From its earliest days on the razed greens of Victorian England, tennis was prized for its beauty, or at least its potential to show it off. Among the English elite of the 1870s, when lawn tennis became widespread, there was a fascination with the culture of ancient Greece: its sculpture, plays and poems, its valorization of (male) youth , his aestheticization of the human body in motion . Lawn tennis – originally introduced, by its inventor, Major Walter Wingfield of Her Majesty’s Bodyguard, as “sphhairistike”, ancient Greek for “ball-playing skill” – quickly supplanted croquet as weekend play on the estates and in private clubs such as Wimbledon. All England Croquet Club. With tennis, you moved. There were moments of grace, even of beauty. With tennis, as Matthew Arnold said of Hellenistic gymnastics in his High Victorian manifesto, “Culture and Anarchy”, there was, as there was not a croquet mallet in hand, the possibility of practicing a sport with a “reference to some ideal”. of perfect human perfection.
Has there ever been a player who approached a formal tennis ideal, who pursued his possibility of transcendent beauty with greater effect and results, than Roger Federer? On Thursday, he announced he was retiring from touring, after a final event, later this month. It wasn’t a shock; he’s forty-one, hasn’t played in fourteen months and hasn’t played much at all in 2020 or 2021 as he suffered knee injuries that required surgery. “I’ve been working hard to get back to full competitive form,” he said in a video he posted on Twitter. “But I also know the capabilities and limitations of my body, and his message to me lately has been clear.” He will play in London next week as part of Team Europe at the Laver Cup, a men’s event he helped create. He has long spoken of his admiration for Rod Laver, the great Australian player, and his respect for the history of the game. A cultural critic like Arnold, who encouraged the study of the classics, might argue that Federer would never have been able to achieve the beauty of his game without a deep appreciation of how it has been played in the past.
Who knows, in the end, where his beautiful game comes from? He’s been trained well, but how many Top Hundred players aren’t? And how do you teach exquisiteness, anyway? Federer arrived on the circuit at a time of transition for the men’s game. With the help of advanced racquet and string technologies, players had stopped trying to finish as many points as possible with a serve or at the net, and instead played points off the baseline, hitting shots right in the surging and jostling quickly to defend. There were other players of Federer’s age, like Argentinian David Nalbandian, who played much the same kind of game as him, relying on a dynamic forehand, crisp ball strikes and surprising chip returns. Nalbandian was good; he beat Federer five times in a row in 2002 and 2003. But already Federer had the refined on-court style that much of the world would discover in the summer of 2003, when he won Wimbledon, his first of twenty Grand Slam tournaments. singles titles. Federer was an instantly indelible presence. It was not just victory that became formidable over the next four seasons. It’s that he never seemed off guard, offbeat or off-putting. He wasn’t just “too good,” as a tennis player mutters to his opponent after watching an incredibly conjured winner pass him by. Like Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, he was fiercely handsome.
His serve was delivered from a platform position like that of his teenage idol, Pete Sampras. It wasn’t as big of a serve as Sampras’, but it was big enough and still spotted well. And it was less lanky, sort of; his trophy pose was pure geometry, sculptural. His groundstrokes: how calm they seemed, how unhindered they were. Always, when they arrived, his gaze remained fixed on the contact point of the racket for a time after hitting the ball. For a moment, he remained almost motionless.
There was, to use an expression of George Harrison, something in the way he moved. Even when he stepped inside the baseline – key to his attacking play – or rushed to retrieve a ball from the corner, there was an alluring serenity about him. He refused, during his best years, to appear in a hurry. White outfits became the dress code at Wimbledon in the 1880s, as it was believed that white best masked undistinguished perspiration. But it was always sweatless with Federer, especially at Wimbledon, his favorite place to play. For others out there on the grass, changing direction could be a slippery affair. But not for him, not at his peak. It was as if he learned his net run and cross step from Gene Kelly.
In retrospect, Federer’s rain-delayed five-set Wimbledon loss to Rafael Nadal in 2008 was the beginning of the end of his undisputed dominance. The beauty of his backhand was no match for Nadal’s heavy forehand spin that day, and many more days to follow. Perhaps Federer’s best shot, his most accurate and elegantly timed shot, was his inside-out forehand off the backhand from a right-hander. It’s a shot that Novak Djokovic has learned to redirect down the line to deadly effect, with his backhand on the stretch. I was at Wimbledon in 2019 when Djokovic beat Federer in a final that lasted five sets and lasted almost five hours. It was Federer’s last big position and one of his toughest defeats. He had two match points on his serve and the crowd behind him, but couldn’t do it. He hit more aces, hit more winners and earned more total points than Djokovic, but it wasn’t enough. Tennis, as beautiful as it is, can be cruel.
What I particularly enjoyed watching Federer in person in his later years was seeing him train. A sunny afternoon in Indian Wells, 2014: Federer has to practice on an outdoor field, rather than a training ground, to better handle the hundreds of fans who gather to catch a glimpse of him. He arrives, to applause, wearing a gray T-shirt and black shorts, and with the new, larger-headed racquet he recently changed – a more forgiving racquet, he hopes, especially on the reverse. It’s mostly backhands he’s doing this afternoon, and as I’m sitting right behind him – seven, eight rows up the stairs – he hits maybe four dozen backhands before stopping. to take a sip of water, then to hit some more. There were no points or games, no wins or losses, just his focus and our focus on him, and that unrolled, arms wide, Baryshnikov finish in second which is a one-handed backhand hit perfectly. It was Roger Federer, and it was magnificent. ♦