If you were born in India in the 1970s, then you must surely remember grainy images in the early days of colour television in the early 1980s.
We had the first sighting of tennis from Wimbledon, images of an angry American, John McEnroe, creating a racket, yes that’s right, quite a stir on the hallowed green turf.
Then as years passed on, our favourite tennis stars, both men and women, were from Europe.
An effervescent West German Boris Becker, without any emotion at most times, diving all over the court. Stefan Edberg of Sweden and Czech Ivan Lendl were the other stars of the 1980s men’s tennis as they moved on the court without any anger. Another West German Steffi Graf and Czech (now American) Martina Navratilova were ruling the roost in the women’s tennis world.
As we entered the 1990s, the American bunch began ruling again with the emergence of a bunch of young male stars. The mechanical Pete Sampras, the flamboyant Andre Agassi, tenacious Michael Chang and the now joker in the pack, Jim Courier. There were many more, but these names stand out from memory.
Sampras was the undisputed champion of the 1990s with his good pal Agassi challenging him from time to time. Sampras was untouched on grass at Wimbledon and on other surfaces we would have flashes of brilliance from some others. Agassi was meant to be the challenger, but despite his brilliant backstory, always sort of underachieved.
As we were about to enter a new century, tennis like most things in life needed a spark. Something that would rev up the sport like never before.
The first sighting of that spark happened in 2001 just a couple of months before the history-altering 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks. The baton in men’s tennis was passed irrevocably, as a 19-year-old Swiss boy named Roger Federer got the better of a 29-year-old Sampras. The match was won by Federer 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-5 in a tough five-setter, his first win at his favourite Centre Court at Wimbledon. This win, however, was special as it came against the seven-time Wimbledon champion Sampras.
Also read: I don’t remember a world where Roger Federer isn’t playing tennis
If you were a history chronicler, you would have sensed that an era had ended and a new era had emerged. And this young man from Switzerland on the circuit since 1998 was quite unlike the heroes of the 1980s or 1990s. He was smiling at all times, intense on court, but willing to laugh whenever possible. It emerged that he was human after all and almost like one of us.
The world order in men’s tennis was once again moving to Europe.
A big chat with the big four from Team Europe.#LaverCup pic.twitter.com/1n76evjmBA
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 23, 2022
This was quite a change and a much-needed respite for Europe after all that they had been through with the fall of the Soviet Union, the German reunification, the breakup of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
In many ways, Federer’s emergence helped soothe some frayed nerves from the events of the 1990s. There was a beacon of hope as Federer’s smile took centre stage on tennis courts across the globe. The Sampras-Agassi era of the 1990s had ended on a whimper, but a new one had emerged.
Federer slowly started sprouting on the grass at Wimbledon and made the tournament his own with his clinical display. There were no pyrotechnics like the stars of the past, he would serve, return and then go back to his spot almost without any drama. There was just a simple elation when he won a Grand Slam and then if it got to him, he would fall over onto the court.
To make us feel like he is human after all, he would cry at the post-tournament presentation ceremonies. All this endeared Federer to us all, mere mortals. We could relate to him because he would never for one present himself as a super human or infallible.
Images of Federer being presented with a cow for his triumph in the 2003 Swiss Open emerged for the first time. Then it turned out he received a few more over the years. It presented a different side to the Federer story, one of an animal lover. It endeared him to a different lot of fans. Jokes emerged on the internet punning on Federer’s name and a famed delivery company, finding its way even onto headlines in major newspapers.
But this Federer story needed an antagonist, someone who could raise the story of this soon-to-be-legend a few notches up, someone who would match him stroke for stroke and almost fight for our emotions on an equal footing.
That’s when another European, this time a Spaniard Rafael Nadal emerged on the scene. He was everything that Federer wasn’t and could sometimes outdo the Swiss. While Federer ruled the roost on grass, Nadal found his feet on clay. This became the rivalry of ages, one that would stay with us forever.
Also read: What Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic stand to lose as Roger Federer retires
For more than a decade, the world was divided in two camps: Nadal and Federer. It was almost as if there were two views: believers and non-believers. Offices, classrooms, friends’ circles, you name it, and you would have differing views on the two.
Every year there was a competition between the two on who would win the Grand Slams. But it was all moving swimmingly till that day in 2008 when it was raised several notches higher.
Federer against Nadal for the 2008 Wimbledon title is the stuff of legends now. The match lasted four hours and 48 minutes. Federer was the top ranked men’s tennis player at the time with Nadal, in second place, being the challenger.
On the day of the match, 6 July 2008, the two champions kept digging deep and putting out something extra with each serve. Eventually Nadal prevailed in a shock result 6–4, 6–4, 6–7, 6–7, 9–7 to emerge as champion, but Federer won the day with his calm exterior. Federer showed us why we could relate to him.
The match went down as the greatest in the history of tennis. No other contest has ever been able to match that since. The year 2008 was tough for many as the global financial crisis gathered momentum. But the sight of Federer on a tennis court was reassuring even then, all was not lost.
Also read: The magic of Roger Federer - on and off court
A third wheel in the Nadal-Federer rivalry, Novak Djokovic, did put a spanner in the works in the later years, but for tennis lovers the Nadal-Federer rivalry was one to savour.
Some of the leading sporting superstars, including cricket’s god Sachin Tendulkar, were fans of Federer. When Tendulkar met Federer in 2011 a few months after he had played a part in India winning a Cricket World Cup, it became a talking point. One man who had ruled the cricketing turf for more than two decades met the reigning superstar of men’s tennis. Both men were similar in their demeanour on their respective turfs; it was a moment to remember as two GOATs shared a moment that you could savour forever.
Federer’s love for sports in the growing up years also had a special place for GOATs at the time. He idolised Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Becker and Edberg. Later, golfer Tiger Woods was also added to this list. But while most of Federer’s idols were flawed geniuses, he himself was unlike them.
After he lost in the quarter-final of the 2021 Wimbledon to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, Federer was quick to admit something was missing.
“Clearly there’s still a lot of things missing in my game that maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago were very simple and very normal for me to do. Nowadays they don’t happen naturally anymore,” Federer said during a media interaction. “I have a lot of ideas on the court, but sometimes I can’t do what I want to do,” he added.
Also read: Roger Federer and his 20 Grand Slam titles
His age, increased number of injuries and surgeries meant that Federer was a shadow of his former self on his favourite Centre Court at Wimbledon. It was therefore a sad end to a love affair between Federer and Wimbledon which could not have one last hurrah this year.
But still the impact that Federer created on court meant that despite his long absences owing to injuries and surgeries, he was still a fan favourite. The Association of Tennis Professionals' (ATP’s) annual awards had a fan favourite section since 2000. Federer was voted the fan favourite for 19 successive years since 2003.
Perhaps the last word on the Federer story is best left to another GOAT of our times: Tendulkar. After all, 24 years is how long Tendulkar lasted on the cricket field and Federer on the ATP tennis courts.
What a career, @rogerfederer. We fell in love with your brand of tennis. Slowly, your tennis became a habit. And habits never retire, they become a part of us.
Thank you for all the wonderful memories. pic.twitter.com/FFEFWGLxKR
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) September 15, 2022