Farewell To Federer: What Makes Roger So Irreplaceable?

Farewell To Federer: What Makes Roger So Irreplaceable?
For a sports fan – especially individual sports – the biggest heartbreak is not your favourite player losing. It is when they choose to retire. A fan's biggest nightmare is knowing that you will not see in action the person that you rooted for your entire life. And as a Roger Federer fan, I knew this day would come, but I never thought that it was this close. And when he made the announcement, it took me some time to take in. The retirement of Roger Federer meant no more tennis for me.

My first introduction to Federer was by chance through the sports section of the Dawn Sunday newspaper. I was bored on a Sunday afternoon and had read all my favourite columns at breakfast (something I look forward to even today) and shuffling through the paper I caught the headline “Federer overcomes Nadal for ATP finals world tour crown.” The subheading claimed it was his fifth win. I became interested because Nadal had recently dethroned Federer from his number-one ranking (a year before that article) – and here was Roger, winning.

At this point, I knew nothing about the sport or what an ATP tour was. And so, nine-year-old me googled his name and time stunned to find out what a gentle superstar I had come across. That began my obsession and decade-long admiration for the player.

Federer is one of the most decorated players of his time. 20 Grand Slam titles, eight Wimbledon crowns, 103 career tournament wins and 310 consecutive weeks as esteemed number one define Federer’s sporting career. But Federer was not the only greatest tennis player of his time. The Big Three is a common nickname in tennis for the trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, widely hailed as the three greatest male tennis players in history. The trio have dominated men's singles tennis for nearly two decades, collectively winning 63 Grand Slam tournaments; Nadal with 22 titles, Djokovic with 21, and Federer with 20. They were ranked as world No. 1’s in singles for a total of 892 weeks (equivalent to 17 years); Djokovic with 373 weeks, Federer with 310 and Nadal with 209.
So what makes Federer more popular among the fans, perhaps, is that he raised the bar of the game: not only for his generation but for the next one too. And he has not done it once, but many times, even rising from failures. An instant fan favourite moment is when after his triumph of conquering the game in the 2000s, especially from  2004-2008, Nadal eventually took over the game and Djokovic became No 1 in 2011. And at the 2012 Wimbledon, he was far favoured to win the tournament, since he had not lifted a major title in the last two years. But against all odds, Federer played a game that would go down in history and eventually led him to his 7th Wimbledon title and recovery to the world No. 1 spot.

Another memorable win was his spectacular comeback at the Australian Open in 2017, which came after his half-year-long break due to a major knee injury in 2016. Many experts thought that at this point, his career was over. But Federer refused to give up and silenced them all, by not only winning time but claiming the Indian Wells and Miami, followed by his  19th Wimbledon win which he further defended in 2018 to win his 20th title and become the no. 1 in the world after five long years. At this point, he also broke his record to become the oldest player to claim No. 1 ranking at the age of almost 37.
Among the Swiss maestro's live interactions with fans is the heart-warming and memorable encounter at the 2017 Wimbledon, where 6-year-old Izyan Ahmed (Zizou) asked, “Hi, Mr Federer. Can you please continue to play for eight or nine years so that I can play you when I go pro?”

Federer’s illustrious career has seen some up and down, and his fans have not only seen him winning, but losing too. But he came back each time with a different version of the game for a bigger success. Every version was different than the last, and he brought an entirely different collection of shots, manoeuvres and physical instincts including footwork, volleying reflexes and serving finesse. Thus, each time his competitors had to adapt in a different way to play against him.

Apart from his excellence in the game, the ball boy for his hometown tournaments in Basel is a renowned humanitarian, and his charity work often overlooked is of great importance. In 2003, he founded the Roger Federer Foundation which is committed to providing education in low-income countries in Africa, and in his own home country of Switzerland it has an expressive record of about 52 million initiatives for 7,000 schools. He has organised several campaigns such as  tennis matches for poverty relief. And in recent times has redirected his efforts towards Covid-19 relief.

The right-handed backhand player is not only known for his class and charm on the court, but also off the court. Federer’s ability to interact with media and fans has become a reference point. He answers questions with ease and poise. His answers are always sharp and witty. His “Ask FR” sessions on Twitter are hilarious and often hand out mischievous responses to fans who tag him under posts and videos.

Federer broke into tears at his farewell speech

Among the Swiss maestro's live interactions with fans is the heart-warming and memorable encounter at the 2017 Wimbledon, where 6-year-old Izyan Ahmed (Zizou) asked, “Hi, Mr Federer. Can you please continue to play for eight or nine years so that I can play you when I go pro?” Federer said “yes.” “Is that a promise?” Zizou prodded. “Pinky promise,” Roger responded with a huge grin. This became a viral moment loved by fans across the world and in 2022 it became even bigger when Roger kept his promise and surprised the now 12-year-old boy – who is now pro – with a tennis match. Zizou later shared why Roger is his favourite: “his humility, grace, smiling personality, ability to make everyone around him instantly comfortable, magnifies his persona and shows me that you cannot be a great sportsman unless you are a great person first."

And when the legend announced that the Laver Cup (ongoing this week) will be his last, reactions and tributes from fans and fellow players poured in.

Once you become a Federer fan, no other player can sit on his pedestal. At one point voted as the second most trusted man after Nelson Mandela in a survey held in 25 countries, his grace and giving got him lifelong fans. His greatness does not lie in the number of Grand Slam titles or his winnings, but in his conduct both on the field and off the field. The world will perhaps never see another ambassador of sports like him. People may win more titles than him, but they can never be Roger Federer. He is the best there was, the best there is and the best there will ever be. And it has been a privilege to have witnessed his greatness.