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The incomparable artistry of Roger Federer

The incomparable artistry of Roger Federer

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By Jude Sannith  Sept 18, 2022 10:34:46 AM IST (Updated)

Roger ended his retirement message by saying, “To the game of tennis, I love you and will never leave you.” In reality, it is tennis that owes him great debt.

As a recreational tennis player who began learning the sport two years ago, one of the first decisions I had to make was which of the two backhands I wanted to learn. The best part about learning something in your adulthood is that you get more autonomy of choice.

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There’s the classic one-handed backhand, which, as the name suggests, involves lining up the incoming tennis ball and smacking it back with a swift movement of the elbow and forearm. Then, there is the more modern and popular two-handed backhand, which is played much like a left-handed cricketer would play the pull shot — with both arms.
Today’s coaches tend to advise their wards to learn the latter. After all, the two-hander lends you better control and is easy to learn young. Tennis legends and young stars alike — Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Rudd and Alexander Zverev — have preferred it too.
The thing about backhands is when you pick one and begin perfecting it, it’s hard to switch over. And for years, the one-handed backhand has been described by coaches as a dinosaur in the modern game — an ancient relic that is seldom used. I picked it, learnt it, and loved it. And that was because of one man who went by the name Roger Federer.
Much before Federer played his last major (Wimbledon 2021), he was, by all counts, an anachronism — he didn’t belong in this era. At a time when tennis talent kept embracing the aggressive base-liner in them (playing style where a player keeps hitting powerful shots from the baseline), Federer’s serve-and-volley was a throwback to a time gone by.
When young talent kept firing in two-handed backhands, his one-hander gave sports photographers their money shot every single time. When tennis stars began either changing their grips towards more extreme ones or playing shots with more top-spin in line with the demands of the modern game — Khachanov, Tiafoe, Kyrgios and even Nadal — his classical eastern grip flummoxed many.
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Yet, for Federer, success was ever-present. His one-handed backhand is today one of the most studied shots in the game. And while his classical eastern grip didn’t exactly make him a top-spin colossus, it let him whip forehands with such speed, precision and minimal take-back that his opponents simply ran out of time. In other words, Federer shunned the modern game for a more artistic one, doing it in a manner so efficient, ruthless and replete with champion skill. He is perhaps modern tennis’ most effective anachronism. If he had dinosaur skills, this was a T-Rex you were talking about.
Winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017 well into his 30s before going on to become the oldest player (36) to be ranked number one the next year, Federer has proved time and time again that class is permanent and age merely a number. This, at a time the likes of Djokovic were well into capturing the imagination of the modern tennis world while he raced away to match both Federer and Nadal in the grand slam count.
However, if there was one person who recognised the mortal in the seemingly legendary, it was Federer himself. “The past three years have presented me with challenges in the form of injuries and surgeries,” he said in his poignant retirement message, “I’ve worked hard to return to full competitive form. But I also know my body’s capacities and limits, and its message to me lately has been clear. I am 41 years old, I have played more than 1,500 matches in 24 years… and now I must recognize when it is time to end my competitive career.”
The decision must not have been easy. After all, Roger Federer went on to win a total of 20 grand slams in a storied and celebrated tennis career but lost a few towards the fag-end. Wimbledon 2019 wasn’t his despite holding championship points, and the Australian Open saw a quarter-final loss to Djokovic. His knees just weren’t up to the task, and arthroscopic surgery — his third on the knees — wasn’t exactly doing favours to his career.
Today, Rafael Nadal has 22 grand slams — two more than Federer — while Djokovic’s 21 Majors have seen his tally pass that of Roger’s. Yet, you can’t help but agree that the term ‘greatness’ is inadvertently associated with Federer’s name. And that’s because the quality of his greatness transcended numbers.
Rolex’s heart-warming commercial released in the aftermath of Federer’s retirement puts it aptly: “There are certain things that numbers can’t convey — the beauty he instilled in the discipline, enriching and perfecting his game year after year; his grace and elegance on and off the court, which made him one of the most revered athletes of our time. Numbers will never fully encompass the extent of his legend continually growing, nor the breadth of his legacy perpetually inspiring — for his is a greatness that can never be measured.”
Roger ended his retirement message with the words, “To the game of tennis, I love you and will never leave you.” In reality, it is tennis — its purest and most elegant form — that owes him a great debt, for he brought to it an incomparable artistry. So, tennis loves you back, Roger Federer. It will miss you for years to come.
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