Roger Federer is the most famous Swiss citizen.
“It’s not even close,” Nicolas Bideau, a Swiss authority on promoting the country’s image, once told me.
But although Switzerland has long accepted its neutrality, Federer has only played at home in the whole world.
He pitied the Frenchman against Federer at Roland Garros, whose command of the French and forehand made him a favorite for years.
In the year It was Pete Juan Martin del Potro, Argentina’s powerhouse, who met Federer at an exhibition in the suburbs of Buenos Aires in 2012 and had an unexpected road-team sensation.
Pty Novak Djokovic, the Serbian megastar, faced Federer in the 2015 US Open final and faced boos for his double fault, forcing himself to imagine that the crowd was chanting his name instead of Federer’s.
And so Federer went on many occasions during his long run at the top of the game, and when I researched and wrote a biography about Federer after 20 years of covering him for The New York Times, one of my goals was to fully understand what was behind it. Deep connection with different cultures.
I ended up with four big reasons:
First and foremost, there was the beauty of the game, something closer to dance than tennis, with its feathery feet, the flowing production of strokes and something even closer to improvisational dance in that Federer, for almost everyone, happy, often far from choreography. Jumping or pulling to intercept the ball and creating a new little movement with a flick of the wrist and a sound.
The right-hander’s flurry sometimes left his opponents stunned: see what Andy Roddick said after Federer’s 2002 in Basel, Federer’s true hometown. Above all, Federer’s game was an immersive viewing experience, one that could turn even defeat into an event because of the beauty of his strokes. The results sometimes seem beside the point. You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate Federer’s art, but his art can make you a tennis fan, and that’s part of his legacy when he retires from competitive tennis next week.
Second, Federer was on top form, patiently managing to make no dramatic changes to his results and appeal. It’s been a faithful presence on the screen for 20 years: it first appeared in the late 1990s on television and on all kinds of devices when the final major tournament was played at Wimbledon in 2021. The titles were passed by Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, but his record of 23 consecutive Grand Slam singles semi-finals will never be beaten. And then there’s his stat line: Federer has never retired from 1,526 career singles matches or 223 doubles matches due to injury or illness. Jimmy Connors is the only man to have played more tour-level matches than Federer, retiring from 14 tour-level singles matches. Djokovic retired from 13. Nadal from nine. Federer’s tennis was not just beautiful. It was brutal.
Thirdly, he conducted himself in the court and outside the house, with class. After a shaky start, filled with dropped rackets and screams of frustration, Federer became the closest thing to a Zen master in the early 2000s. This is because he realized that he didn’t want to show his anger to the crowd as he got older, but played better under tight control. He once told me that what was released in lamenting the injustice of his emotions was more than just and focused, even though that old fire still burned fiercely in the modern facade.
Off the court — with sponsors, news media, the public and six family members — he’s focused on timing and presence (which doesn’t necessarily mean social media presence). He arrived on Instagram and Twitter relatively late in the game and posted discreetly, if sporadically. He always seemed to prefer a face-to-face, non-distributive approach, which made him old-school at one level, then definitely ahead of the curve. An interview with Federer, over a meal or in the backseat of a courtesy car, was usually reserved for conversation. “The reason Roger is so interesting is because he’s so passionate,” his former coach Paul Annacone once told me.
that’s true. Unlike his predecessors such as Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, he was an individual who gathered energy from interaction. But Federer knows his limits: when he’s nearing maturity and having a good time, he usually takes a personal break.
The principle, and this is something that people outside of earthly tennis skills can learn from, was to find joy, or at least displeasure, in the duties associated with the job and the situation: post-match interviews in three languages or meet-and-greets for his valued sponsors. As Roddick rightly puts it, his world has long seemed low-conflict, but that’s not just because he flies privately and stays in the most luxurious resorts and mansions. It is because of the attitude and true love of discovery and the road that he occasionally returns to low-conflict Switzerland to regroup.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most interesting part of the popularity equation, Federer was a consistent champion, one of the most popular in the game’s long history, but he was also a big loser.
It could be argued persuasively that Federer failed to seal the deal in two of his biggest matches, winning the 2008 Wimbledon final against Nadal. Defeat Nadal at the 2017 Australian Open to start Federer’s incredible late-career renaissance and, sadly for those who call Federer home, lose to Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final at the age of 37 with two match points on his own serve.
True Federer fans (and Djokovic fans) can replay in their heads the two missed chances: A forehand error from deep that led to a shot winner with a slightly convincing approach shot from Djokovic.
Within a minute, he slipped out onto his favorite turf, the venue for what would have been the most dramatic victory of his career, the theater where he won a men’s record eight Wimbledon singles titles, ideal for his balletic game.
For all his talent, ruthless planning and love of the game, he’s still broken when he needs to be: more often than not over 20-plus years, certainly enough to humanize him.
Then there were the tears that came and went in victory and defeat, often late in the career. Such a public gesture from a superstar male athlete was once derided as soft, but Federer’s timing was just right, as were his rhythmic serves and perfectly cut groundstrokes that stuck to the baseline and flew straight out of the swing.
His game was a visual feast, suitable for filming, but the player was exposed to flesh and blood and was more relevant to him despite all the millions in a Swiss bank.