Sports writers will miss Roger Federer as much as his fans

RAND FEDERER He wasn’t the greatest male tennis player ever. Cold, harsh statistics betray this fact. Rafael Nadal has won more Grand Slam titles, as have Novak Djokovic, and Mr. Federer is off to a good start, winning six of 20 titles between 2003 and 2005, a weaker period in men’s tennis. (Mr. Nadal only joined the pro track in 2003 with Mr. Djokovic in 2001.) All three earned a similar percentage of points overall. Both Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Nadal have a better track record of taking their chances and transforming their breaking points. Mr. Djokovic beat Mr. Federer in 54% of their matches; Mr. Nadal won 60% of the time.

But Mr. Federer, who played his last games professionally this weekend, will be remembered as the greatest tennis player of all time. And greatness, which deals with more abstract questions like character and style, serves better with literature. The Swiss maestro was a subject of admiration for writers as well as among millions of his admirers. Countless columns and books have explored what makes Mr. Federer an almost godlike figure. In 2006, when Mr. Federer was just 25 years old, American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace famously compared watching him use a racket with a “religious experience”.

The style of tennis Mr. Federer played was undeniably elegant, whether he won or lost. Where Mr. Djokovic’s play stands out for its consistency and Mr. Nadal’s for strength, then the hallmark of Mr. Federer’s tennis is its elegance. His movement on the field seemed effortless; usually ballistic. He placed his shots in the tightest spaces and produced aces at will. His one-handed backhand was a good thing in an age of increased power. He transformed the “Tweener” (hitting the legs while retreating) from a trick to a weapon. Sometimes he had a sense of humor. He sent his opponents out frequently, knowing they would then struggle on the field to close the empty space but then place the ball in the same spot they had just vacated.

Capturing this brilliance posed an exciting challenge for sportswriters, forcing them to come up with exaggerated analogies or a dictionary. In a book about his years-long obsession with the tennis player, William Skidelsky remembers watching a match in 2006 and finding Mr. Federer’s skill “supernatural, enormous, with a majesty I’ve never seen on a tennis court.” In a recent book, Geoff Dyer thought that the actor often seemed to be “moving in a different, more convenient dimension of time.” Foster Wallace admitted that he didn’t really capture the experience of “witnessing firsthand the beauty and genius of a person.” [Mr Federer’s] the game. You have to approach aesthetic things indirectly, talk about it, or try to define it in terms of what it is not – as Aquinas did with his own indescribable subject.

The focus on Mr. Federer’s play on the field has been sharpened because it gives the writers little to discuss. As Christopher Clarey puts it in “The Master,” Mr. Federer’s career has been one of “controversial little and glimpses into his personal life, long-standing benevolence and Corinthian spirit.” As a teenager he struggled with his temper, but as an adult he became a cold-blooded and honorable opponent; He did not scold his coaches between points and rarely shouted in frustration. (But occasional “jawohl”—“yes”—celebrations were not uncommon.) Nor did he use sport as “a platform for higher or sharper ends,” as Mr. Clarey put it. The perfect Swiss almost always wore a neutral expression.

For many writers, Mr. Federer’s unusually long career has had the ecstatic highs, unexpected lows, and misfortunes necessary for any great story. Mr. Federer rose to the top of tennis in his early 20s and remained there for over a decade, setbacks and injuries that left many wondering if he would ever return. When he triumphed over his old foe, Mr Nadal, at the Australian Open in 2017, he was touted as one of the sport’s greatest comebacks. The knowledge that Mr. Federer was not invincible, that he would one day stop playing, as Mr. Dyer suggested, gave more meaning to the show: “Our ability to appreciate what we saw – what we had previously accepted as natural – was itself greatly improved.”

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