Roger Federer’s legacy assured despite the fall from grace
No one does it better and with more panache than the Swiss master
Roger Federer confronts the press following his shock defeat at Wimbledon last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
Pondering your legacy is usually only for those too far up themselves to realise they are unlikely ever to have one anyway. As for getting into a sweat about someone else’s, the only saving grace against accusations of having already disappeared past the point of no-return is at least it isn’t a first-person lather. But even allowing for all that, and wholly irrational as it might be, here’s hoping Roger Federer’s declaration after his Wimbledon second-round defeat that he intends to play for years to come doesn’t happen.
As one of millions worldwide who for the last decade has thrilled to the great man’s virtuosity, that sounds a bit like arguing McCartney should have hung up the guitar after Abbey Road, or that Hemingway should have hung everything up after the war. We’d have missed out on some great stuff. But that doesn’t disguise how it’s still strictly down-slope stuff. And there doesn’t seem any doubt now that Federer is on a remorseless slide from the Alpine peaks that have made him a benchmark figure in the history of sport.
Fearing for the impact on Federer’s sporting legacy should he continue to incrementally slip towards also-ran status is a luxury that bears no relation to the individual’s need to get up in the morning with a purpose beyond the preservation of a fortune that makes ever working for a living again irrelevant.
There is also the not-insignificant factor that the Swiss kinda likes playing tennis. And there’s always statistical proof already in the book of an incomparably successful Grand Slam career, the true barometer of tennis greatness.
Style and substance
But even 17 Grand Slam titles don’t quite sum up what Federer has come to represent to sport in general and tennis in particular. In the sphere of sporting competition, no one has ever better amalgamated the principles of style and substance. With Federer, they really are two sides of the same coin. And the effect has been intoxicating.
Arguing about whether or not he’s the best ever to walk on court is futile since such things are immune to definitiveness anyway; and it’s doubly hard to argue in the face of head-to-head evidence that Rafa Nadal holds an undeniable edge over his great rival. But great a player as he is, the Spaniard holds no claims to any kind of aestheticism on court, embodying instead a bludgeoning, near-manic desire to win. It’s mesmerising in its own way, but no one is ever going to mistake it for beauty.
There have been times though in the past decade when Federer has effortlessly criss-crossed the bridge between performing and performance, all the while blending an incomparable array of natural gifts into a ruthlessly focused desire to win. If the substance is a pre-
requisite, the style has been a glorious bonus that only those chronically short of imagination can fail to warm to.
His movement on court has been routinely described as balletic by men who would usually presume a corps de ballet is a Foreign Legion regiment. And the overall impact has provoked a deeply visceral affection for an iconic figure that for good measure gives every indication of being a balanced, decent man, aware of a world beyond the next point.
Now, worrying about whether or not a dip below those exalted standards will tarnish how his career is remembered is obviously proof of having nothing much to really worry about at all. But Federer has come to personify sporting grace to so many people that the idea of him slipping in terms of performance is a genuinely sore one.
Is that based on anything bar sentiment? Of course not, but take sentiment out of sport and you’re left with little except movement. Is it a pressing problem? Of course it isn’t. We’re not talking here about some skint boxer taking way too many shots to the head. But trivial and irrelevant are not the same thing.
The vital question for any sports person approaching the end of their career is whether they have squeezed the most out of their talent. Federer can already answer that in the affirmative. When he eventually winds up, there will be none of the “if only” anguish that plagued Bjorn Borg’s retirement after he cried enough at 26. But everything we have seen so far this year suggests 2012’s Wimbledon triumph and return to world number one status was a wonderfully defiant but final rage against time’s remorseless tick.
In his pomp, even on his worst day, Federer would have found a way to beat the world No 116. The fact that pomp is gone is reflected in how the “shock-horror” headlines that greeted his defeat last week didn’t quite ring true.
During the match, the great man’s timing, normally a thing of beauty, looked dreadfully out. Routine shots that should have been put away were being swatted at with a depressing lack of conviction. There was a poignancy to it, one added to by the post-match defiance which was admirable in a way, yet sad in another.
Deciding when to pull the plug on your career is always a tough call for any sportsperson. Timing it right can often be a luxury. A lot of us are hoping Federer gets his timing right again.
And if he wins the US Open in a couple of months, there will be a massive, sheepish and hugely happy frog chorus on the sidelines wondering if time really can be turned back.