ROGER FEDERER was not the best-ever male tennis player. Cold, hard statistics betray that fact. Rafael Nadal has won more Grand Slam titles, as has Novak Djokovic—and Mr. Federer had a head start, winning six of his 20 titles between 2003 and 2005, a weaker period of men’s tennis. (Mr Nadal only joined the professional circuit in 2001, with Mr Djokovic following in 2003.) All three have won a similar percentage of points overall. Both Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Nadal have a better record of capitalizing on their chances and converting break points. Mr. Djokovic beat Mr. Federer in 54% of their clashes; Mr. Nadal prevailed 60% of the time.
Mr. Federer, who plays his final matches as a professional this weekend, will, however, be remembered as the greatest tennis player of all time. And greatness, which deals in more intangible questions of character and style, is better served by literature. Just as the Swiss maestro inspired adulation among his millions of fans, he was a subject of fascination for writers, too. Countless column inches and books have explored what made Mr. Federer a near-godlike figure. In 2006, when Mr. Federer was only 25, David Foster Wallace, an American novelist and essayist, famously compared watching him wield a racquet to a “religious experience”.
The style of tennis Mr. Federer played was undeniably elegant, regardless of whether he won or lost. If Mr. Djokovic’s game is marked out by its consistency, and Mr. Nadal’s by its power, the hallmark of Mr. Federer’s tennis was its gracefulness. His movement on the court seemed to be effortless; it was often balletic. He placed his shots in the narrowest of gaps and produced aces at will. His one-handed backhand was a thing of beauty in an era of increasing strength. He turned the “tweener” (hit through the legs while retreating) from a trick into a weapon. Sometimes he had a sense of humor. He often sent his opponents out wide, knowing that they would then scramble across the court to cover the empty space, only to then slot the ball into the exact same spot they had just vacated.
Capturing this brilliance has posed a thrilling challenge to sports writers and forced them to reach for extravagant similes, or a dictionary. William Skidelsky, in a book about his years-long obsession with the tennis player, recalls watching a game in 2006 and finding Mr. Federer’s skill “unearthly, stupendous, possessed of a magnificence I’d never seen before on a tennis court”. In a recent book, Geoff Dyer mused that the player often looked “like he is moving within a different, more accommodating dimension of time”. Foster Wallace conceded that he was not really able to capture the experience “of witnessing, first-hand, the beauty and genius of [Mr Federer’s] game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or—as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject—to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”
The focus on Mr. Federer’s game on the court has been sharpened because he gives writers little else to discuss. As Christopher Clarey points out in “The Master”, Mr Federer’s career has been “low on controversy and on glimpses into his personal life, long on bonhomie and Corinthian spirit”. As a youngster he struggled with his temper, but as an adult he has been a cool and dignified competitor; he did not castigate his coaches in between points and rarely yelled out in frustration. (The occasional celebratory “jawohl”—”yes”—was not uncommon, however.) Nor, as Mr. Clarey says, did he use the sport “as a platform for higher or edgier causes”. The consummate Swiss, he almost always wore a neutral expression.
For many writers, Mr. Federer’s unusually long career has had the ecstatic highs, unexpected lows and reversals of fortune necessary to any great tale. Mr. Federer ascended to the pinnacle of tennis in his early 20s and remained there for more than a decade, before setbacks and injuries made many wonder if he would ever return. When he did, triumphing in the Australian Open in 2017 against his old foe, Mr. Nadal, it was touted as one of sport’s great comebacks. As Mr. Dyer suggested, the knowledge that Mr. Federer was not invincible, that he would one day stop playing, gave the spectacle more meaning: “Our ability to appreciate what we were seeing—what we had previously taken for granted—had itself been greatly enhanced.”■