We live in a period in which the expected surprised. In life, there is always an ending. Ever. We know that. We anticipate this. We try to prepare for it. But when the passage of time forces a chapter to inevitably close, the reality of it all still stuns like lightning.
Roger Federer would not play tennis forever. At 41 years old and having suffered one injury after another in recent years, the sand was rapidly falling to the bottom of the hourglass. Even great champions retire.
But like Serena Williams, Federer altered a tennis player ‘s expected career arc. In their fifth decades, both were, incredibly, still present.
While their longevity allowed us to appreciate their talents, to savor each tournament and each passing year, it also lulled us into a false sense of security, to believe that they would always be there, even if injuries led to prolonged absences in later years. They would be back. They always came back.
While we were all — silently and slowly — aging, Federer was still playing, still winning, still defying time, fooling us into believing that neither the world nor us had changed that much.
But on Thursday (the 15th) — two weeks after Williams played what is expected to be his last professional game — we were forced to recognize that we were entering a new era.
“I must recognize when it’s time to end my competitive career,” Federer said as he announced he would end his career after the Laver Cup next week in London.
The Swiss has not played competitively since Wimbledon last summer, after which he underwent a third knee operation that ended up forcing one of tennis’ most incredible careers to end without the flourishing it perhaps deserved.
Yet no other man has won as many Wimbledon titles, played as many (429) or won as many Grand Slam matches (369).
Over a five-year period at the start of the century, when he won 12 of 18 Grand Slams, Federer redefined the meaning of tennis brilliance in the men’s game.
Many of the standout records he set were broken by Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, the other standout talents who would later step up to make the last 15 years the golden age of the sport.
Federer spent 310 weeks at number one in the world; Djokovic surpassed that feat.
Will we ever see his like again? Perhaps, but he would be some player.
Was there a better forehand in the game? A sweeter backhand? A more effective serve? In the men’s game, at least, Williams’ serve is widely considered to be the best there has ever been. Has anyone ever played a sport with such beauty?
“It’s just perfect. The movement, the timing, everything is perfect and that is amazing.”
Federer was a young man when the essay was written, but already, at 25, he was being considered the greatest ever, and not just by Wallace.
There were good players on the tour, of course, but none who could consistently live up to Federer’s shooting and court intelligence. He was so good.
Six years before Wallace’s essay was published, no one thought that Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles would be broken – then came Federer, who would later join.
Now, of course, there are those who would argue that Nadal proved to be the greatest of all time, or that Djokovic is a better all-rounder.
It was, sorry, it’s special, an I-was-there moment that can be told, and retold, for the grandkids or anyone who will listen. No one has made sport at the highest level look so easy.
Sport history points will put Federer alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and, of course, Serena Williams. Gamechangers all who have transcended their sports, who will be talked about for years after retirement, inspiring one generation after another.
Tennis is entering a new future. still capable of accumulating more major titles, but aging nonetheless. .
We knew that one day this would happen.