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Tennis was not something Roger Federer intended to pursue indefinitely. The sand was sinking quickly to the bottom of the at age 41, having suffered an accident after injury in recent years. Even legendary winners eventually leave the sport.
But like Serena Williams, Roger Federer had changed a tennis player’s typical career trajectory. They kept winning awards and breaking records in their fourth decades, solidifying their renown. Amazingly, they both were still alive in their sixth decades.
While their longevity allowed us to appreciate their abilities and cherish each tournament and passing year, it also lulled us into a false feeling of security, into thinking they would always be there, even as injuries led to significant absences in later years. They were going to return. They regularly returned.
In 2003, before the United States and the United Kingdom started a war in Iraq, Federer won his first 20 grand slams. At the time, many were thrilled about the newest Nokia phone. Federer was a recurring figure in our sporting lives thanks to a professional career that lasted 24 years. While we were all slowly and quietly aging, there was Roger Federer playing, winning, and defying time, fooling us into thinking that neither the world nor ourselves had altered all that much.
But on Thursday, two weeks after Williams competed in what is anticipated to be her final professional match, we were forced to admit a new era had begun.
The Swiss player hadn’t competed since Wimbledon last summer, when he underwent a third knee operation, forcing one of the most spectacular tennis careers to end prematurely.
Federer was the first man to win 20 grand slams. Nevertheless, no other man has played as many (429) or won as many grand slam matches as his eight Wimbledon titles (369). He departs the sport with 103 titles, second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open Era, and more than $130 million in prize money.
Roger Federer ushered in a new era of tennis
Federer revolutionized what it meant to be a tennis genius in the men’s game during a five-year span in the early part of the century when he won 12 of the 18 grand slams.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two excellent athletes who later rose to prominence to define the previous 15 years of the sport’s Golden Age, broke many of the outstanding marks he set.
Djokovic has outlasted Federer’s record of 310 weeks as the top player. Djokovic currently holds 21 major titles, while Nadal has 22.
All of Federer’s records will probably be surpassed at some point, but statistics only capture a small portion of his brilliance. A Google search of his statistics cannot explain his grandeur and popularity. This man has received the annual ATP Awards’ fan favorite prize for 19 years running.
Roger Federer is praised not simply because he won but also for how he played and won. No one has ever graced a court like him. Will we ever see another person like him? Maybe, but it would be a player.
Federer’s forehand has been called a “huge liquid whip” by novelist David Foster Wallace in his 2006 New York Times essay “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.”
When the piece was written, Federer was still a young man, but at 25, he was already being hailed as the best player in history, not only by Wallace.
Nobody believed Pete Sampras’ record of 14 grand slam victories would be surpassed six years before Wallace’s piece was published. But then along came Federer, who Nadal and Djokovic later joined to form the “Big Three.”
Of course, some may say that Djokovic is a superior all-around player or that Nadal has proven to be the greatest of all time.
Even while the scales of power may have moved, neither Nadal nor Djokovic is as attractive as the Swiss.