How Roger Federer Became the Greatest Tennis Player of All Time

At 34, the champion has nothing left to prove, but someone forgot to tell him that.
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At 34, the champion has nothing left to prove, but someone forgot to tell him that.
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It was supposed to be the end. In the fourth round of the 2013 U.S. Open, Roger Federer faced Spain’s Tommy Robredo, a man who had posted a goose egg against Federer in 10 previous matches. This night, however, the script would be rewritten. The Swiss superstar misjudged forehands, shanked backhands, squandered break points, and dished out 43 unforced errors. The once unflappable champ even kicked a ball in frustration en route to a straight-sets defeat.

To many watching, the performance was startling. For more than a decade, Federer had appeared infallible. Witnessing his seamless, fluid artistry on the court—and his play was nothing less than art—was to see the purest form of sport, much like Messi with a soccer ball or Tiger when he ruled the fairways. As Jimmy Connors once told the BBC, in the modern game, “You’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist…or you’re Roger Federer.”

Yet that year, for the first time since 2002, he didn’t make a Grand Slam final, he exited Wimbledon in the second round, and eventually he dropped to seventh in the world rankings. So it was no surprise that after a loss to a guy who could walk around the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center without being recognized, sportswriters were using phrases like “sense of mourning,” “era over,” and “sun begins to go down on Federer’s career.”

Fans cried blasphemy, as if Michelangelo were being forced to put down his brushes. But why shouldn’t Fed hang it up? Since turning pro in 1998, the then 32-year-old had already rewritten the record books. He’d won 17 Grand Slam titles and spent 302 weeks as the world’s number one player. In three separate seasons, he’d reached the finals of all four majors, and made the semis of a major 23 consecutive times. 

And he’d done it with more than pure talent; he had indefatigable character. There had been no better proof of that than the 2008 Wimbledon finals. Federer lost a five-set, nearly five-hour epic to Rafael Nadal, in what many consider the greatest match ever played. That might have broken some players. Federer? Ten weeks later, he steamrolled his way to the U.S. Open crown. “He’s the greatest player that ever lived,” proclaimed the always outspoken John McEnroe.

While talk of a swan song grew louder, those closest to Federer knew to ignore the chatter. For them, Roger’s recent fallibility may have come as a surprise, but retirement was unimaginable. While he appears the embodiment of calm, collected grace, a man at times humbled to tears, who enjoys nothing more than traveling the ATP circuit with his wife, Mirka, and their four children, there lies within Roger Federer a primordial need: the same ineffable hunger that possesses Tiger and Peyton. “When you do something best in life,” Federer has said, “you don’t really want to give it up. And for me that is tennis.”

Even as a 15-year-old, one could see the desire in Federer. He wasn’t the eloquent stoic back then but a long-limbed kid from Basel, Switzerland, who tossed racquets, threw tantrums, and yelled aloud at himself. The  difference was that he’d behave like that when he was winning. Because Federer didn’t care about the score. He wasn’t interested in the trophy. He was obsessed with the game, hitting every shot impeccably. His quest was perfection in a sport where perfection is, inevitably, impossible.

Within a decade, Federer had closed in on that perfection. In 2003 he conquered his first Wimbledon, he won three Grand Slams in 2004, and then in 2006, he put together what is arguably the best season in history: 12 singles titles (including three Grand Slams—he lost the French final to Nadal), a match record of 92-5, and a finals spot in 16 of 17 events.

Fans loved him not only because of what he accomplished but how he did it. His style of play is spoken of with pious reverence, as if it’s a living, breathing thing, an entity separate from Federer himself. “It’s beautiful to watch,” says Gabe Jaramillo, who has coached Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, and Pete Sampras and is now director at the Club Med Academies at Sandpiper Bay. “Other players, like Nadal and Djokovic, are physically stronger but everyone loves to watch Roger because only he makes the game look so easy.”

Off the court, he carries himself with the same effortless composure. “He’s like a cross between John Wayne and James Bond,” says Justin Gimelstob, a former ATP standout and now a Tennis Channel commentator and coach of the top-ranked U.S. player, John Isner. Federer’s career earnings of $97 million (plus multitudes more in sponsorships with brands like Rolex, Moët & Chandon, Nike, and Mercedes-Benz) have afforded him a spread in Dubai, a villa on Lake Zurich, and a ski chalet in the Swiss Alps mountain resort of Lenzerheide. 

He also enjoys a lifestyle that comes with international celebrity. Bradley Cooper is a regular in Federer’s courtside box. French soccer icon Thierry Henry is a good friend. And he’s been known for the occasional big night out, like his belated birthday bash a few years back at Manhattan’s Beatrice Inn, where the tennis star dined with Diane von Furstenberg, Nicole Kidman, Oscar de la Renta, and the devil in Prada herself, Vogue’s Anna Wintour. In fact, Federer and Wintour have struck up a close friendship over the past 15 years. “I bounce all kinds of ideas off of her,” Federer has admitted. “What to wear on and off the court, at photo shoots, sponsors, everything.”

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Yet the most popular sports figure on the planet is devoid of ego and pretense. “He’s the most engaged, present guy on the tour,” says Gimelstob. Ask anyone who’s crossed paths with Federer and they’ll gush about his wit, generosity, and warmth. “I’d had a big Tennis Channel interview fall through,” says Gimelstob. “Roger had just played five sets and agreed to take time to sit down with me. We do the whole interview, after which the tech guy announces something went wrong: no sound. What’d Roger do? He did the entire interview again.”

While professional athletes of his stature don’t tend toward public introspection, Federer acknowledged his struggles after the 2013 season. “I had some doubts at certain times,” he said. “But overall I knew that it couldn’t be that I’d feel this way forever, so it was just important to stay patient and wait.” He didn’t take a laissez-faire approach, though. Instead, he hired six-time singles Grand Slam winner Stefan Edberg as his coach and, making worldwide headlines, changed his racquet from the traditional 90-square-inch head to 95, affording him the additional power needed to handle baseline blitzers Nadal and Djokovic. More important, Federer also rededicated himself to training, spending countless hours on the court trying to recapture his game.

It paid off. In 2014, he won five titles, and the following season Federer made an even more emphatic statement. In addition to two Grand Slam finals, he won the Western & Southern Open title in Cincinnati with consecutive victories over Andy Murray and Djokovic, the world’s number two and number one players, respectively.

After steamrolling Tomás Berdych in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Australian Open (the Czech had beaten Roger on the last two occasions they’d faced each other in a major), Federer appeared destined to claim his 18th major title. But in the semis he faced familiar finals nemesis Djokovic, who did not simply win in four sets; the Serbian said afterward that the first two sets he won were possibly the best tennis he’s ever played against his rival.

After the match, Federer, in a rose-colored baseball cap from his signature RF collection for Nike, sat for the obligatory press conference. “I know you guys think I’m old,” he said, evoking laughter from reporters. “But it doesn’t scare me when I go into a big match against any player who’s in their prime.”

In early February, Federer notched another milestone: For the first time in his career he went under the knife to repair a torn meniscus. Experts said the athlete could be laid up for months and possibly not play until summer. Yet they, too, underestimated Roger Federer. Three weeks after surgery he was back on the tennis court, saying he’d “rarely felt so happy” to be there. Understandable. This is a big year; in addition to the remaining three majors, there are the Olympic Games in Rio. Will he have enough to win his 18th major—or a singles gold medal? 

Don’t bet against Roger Federer.