tandem as his doubles partner in the Laver Cup. It was also a moment that again revealed the universal love he commanded, an emotion that rippled across the globe for more than two decades, an undying flame that will continue as long as his fans live.

On same side of court: Federer and Nadal of Team Europe react during the doubles match between Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe of Team World.
| Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Awe-inspiring

After generations vanish and the reference points get restricted to old newspaper clippings, frayed posters nibbled by silverfish, YouTube videos and the cold gaze of statistics — he has done remarkably well with 20 Grand Slams — Federer will inspire awe like how Sir Don Bradman does in cricket even if none of us have seen him bat.

Right from the time he ambushed the previous Zen Master at Wimbledon — Pete Sampras — Federer had made it known that he would be part of tennis royalty. In the early years he would serve, charge, volley and slide in a drop shot while the bruised grass at Wimbledon sighed. As years went by baseline duels became the norm across surfaces and he held his own against Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

The free-flowing style, the one-handed backhand and forehands that married aesthetics and geometry, all found an ally in endurance, a trait that held him in good stead when nerve-wracking five-setters often shadowed him in the business end of the Slams.

Enduring allure

Head-to-head against Nadal and Djokovic, Federer may have emerged second-best but there is no mistaking his role as the torch-bearer whom the other two hoped to emulate. Numbers aren’t everything in sport. Viv Richards isn’t the highest run-getter in Tests and ODIs and yet the respect he commands is jaw-dropping.

The genius-sportsperson has an enduring allure burnished in a halo glowing bright in our collective nostalgia.

Federer did that and along with Serena Williams across the gender-divide, nursed tennis back to health even as European football and F1 were cultivating niche fandom. And for the finicky, obsessed with John McEnroe’s defeats at the French Open or Ivan Lendl’s meltdowns at Wimbledon, Federer arrived with a Teflon coating as he won at Roland-Garros too even if Wimbledon was the magic carpet upon which his dreams soared.

But Federer was much more than a tennis champion. This was an athlete, who loved his sunshine on court and off it wanted to be the regular guy you met at a coffee shop, who said a hi and gingerly shook hands. Once, his Swiss-mate Stan Wawrinka used an expletive to describe Federer.

It was a moment that summed up admiration and sheer helplessness while Federer offered his famous grin, an expression with its underlying notes of shyness, a baby’s gurgle and frothing hot chocolate.

Of a gentler time

Even if he operated during this era of million-dollar brand endorsements, Federer was a throwback to a gentle time of pause and poetry. The ball-boy from Basel, who dreamt big, scaled the stratosphere in his unassuming ways.

And at 41 when he quit the arena he adorned with such finesse, Nadal burst into tears. The love of fans and the respect of peers isn’t easily attained and Federer secured that with his blend of magic and humility. There will be none like him.

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