A few others—and only a few—may be ranked above him, but Roger Federer defies statistical measures.
Rod Laver may own the only two grand slams of tennis—winning all four major championships in a year twice—and Rafael Nadal may have won the most majors, but, even if his numbers were not comparable—and they are—Federer more than deserves his place in the pantheon of the sport: he didn’t need the numbers; he only needed to be there.
He came on the scene wearing a little ponytail, a teenager. Years later, already clean-cut and by now multi-titled, he appeared in a white suit jacket worn over his all-white playing dress, as prescribed, at Wimbledon, a major he would end up winning a record eight times. The style, the gentlemanliness, the quiet confidence—all was in keeping with the old prim culture of the sport, particularly as observed at Wimbledon.
View this post on Instagram
Indeed, Roger Federer embodies a summing up of the evolution of the game. He is, essentially, a tennis classicist — for one thing, he hits one-handed on both sides in the era of the two-handed backhand. But he has managed to suit the classical form, without disrespecting it, to modern tennis philosophies and technology—and prevail. He learned from Michelangelo and Da Vinci, but did not go beyond the impressionists into Picasso after he stopped painting properly.
He has turned the continental grip—the old “handshake”— one way or the other, just so, to enable him to swing from a still graceful open stance with ease, yet still pack decent power in his shots. Through the years, lately especially, he has been hitting earlier and from a stance closer to the baseline; thus he is able to cut the angles and rush his rival after feeding off his own power and pace. The technique also affords economy of movement.
Economy of movement is a standard Federer virtue
In fact, economy of movement is a standard Federer virtue. Along with the physical grace that allows the components of one’s anatomy to work in concert, it has made him less prone to injury and doubtless contributed to his longevity.
Saying his retirement goodbyes, he did allude to some injuries that required ending his career as a professional to give himself time to heal completely. In any case, his doubles pairing with Nadal, at the recent Laver Cup, his swan-song tournament, showed enough vintage Federer for their defeat to not matter. If tears were brought to his eyes, and to Nadal’s as well, that had nothing to do with the moment’s loss, but rather with the moment, which exclusively belonged to Federer.
I see him only on television, and certainly wish to one day watch him in action, in the flesh, even as a retiree, the better in fact for me to identify with him. One thing about television tennis is it brings the action into sharp focus and replays the special moments in slow motion or freezes them. Which perfectly suits me, being all of fan, learner, and dreamer.
If there’s one shot that makes me feel connected to Federer, it’s the drop shot. It was he who, with his chipping skill and superior instinct for constructing a point, brought it back as a decisive weapon in his league. Until he did, it had been mocked as puff, impotent for modern-day power tennis.
Even before Federer validated it, I myself had been insistent on it: along with the lob, my own drop shot has worked, as only it should, and with yet increasing potency, in my aged group.
I don’t know that Federer himself does the drop shot better than anyone else or that it’s his best shot. The complete player that he is, I guess his best shot is the winning one of the moment. My theory is that for lesser players, the drop shot serves as a neutralizing weapon, and because of that they tend to deploy it compulsively, and therefore, practice at it more and more and eventually get better and better with it.
As for my own case, I so confidently think the drop shot is my best shot that I feel a sense of co-ownership of it with Roger.