No sport has generated more bad writing than tennis, and no tennis player has generated more bad writing than Roger Federer. The first part of this claim is more easily explained than the second. For tennis is essentially a simple game with infinite depths, a wormhole of tactics, temperament, angles and character that provides the ideal canvas upon which to enact one’s florid literary theorems. Tennis is the eternal struggle between beauty and the machine. Tennis is the search for ultimate truth. Tennis is the opposite of death. Yes, 8,000 words for next month sounds fine.
As for Federer: perhaps all we can say with certainty is that people love him. And not just sport people, but clever people. Publishers. Worthwhile people. At the moment of his retirement on 15 September, there were probably more books dedicated to Federer than to any other active athlete. Why might this be? Perhaps, as the novelist Benjamin Markovits once put it: “He’s one of those stars that people seem to admire because they want to say something about themselves.”
None of which should be interpreted as a slight against Federer himself, a decent man and certainly one of the finest tennis players of his generation. He leaves the stage at the age of 41, having won 20 Grand Slam singles titles and with a sport remade in his image. Injuries got the better of him in the end; his great rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic got the better of him some time earlier. But on most of the relevant metrics – trophies won, audiences beguiled, jaws loosened – he stands as one of the undisputed giants of the sport.
Nevertheless, I’m more interested in the other side of Federer, a side over which he had little or no control: the symbol, the analogue, the unwitting muse. Tennis fandom has always had a vaguely creepy dimension to it – this lurid cocktail of fixation, awe and sex. Even so, Federer-love was of a different register entirely: the cooing crowds, the inevitable invocations of artistry or beauty or grace, the sense that Federer was not simply a great athlete performing great feats, but had to embody something more elemental. David Foster Wallace’s famous New York Times article was entitled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”. Let’s face it, nobody’s writing that about Djokovic any time soon.
Of all the millions of words expended on Federer over the years, Wallace’s piece remains the most acclaimed of the genre: a sprawling, conjectural profile of an athlete at the peak of his powers, and an author attempting to process his own spuming emotions. Unlike most sporting essays by literary writers, it is the technical analysis of Federer’s game that is the most compelling: a granular deconstruction of the physics and geometry of tennis, of the way Federer’s physical gifts allowed him to recalibrate a sport drifting towards baseline attrition, expressed via a stroke-by-stroke narration of a point between Federer and Nadal in the 2006 Wimbledon final.
It is the flimsiest parts of Wallace’s piece that are most frequently quoted. He writes of the “beauty” of Federer’s tennis, a concept poorly defined and never interrogated. And yet over the years the trope of Federer as a player of unsurpassable beauty, of artistry, grace and even virtue, has become so firmly engrained as to pass for established fact. Many of the career eulogies published since the announcement of his retirement have borrowed heavily from this lexicon, casually anointing Federer as the greatest tennis player of all time on the basis of such intangibles.
The first time I saw Federer playing was at Wimbledon in 2001. But it was not until a decade later that I saw him in the flesh, by which time his myth had been largely consecrated. By 2011 the spectacle of Federer on Centre Court had been lucratively reimagined as a bucket-list item, a rite of sporting passage. Perhaps this was why I found the experience underwhelming, akin to attending the world’s most lavish church when you are ambivalent about God. Technically accomplished, athletically gifted, dashing and daring: no doubt, Federer was all of these. But beautiful, transcendent? Perhaps it might have helped if he hadn’t lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five sets.
I ended up watching Federer win plenty over the years, usually on the pristine green lawns of Wimbledon, and I think I eventually got the gist. Tennis, by dint of its social cachet, attracts a certain kind of clientele. And for this audience Federer came to represent a very specific kind of beauty: a beauty of economy and simplicity, of a world where creativity could still triumph over power. Even the way in which Federer shrunk the court, standing daringly close to the baseline, taking the ball early, silently striving for the impossible angle, felt relevant to his appeal. It also explains why the language of aesthetic perfection was so frequently applied to Federer but never to, say, Serena Williams.
To the literati of New England and middle England, Federer reflected the world as they wished it to be. This is not a devotion that will easily transfer to Carlos Alcaraz or Coco Gauff, the new young stars. In this respect Federer stands alone: a player who aroused the parts of the game that others could not reach. His departure will take a generation of tennis fans with him. On the other hand, it may just spare us a whole lot of terrible writing.
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke