He will never he leave us, he vowed in his emotive letter voiced on social media. On the eve of this year's Laver Cup, Elena Tsourdi remembers her ever-young Peter Pan, and how she has seen the last 12 months of tennis through the lens of the departed Swiss legend.
The evening of Friday 23 September 2022 — when Roger Federer stepped onto the court of the cinematically-staged O2 Arena, in perfectly synchronized step with his archrival Rafael Nadal — felt like an out-of-body experience.
This in itself is a great oxymoron, since I usually dismiss such notions and take great pride in my scientific ways. However, seeing Rafa and Roger marching in matching shirts, shorts, and bandanas, in a tennis equivalent of an intricate pas-de-deux between Fire and Ice, it heralded the end of an era and hit me hard.
Ever the optimist, I had refused to accept that the writing was on the wall, even after having experienced the excruciating pain of Federer’s last set on his beloved Center Court at Wimbledon in 2021, ending in a bagel against the amiable Pole Hubert Hurkacz. Retrospectively, even Roger himself admitted that after losing to Felix Auger-Aliassime in the build-up event in Halle in 2021 he knew "his knee was gone" but I would have none of it.
Such was my stern belief in his immortality, that at the celebration of '100 Years Center Court' at Wimbledon in 2022, when John McEnroe roared "His name is Roger Federer" and Roger stepped out on the court in an apotheosis by the crowd, I registered the fact that he was wearing sneakers to match his well-tailored Saville Row suit as a clear sign that he was mounting a comeback (talk about delusion!).
So, what is it about Roger Federer that thrilled audiences worldwide in a career that spanned over two decades and elevated him to a godlike figure. A shaman who fans never tired of watching and whose seemingly effortless playing style many rivals tried to emulate? During the past year, I had the opportunity to read two excellent books which provide ample insight to these questions and which I whole-heartedly recommend, namely 'The Master' by Christopher Clarey and 'The Roger Federer Effect' by Simon Cambers and Simon Graf.
However, given my love for similes, maybe my favourite description of Roger's tennis persona derives from a quote originally coined for Suzanne Lenglen, the iconic French tennis player of the early part of the 20th century.
Referred to by the French press as La Divine (The Goddess), Lenglen is recognised as the first female athlete to become a global sporting celebrity and her popularity led Wimbledon to move to its current venue at SW19. Given the obvious analogies, indulge me as I paraphrase Lenglen’s quote to read: "Others played tennis. Roger Federer performed tennis, he danced and celebrated tennis, he laughed and sang tennis. And sometimes suffered tennis as well. Singular virtuosity and spell!"
While I was gathering my thoughts in preparation for this piece, I remembered how Roger's voice announcement of his retirement "To my tennis family and beyond…" utterly broke my heart and also that I could hardly stop crying during the Laver Cup weekend of 23-25 September 2022 (Christopher Clarey put it to him that "he drowned the world" during that weekend and Roger cheekily retorted "We will recharge on those tears").
In this vein, and instead of drafting up a wake, I reckoned it would be much more befitting to highlight tennis moments of the past year where I could see Roger's passion for tennis shining through. Where did I encounter elements of Roger’s brilliance during this past year? Anyone who knows me, is well aware of the fact that my adoration for tennis is well-founded on Roger Federer and Sir Andrew Baron Murray, with an honourable mention to Rafael Nadal. Indeed, at the beginning his rivalry with Nadal, I could not warm to the capri-clad, gritty, upstart youth from Manacor, who defied Roger on my beloved clay (18 of 22 sets played on the terre battue of Roland Garros going the way of the Spaniard was a number very hard to swallow). That being said, in later years I came to truly appreciate Rafa Nadal; his grit, fighting spirit, continuous will to evolve his game combined with a deep humility and humanity resonated with me, and his win over Daniil Medvedev in the 2022 Australian Open Final (coined by commentator Mark Petchey as ‘The Miracle of Melbourne’) will go down as one of the great sporting achievements.
The rage against the dying of the light
Roger's rivalry with the obstinate and tenacious Murray was a completely different kettle of fish. Their evenly matched Head to Head of 14-11 in Roger's favour sets the scene for the torture I subjected myself to every time they faced off with the pinnacles being without a doubt both staged at Wimbledon in 2012. In a way, I found that Andy encompassed complimentary attributes to Roger’s game. While Federer was always quick out of the blocks, with his ultra-aggressive game, pin-point serve, extremely efficient forehand and exquisite shot-making, Murray's strategy to winning a tennis match was more methodical, involving careful point construction, rallies which were designed with meticulous care and very often led to painstaking frustration when he wasn’t able to complete the point to his liking. That being said, I always thought that a common ground between them was their supreme fighting spirit and unwillingness to let go, which became even more prominent in the latter stages of their respective careers. This is what I like to call 'The rage against the dying of the light,' borrowing the term from the beautiful piece by the prolific and troubled Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
There were ample showings of such gritty tenacity by Andy during the past year. The first glimpse of it was when he edged out the exciting left-hander Jack Draper in a thrilling final set tie-break in the exhibition event 'Battle of the Brits' in December 2022 in Aberdeen.
Then, only weeks later, after four hours 49 minutes on-court and one match point saved, not to mention the notion of squandering a two-set lead, Murray held on to take the match in a deciding set tie-break.
If that wasn't enough to test the Duracell batteries, an even greater test was to come just 48 hours later.
