By the 2009 French Open, Roger Federer was already considered by many observers to be the greatest tennis player of all time. With 13 Grand Slam titles already and plenty of good years ahead, it seemed like a formality that he would win two more and pass his idol, Pete Sampras.
Whether Federer could win in Paris, though, was very much in question.
When Federer woke up on June 1 of that year, however, things had changed significantly. Rafael Nadal, the rival he couldn’t beat at Roland Garros, had suffered a stunning fourth-round defeat to Robin Soderling. Federer was suddenly staring at the biggest chance he would ever have to complete the career Grand Slam.
FEDERER RETIRES: 20-time Grand Slam champion makes it official
But exactly two hours into his fourth-round match against Tommy Haas, it looked like an opportunity lost. Down two sets and serving at 3-4, 30-40, Federer was a point away from being broken and likely finished in the next few minutes.
As Federer’s second serve kicked out wide, he immediately moved to the backhand corner, anticipating that Haas’ return would come back cross-court. But instead of playing to a safe target or drawing Haas into a rally, a backpedaling Federer launched himself off the red dirt and whipped an inside-out forehand — the most dangerous shot he could have chosen at that moment — toward the opposite sideline where Haas had left just a sliver of an opening. It caught the line by the smallest of margins. He went on to win the game, the match and the tournament — a scene of joy and relief that only Federer could have authored.
It is impossible to know how much hinged on that shot, how many demons Federer might have battled if he had not made it. But its mere existence and the daring spirit from which it was born explains what it was like to watch Federer on a tennis court for two decades.
Whether or not you consider Federer the greatest of all time, there has never been a player who conjured a sense of history with every swing of his racquet, whose game was so beautiful it could have been painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and whose mentality was so audacious that the difference between brilliance and crushing defeat was often no more than an inch.
Federer announced Thursday that he is retiring from professional tennis after next week’s Laver Cup, a glorified exhibition that will likely put him on a court with Nadal one last time. It will also allow fans to give Federer the proper send-off he didn’t get a year ago at Wimbledon when he lost his final competitive set to Hubert Hurkacz, 6-0, and then submitted to a third knee surgery in the span of 18 months.
Since then, there has been no expectation that Federer would be able to return at age 41 and play at a level representative of his greatness. Even if everything had gone perfect in his recovery, playing in 2023 was going to be little more than a goodbye tour. Still it feels wrong that Federer, perhaps the most universally beloved athlete of the modern era, will not even get that much.
But tennis doesn’t lend itself to fairytale endings, save for a declining Sampras making magic one last time at the 2002 U.S. Open and never stepping foot on the court again.
More often, the all-time greats have to accept some level of indignity in their final act. Bjorn Borg lost two consecutive Grand Slam finals to John McEnroe in 1981 and decided he had lost his passion. Andre Agassi poured everything out at age 36 to upset Marcos Baghdatis in his final U.S. Open and had nothing left in the tank for the next round against the unknown Benjamin Becker. Steffi Graf could not finish a match against Amy Frazier in San Diego due to an injured hamstring and announced her retirement a week later.
And as we just saw the U.S. Open, Serena Williams turned back the clock enough to make the third round but ultimately walked off the court feeling as if she had let victory slip away against Ajla Tomljanovic.
It feels like a jolt to everything we have come to expect from tennis that Williams and Federer are walking away together. Though Williams had already won six Grand Slam titles by the time Federer won his first in 2003, they towered over their respective tours concurrently for two decades, even during periods when they didn’t win everything in sight. It is not often that you get to see all-time great athletes make the full journey from teenage emergence to dominance to parenthood to inevitable athletic mortality, but they made the aging process look far more aspirational than anyone who had come before them.
There were surely be a lot of hand-wringing in the coming weeks about what it means for tennis that these global superstars who drew millions to stadiums all over the world are leaving the scene. The reality is that Federer and Williams, along with Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have been at this longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. There may be a period of transition, and it may be generations before someone can match their achievements, but the sport does not stop.
As we saw at the U.S. Open with 19-year old Carlos Alcaraz winning the title after epic battles with Jannik Sinner and Frances Tiafoe along with Iga Swiatek asserting her dominance on the women’s side, there are plenty of exciting young stars ready to take the baton.
Whether it’s them or somebody else coming in the future, we will see players who push the boundaries of the game exactly like Federer and Williams did. That’s how tennis works, a constant evolution of technology, athleticism and power that demands more and more of players who want to win at the highest level.
What will be more difficult for the next generate to recreate is the feeling that Williams and Federer generated when they were on the court. They didn’t play matches as much as they were main characters in a human drama where their vulnerabilities were as much a part of the story as their one-of-a-kind talent.
There is an alternate world in which Federer completes the career Grand Slam in 2009, surpasses Sampras at Wimbledon for the all-time Slam record and then retires shortly thereafter. It would have been arguably the most dominant run in the history of men’s tennis, winning 90 percent of his matches over a six-year period while accomplishing practically everything he possibly could have in the game.
But Federer was not afraid of failing or seeing his dominance wane. It only challenged him to keep evolving and getting better, even though the next seven years of his career were marked by some painful losses to his rivals, matches he failed to finish and missed opportunities to add more majors.
At the time, Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon title seemed like a last hurrah. In 2015, he lost close matches to Djokovic in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals and seemed unlikely to ever hold another major trophy. Then in 2016, he shut it down after Wimbledon to take care of a back injury.
The odds seemed long that he could come back and be a factor at age 36. Instead, not only did he come back, he won three more Grand Slams, returned to No. 1 in 2018 and beat Nadal in five of their final six matches. And he did it because, even after all the winning and success, Federer kept refining his game, kept making adjustments to his backhand and kept working for solutions against players that gave him fits.
Every part of that journey made Federer magnetic; not just the ease with which he won but the devastation of so many losses — perhaps none more than the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic when he held two match points in the fifth set, missed an ace by millimeters and then failed to close out the title.
Those moments may very well cost him the moniker of greatest ever. But even someone who knows nothing about tennis could watch Federer and see the artistry and genius at play.
When Federer came along, the men’s game was struggling. It was all about big serves and quick points, a paint-by-numbers game that had lost too much creativity and skill.
Federer flipped that on its head. He didn’t have the fastest serve, but he had the most lethal. He shanked more balls than any other top player, squandered countless break points and often put himself in situations where he had to dig out of trouble. What he had was a variety of shotmaking like nobody else, a backhand slice that he turned into a weapon and a willingness to come forward for volleys that was uncommon for his era. And when Federer got a forehand to hit, he really hit it — a signature shot with his eyes locked onto the contact point that everyone who picked up a racquet in the last 20 years has tried to recreate.
Federer did not always play perfect tennis, but it always looked like perfection. And in the moments that required him to be great — like that 2009 French Open — he so often found the right balance between brutality and grace.
Federer will be missed, not just by tennis but everyone who remembers what he was like at his best. Whether or not the numbers say he was the greatest player ever is irrelevant. For nearly 20 years, nobody authored more moments that made his fans feel something they never felt before.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Roger Federer retired after making tennis look perfect in his career