In March 2018, about 10 days before Juan Martin del Potro defeated Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final, the Argentine told reporters how much he loved competing against Federer, but that it was also difficult facing someone he admired so much.
Del Potro got the better of Federer on seven occasions from the 25 meetings they’ve had on tour and he was always fuelled by the idea of just how special it was to post one single victory over the talismanic Swiss.
“I love to play against him. We've played some epic matches. It's not easy to play with the person you admire,” said Del Potro.
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“But if I had to take one match or one opponent to play in a final I'd take Roger for sure because one day I could tell my kids I played many times with Federer and I beat him and that’s why I like to play against him.”
Many of the hundreds of opponents Federer has faced throughout his 24-year professional career share Del Potro’s sentiments.
For over two decades, Federer has had that eerie effect on his rivals, where he’d hand them a heavy beating, yet they’d still walk off court feeling like his biggest fans – OK, maybe not immediately upon defeat, but most certainly shortly after.
It’s easy to understand why sports fans across the globe love Federer; the list of reasons is both lengthy and obvious. But it’s how much he is revered by his peers and virtually everyone within the tennis community that is perhaps the most telling part of the Federer legacy.
For someone who has transcended the sport and felt larger than life, Federer frequently reminded us, and maybe also reminded himself, that no single tennis player was bigger than tennis itself.
“I understand I have a role to play in the whole tennis world. But at the end of the day, tennis is bigger than any tennis player,” he once told me in an interview back in 2017.
“That’s why even if there is a new generation, new players, tennis will be fine. There will always be a future No. 1, there will be new Grand Slam champions, the wheel keeps turning. There will be some adjustment to be done if a Rafa retires, or I retire, or Novak retires, or whoever…Sampras and Agassi when they retired, it was different, they left a bit of a void. And that’s normal. But at the end of the day it’s also an opportunity for others.”
You always got the sense Federer enjoyed every aspect of the tennis tour; he wouldn’t have stuck around that long if he didn’t.
He believed in welcoming younger generations, inviting up-and-comers to training blocks in Dubai and Zurich, giving them random nicknames along with some sage advice, and he was the first to send them congratulatory messages whenever they won something or had a breakthrough.
“Maiden title at home big fella. Love the sound of that Thanaser. Amazing…Keep going,” Federer said in a message to Thanasi Kokkinakis in January when the Australian won his home title in Adelaide. Kokkinakis has no idea why Federer calls him ‘Thanaser’ but he absolutely loves it.
In 2019, Federer told the Financial Times he always “thought it’d be so much fun to play through generations”. He may not have started out his career thinking he’d retire at 41, but with time he realised the enjoyable side of such longevity.
“Now you have the next generation. I wanted to experience that, and also – it sounds stupid now – maybe give younger guys an opportunity to play somebody old like me,” he added.
“Something I care deeply about is that young guys are welcomed nicely on to the tour, and they realise, ‘This is going to be fun, buddy, and, we, the top guys, are cool.’”
Federer didn’t just charm his peers; he also made a conscious decision early on in his career to build a strong relationship with the press.
There was the subtle ‘nice to see you again’ he’d give when he’d recognise a reporter from a previous meeting; not to mention the lengthy, well-thought-out answers, and the two hours of media commitments he fulfilled, in three different languages, after every match.
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He’d sometimes come across journalists who knew nothing about tennis and who asked him the most ridiculous questions. I once witnessed a reporter ask Federer if he thought he was “good enough on grass”. Federer, the most successful grass-court male player in history, showed zero signs of irritation and instead of scoffing away the question, went on to discuss his comfort level on grass, and why he always felt like he has a shot at winning the title each time he made it to Wimbledon.
“He thinks everybody has the right to talk with him. He will be fair, polite, intelligent, creative. He will give concrete examples. That’s why I love him. He knows what I want,” Bernhard Schaer, a Swiss radio reporter once told the New York Times of Federer in an interview 10 years ago.
As the kids would say these days, Federer long understood the assignment and it simply made our lives as journalists so much easier.
The older Federer got, the more he showed his lighter side. It’s almost like the more successful he became, the less seriously he took himself.
At the Australian Open in 2018, he talked about why he tried to be himself during interviews and how he’d like to see more players speak their minds.
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“The power of the microphone is a funny thing,” he said. “Some players I think struggle with it. I would like to see more players just being really themselves in front of the press, being more relaxed about it, not worrying so much about making mistakes.
“You'd rather see that than robots left, right and centre. I feel like sometimes some players have gotten a little bit too robot-like. I wish they would let loose and be themselves. I try to always do that. It's not always easy, but I try hard.”
Federer’s god-like tennis, effortless game style and his supernatural ability not to sweat are just a few of the many things players and fans admired about the Swiss. But they were also part of an unattainable image of perfection no one could relate to. It was the moments where Federer showed emotion and vulnerability that really resonated with people and allowed him to become remotely relatable.
“Emotions are nice and I came to realise a long time ago when I had my first really big, emotional win – maybe it was when I beat Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 – I couldn’t believe you could be so, so happy and yet start crying,” Federer once said on Australia’s The Project.
“In a way I was happy I did that because it becomes more memorable when you let go instead of holding it in. It’s uncomfortable when it happens when you lose, but I guess I’m an emotional guy and I don’t mind sharing it.”
There will no doubt be a sea of emotions when Federer bids farewell to the sport this weekend at the Laver Cup in London. The tennis world is ready to be charmed one last time.
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