RAND FEDERER he was not the greatest male tennis player of all time. Cold, hard statistics bear this fact out. Rafael Nadal has won more Grand Slam titles, as has Novak Djokovic — and Federer had an edge, winning six of his 20 titles between 2003 and 2005, a weaker period in men’s tennis. (Mr. Nadal only entered the professional circuit in 2001, with Mr. Djokovic following in 2003.) All three have won a similar percentage of points overall. Both Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Nadal have a better record of taking their chances and converting break points. Mr Djokovic has beaten Mr Federer in 54% of their clashes. Mr. Nadal prevailed 60% of the time.
Mr. Federer, who plays his final matches as a professional this weekend, will be remembered as the greatest tennis player of all time. And greatness, dealing with more intangible matters of character and style, is better served by literature. Just as the Swiss maestro inspired admiration among his millions of fans, he was also an object of fascination for writers. Countless column inches and books have explored what made Mr. Federer an almost divine figure. In 2006, when Mr. Federer was just 25, David Foster Wallace, an American novelist and essayist, famously compared watching him hold a racket to a “religious experience.”
The style of tennis that Mr. Federer played was undeniably elegant, whether he won or lost. If Mr. Djokovic’s game is characterized by his consistency and Mr. Nadal’s by his power, the hallmark of Mr. Federer’s tennis has been his grace. His movement on the court looked effortless. it was often balletic. He placed his shots in the tightest gap and drew aces at will. His one-handed backhand was a thing of beauty in an era of growing power. He turned the “tweezer” (kicking with the legs while retreating) from a trick to a weapon. Sometimes he had a sense of humor. He would often send his opponents off, knowing that they would then run into the field to cover the empty space, only to put the ball in the exact same spot they had just left.
Capturing this brilliance has created an exciting challenge for sportswriters and forced them to reach for outrageous similes or a dictionary. William Skidelsky, in a book about his years-long obsession with the tennis player, recalled watching a match in 2006 and finding Mr. Federer’s ability “eerie, astonishing, with a majesty I had never seen on a tennis court.” In a recent book, Geoff Dyer opined that the player often felt “like moving through a different, more convenient dimension of time”. Foster Wallace admitted that he was not really able to capture the experience of “witnessing, first-hand, the beauty and genius of [Mr Federer’s] game. You should rather approach aesthetic things obliquely, talk around it or – as Aquinas did with his own unspeakable subject – try to define it in terms of what it is not.’
The focus on Mr. Federer’s court game has been sharpened because it doesn’t give the writers much else to discuss. As Christopher Clarey points out in “The Master,” Mr. Federer’s career was “low in controversy and glimpses into his personal life, with a lot of charm and Corinthian spirit.” As a youth he struggled with his temper, but as an adult he was a cool and dignified competitor. he didn’t blame his coaches between points and rarely cried out in frustration. (The occasional celebratory ‘jawohl’ – ‘yes’ – was not uncommon, however.) Nor, as Mr Clarey says, did he use the sport “as a platform for higher or more intense purposes”. The perfect Swiss, he almost always wore a neutral expression.
For many writers, Mr. Federer’s unusually long career has had the ecstatic highs, unexpected lows and reversals of fortune required of any great story. Mr. Federer rose to the top of tennis in his early 20s and stayed there for more than a decade before setbacks and injuries left many wondering if he would ever return. When he did, triumphing at the 2017 Australian Open against old rival Mr Nadal, it was heralded as one of sport’s great comebacks. As Mr. Dyer suggested, the knowledge that Mr. Federer was not invincible, that he would one day stop playing, gave the spectacle more meaning: “Our ability to appreciate what we were seeing — what we had previously taken for granted — was in itself her greatly enhanced.”■