Roger Federer, a Swiss Alps resident was calling me from the telephone. I was told by him that he looked out over the mountains and felt tired, but relaxed. If he wasn’t sipping on some fine Cabernet as he spoke, he sure should have been. To complete this picture, he was enjoying every moment.
This was back on February 1, 2017, a few days after Federer—who announced his retirement from tennis, at 41, on Thursday—completed another signature feat of his astounding career. Back from a six-month layoff after a knee injury, one of the many physical setbacks that stilted the later stages of Federer’s run, and ultimately drove him to his decision to stop playing, Federer battled back from a fifth-set deficit to best his era-defining rival, and now friend, Rafael Nadal, in the Australian Open final. The win gave Federer his 18th Grand Slam title—he’d finish with 20—at age 35.
TIME asked him to open up about his gritty win.
“My mental toughness has always been overshadowed by my virtuosity, my shot-making, my technique, my grace,” Federer told TIME that day. “That’s why when I lose, it seems like, ‘Oh, he didn’t play so well.’ And when I win, it looks so easy. When I was little, I felt the same way. You know, ‘Why don’t you try harder?’ I mean, honestly I tried everything that I possibly could. Just because I don’t sweat like crazy and I don’t grunt, I don’t have this face on when I hit the shot like I’m in pain, doesn’t mean I’m not trying hard. It’s just how I play. Sorry.”
There are no excuses. These words are more powerful than any I’ve ever seen in nearly two decades of covering Federer. They sum up Federer as a true champion. “My virtuosity, my shot-making, my technique, my grace.” Federer never trafficked in false modesty. He shouldn’t. He’s graceful, and he knows it. He was extraordinary, and he understood it.
Are you arrogant? It’s not possible.
MORE: Roger Federer Is Retiring. Look at His Career.
It’s only fitting, then, that Federer leaves tennis a few weeks after Serena Williams. They’re now forever connected via similar comfort in their own greatness. “We changed the game of tennis,” Williams told TIME in August, before her final tournament run at the U.S. She was referring to her sister Venus and herself. “We changed how people play, period.” What’s her legacy? “Confidence and self-belief,” Williams responded.
Federer is also in the same boat. Two players, each with 43 Grand Slam titles in their respective careers, were gone from tennis. Tennis will not be the same again. The game is much more enjoyable for them.
Federer did not slip, unlike his celebrity brethren. Tiger Woods’ peccadillos altered his trajectory. LeBron James’ approval ratings dipped after “The Decision.” Lionel Messi ran afoul of tax laws. If you want, you can count Deflategate against Tom Brady.
Serena had a few spats with umpires she’d like to have back. It’s not a lot of potatoes. Yet, something.
Remember the Roger Federer scandal that everyone was so excited about? Neither do I. It’s nearly impossible, under the glare that global-athlete icons face in the 21st century, not to make some kind of public mishap. It’s a testament to Federer that he never really did.
Federer is the GOAT in Federer’s sport. His acolytes, who swarmed his year’s U.S. Open wearing their “RF” caps—even though Federer was nowhere near New York City—will never be convinced otherwise. ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” after all, was the headline of David Foster Wallace’s seminal 2006 New York TimesFederer featured in Magazine. He was a rare witness to it. He was No. 1 in the world for four consecutive years, 2004 to 2007. Federer won 93% in his tennis matches. He reached the finals in 23 tournaments between 2004 and 2005. He won a silly 22—or 96%—of them.
As Nadal emerged—Rafa won his first Grand Slam, at 19, at the 2005 French Open—Federer felt his heat. He wasn’t comfortable having his tennis reputation defined by Nadal. “I understand the point that [fans] think my career might go through him,” Federer told TIME back in 2006. “I think it goes through titles.” But by both measures, head to head and the Slam wins, Nadal comes out on top. Nadal finished 24-16 against Federer. Federer is second in majors with 22 wins (and counting). To 20.
Like most people, however, Federer evolved. He swore, in a late 2019 interview, that no matter where he stood in the Slam pantheon—Novak Djokovic, who owns 21 major titles, also passed him—he was “totally at peace. Totally at peace.”
There’s no real reason to doubt him. “To the game of tennis: I love you and will never leave you,” Federer said in a statement Thursday. The Laver Cup in London next week is his last tournament. Nadal has confirmed he’ll be there. Federer won’t receive a swan song at a major, like Serena Williams did last month at the U.S. Open. Sport fans longed for that moment. But Roger Federer’s given us more than enough.
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