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There was a limit to how long Roger Federer could play tennis. The sand was quickly sliding to the bottom of the hourglass; he was 41 and had suffered injury after injury in recent years. Great athletes may and do retire.
Federer, like Serena Williams, had modified the typical trajectory of a tennis player’s career, though. They kept setting records and winning championships in their fourth decades, solidifying their greatness. So it was amazing to see them both still alive in their fifth decade.
While their longevity allowed us to appreciate their abilities, savor each tournament, and count down the years, it also lulled us into a false feeling of security, into thinking they would always be there, even as injuries caused extended absences in later years. They would return. They consistently 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 enthused by the newest Nokia phone. Federer had established himself as a dependable figure in our sporting lives thanks to a 24-year professional career. While we were all slowly and subtly 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 played what was reportedly her final professional match, we were forced to accept that a new era had begun.
Since Wimbledon last year, when he endured a third knee surgery as a result of which one of the most spectacular tennis careers was ultimately forced to end without the flourish, it may have deserved.
Federer became the first man to win 20 grand slam tournaments. But no man has played as many (429) or won as many grand slam matches as he has, including his eight Wimbledon titles (369). Only Jimmy Connors had more titles when the Open Era began, and he exited the sport with more than $130 million in prize money.
Roger Federer the beginning of a distinct tennis era
Federer changed the definition of tennis brilliance in the men’s game for five years in the early years of the century, when he won 12 of the 18 grand slams.
The other excellent athletes who eventually rose to prominence to make the last 15 years of the sport’s Golden Age broke many of the epochal marks he set, including those that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic smashed.
Djokovic has outlasted Federer’s previous record of 310 weeks as the top player in the world. In comparison, Djokovic has 21 major titles against Nadal’s 22.
The odds are that all of Federer’s records will fall one day, yet statistics can only capture a small portion of his brilliance. His stats cannot adequately convey his magnificence or attraction when searched on Google. The fan-favorite prize at the annual ATP Awards has gone to this man for 19 years running.
Federer is praised not simply because he won but also for how he played and won. No one has ever graced a court as he has. Do we expect to encounter someone with his characteristics again? It’s possible, but there would be a player.
Author David Foster Wallace called Roger Federer’s forehand a “huge liquid whip” in his 2006 New York Times essay “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.”
Although Federer was still a young man when the essay was written, at 25, he was already being hailed as the greatest athlete to ever live, not just by Wallace.
Six years before Wallace’s piece was published, no one believed Pete Sampras’ record of 14 grand slam victories would be surpassed. Then came Federer, who Nadal and Djokovic later joined to form the “Big Three.”
Of course, many will counter that Djokovic is a superior all-around player or that Nadal has established himself as the best of all time.
The Swiss are undoubtedly more attractive than Nadal or Djokovic, despite the fact that the power dynamic may have changed.