In the longest match of Andy’s career, a near-six-hour Australian Open epic against Thanasi Kokkinakis finished at 4am in Melbourne. But that barely told the story. On the verge of elimination, Murray miraculously recovered from a two-set deficit against Kokkinakis in his second straight five-set match while playing with a metal hip. The point of the match, which instantly became viral on social media, came after the Australian lost his cool after receiving a time violation warning with a 2-0 lead in the third set. Murray forced a break point and then executed a classic steal by retrieving Kokkinakis's four overheads and tossing up four defensive lobs before finally forcing an error to break back, with Murray cupping his ear to the adulation of the crowd. Defying growing fatigue, Murray went on to complete one of the greatest comebacks of his career.
Exhibit C of the Scot's ‘die-hard’ mentality came just a few days ago, at the qualification stage of the Davis Cup Finals in Manchester. Originally surmising that he would be facing one of the lefty Swiss youngsters Dominic Stricker or Marc-Andrea Hüsler, Andy had been practicing against left-handed opponents, only to be landed the ultra-aggressive, winner-seeking, bold returner Leandro Riedi. In a marathon three-setter lasting over three hours, it was the Scot’s prowess at the net and exquisite ball placement, as well as his experience to not be intimidated by Riedi's incredible ball-striking which saw him hit 52 winners, that saw him seal the highly emotional win, further adding to his excellent performances at the Davis Cup.
Another personality trait which I have always linked to Roger is his playfulness or even cheekiness. I have always found it fascinating how someone with such intense competitiveness and relentless fervor on the court could be so laid-back and easy-going in his daily life, pulling pranks on team members and friends, not taking himself too seriously. In his youth, which coincided with mine, he was a Peter Pan figure. This exuberance of youth has been an attribute which I always find endearing when discovering young players, and which in the past year has been perfectly portrayed in the Grand Slam runs of Carlos Alcaraz and Coco Gauff. Although both were certainly no discoveries of 2022, they respectively had stellar seasons culminating in the Wimbledon title for the 20-year old Spaniard and the US-Open title for the 19-year old American.
Exuberance of youth
Alcaraz’s first Grand Slam title in New York in 2022 came only 18 months after he had made his tour debut, and it led him to becoming the youngest ever men’s world No 1. In a doffing of the cap to Federer, Alcaraz's playing style is characterized by an aggressive baseline game, and he has quickly become known for his athleticism, his daring and his inventive shot-making. Of note, although the Spanish press has been eager to portray him as the successor to Rafa's throne, Alcaraz himself is very wary of such comparisons, stating that he strives to incorporate elements of the Big 3 in his game, something also acknowledged by Novak Djokovic, the third of the aforementioned musketeers.
This summer at SW19 the young Spaniard was standing on the verge of a victory that would truly announce him as the next great player in tennis. Djokovic had won 34 consecutive matches at Wimbledon, having not lost there since 2017, and even more notably on Centre Court since 2013. The maturity and sangfroid with which Alcaraz tackled the final at SW19, especially given what had transpired in their previous encounter at Roland Garros a few weeks back — where the Spaniard, struggling with the occasion, eventually became overwhelmed with cramps — was a sight to behold. After dropping the first set, he saved a set point in the second set before taking the initiative in the third. The seven-time Wimbledon champion fought back in the fourth set to level the match, but ultimately in the fifth set, where both players were simultaneously at their best, it was the young Spaniard who prevailed in a Federer-esque last game featuring a silky drop shot, an exquisite topspin lob, a blasting serve and one last ripping forehand. In doing so he deprived the Serb of his dream of matching Federer's record of eight singles titles at Wimbledon, as well as brining an end to the chance of completing the Calendar Grand Slam. The result also sparked feverish speculation with regards to a seismic shift on men's tennis and a passing of the torch, although in my eyes, it added to Djokovic's longevity and fueled his desire to break all records even more as can been attested by the glee in his eyes every time Alcaraz’s name is mentioned.
Coco Gauff had been a wunderkind of tennis since 2019, when at the age of 15, she became the youngest player in SW19 history to qualify for the main draw. Her dream summer of 2019 included a win over former world No. 1 and seven-time major singles champion Venus Williams in the opening round of Wimbledon, later progressing to reach the fourth round. Being also a very accomplished doubles player with partner Jessica Pegula and reaching the US Open Final alongside her fellow American Caty McNally in 2021 as well as both the singles and doubles year-end championships in 2022, she had been climbing up the rankings, making incremental progress. However, being a Wunderkind comes with high expectations, and not unlike the young Roger, Coco experienced unfair criticism of stagnation or even regression in her game. Thus, it was with great joy that I followed her extraordinary journey during the 2023 North American swing. If the win over Maria Sakkari in the final in Washington went fairly unnoticed, the same could not be maintained for her run in Cincinnati, beating her kryptonite, the talented and extremely successful Iga Swiatek, on the way. But beyond any doubt the greatest achievement of all has been beating Aryna Sabalenka, the newly crowned world No. 1, in this year’s US Open Final. In a final that might have not been of the highest quality, but certainly was of the highest drama, Coco Gauff displayed incredible athleticism (she could have been an Olympic Champion in track and field in my opinion) and defensive skills, retrieved winner after winner from her Belarusian opponent, catapulted at her and wrestled the title away in a gripping three-setter. Numerous congratulatory messages followed, including from Barack Obama, but to my eyes, Roger’s heart-warming note was the highest praise of all.
So, what did I learn one year after Roger Federer’s retirement, you may ask? There is a part of me, who would summarize it with 'Nothing compares 2U' sang in the simultaneously fierce and fragile voice of the prematurely deceased brilliant Sinead O’Connor. But there is another part who is confident that Roger's legacy lives on, not least through the rage against the dying of the light and the exuberance of youth. And I am quite certain that Roger "Tennis, I love you, and I will never leave you" Federer watches on with nodding approval.