This piece was drafted some time ago, but wasn’t ready for sharing. The announcement of Roger’s success yet again in the ATP popularity awards seemed just the time to let it out.
There’s the fan: someone who watches a sport simply to see a particular athlete.
There’s the sports fan: someone who loves their chosen game regardless of who is playing.
Somewhere in between there is the admirer, who will seek out one particular exponent of their favourite sport, but not to the exclusion of everyone else.
Just occasionally, an athlete reaches out to all of these, both within their sport and beyond it: the expert and the groupie, the Olympic athlete and the man in the street.
Indeed, once in a while, an athlete will move into that rarified company of individuals whose name needs no explanation, whatever the language. Ali. Pele. Bradman. Federer.
Roger Federer has the usual fans by the bucket-load, like those who lust after David Beckham or Rafa Nadal. He is pursued from airport to hotel, practice courts to locker room. His training sessions draw bigger crowds than the matches of many rivals.
The army of admirers, too, stands 100 deep, fronted by former players like John MacEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Rod Laver, and backed up by current opponents like Marat Safin, David Ferrer, even No. 1 Rafa himself.
Federer, though, has become one of an elite band who have transcended sport entirely to become headliners across the world’s media.
He’s made it to the cover of top-of-the-drawer Vogue and to the gossip pages of bottom-of-the-bin Heat magazine. He models for Rolex, and shaves for Gillette. He makes fashion statements, even when he wears cardigans. He has Anna Wintour and Gwen Stefani in his player’s box, and exchanges texts with Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras.
The adulation comes from men and women, young and old. It comes from those who remember the pre-Open days, and those who’ve never played a day’s tennis in their lives.
It’s rare, this kind of universal admiration. Rarer still is that Federer attracts it while still at the height of his powers, still targeting records, and still as approachable as when he entered the spotlight as a teenager.
How has he done it?
The foundation and the capstone of this tennis edifice is his talent. It’s easy to forget just how high he has set the bar in his sport after his illness-blighted 2008, so let’s just put a few of those records into black-and-white.
He’s the only player to hold a set of three Grand Slam titles (and, incidentally, the Master’s Cup) in three separate years.
He’s the only one to win five consecutive Grand Slams in two separate events.
In the Open era, no-one else has appeared in the finals of all the Grand Slam at least three times.
Let’s put a couple more into context. He has reached 19 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals—the previous record was 10 by Ivan Lendl. (Roger has a clear record in consecutive GS finals, too: 10.)
Then there’s the record that defies belief: 237 consecutive weeks as No. 1 in the world rankings. Next in line, Jimmy Connors, managed only 160.
The breadth and depth of his achievements in tennis are remarkable. When he wins that next Grand Slam, or two or three, most will concede he is the greatest tennis player of all time. Many already do.
But to utterly dominate in a sport that requires such intense top-level performance week after week, year after year, makes him a contender for one of the greatest in any sport, full stop.
Yet if records were the answer, other players would have achieved similar adulation. Laver, Sampras and Becker all had their fans, were greatly admired by their peers, and still command huge respect in tennis.
But which of them would have legions of followers tracking their every move both on and off the court? Or literally circling the globe for a chance to see them play? Federer does.
No, it is not the records. It is how he goes about it: how he plays the game; how he conducts himself; how he reveals the person inside the player.
Anyone with eyes in their head and a heart in their breast will respond to the how. But finding the words to convey it is like trying to describe the colour of sunlight, the smell of ground coffee, the lyricism of a Verdi aria.
It’s where physical grace, fluidity of movement, silence of step, flickering of feet, and explosion of body combine in one ball-striking moment.
It’s in the transition from coiled stillness to leaping forehand.
It’s in the delicate pointing of right toe, through body-sway to unleashed serve.
It’s the picture of suspended animation, arms swept back like an eagle’s, as a backhand disappears to the far diagonal corner.
Writers draw on the same vocabulary time and again: floating, dancing, artistic. The need to capture the beauty of his tennis blurs into capturing the beauty of the man, because that’s easier to illustrate.
It’s possible to draw analogies between his physique, his profile, or his posture with a Greek god, or with Michelangelo’s David, or a carving from ancient Egypt. Describing the experience of Federer’s on-court ballet, however, is like trying to describe the air that you breathe.
His tennis has a language of its own that has captivated lovers of sport around the world. Yet there is another dimension to this sportsman.
Federer has taken on the mantle of ambassador and role-model in an almost unprecedented way. In doing so, he has remained open and generous to fellow players, fans, the press, sponsors and governing bodies.
Who will be able to emulate the sort of popularity that has won him the ATP Fan's Favourite Award for six years on the trot, and the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for five?
Such popularity, though, is a double-edged sword. Accessibility to fans and the media might win attention for his sport (and publicity for his charity work), but he has effectively become the personal property of millions of individuals.
The more they know, the more they like, the more they want—and obsession takes hold. Blogs, forums and fan-sites bulge at the seams with views on every aspect of life.
Is he, therefore, the victim of his own success? He could simply let his tennis do the talking, and still be a sporting legend. He could have reduced his exposure to media and fans after the stresses of last year, but chose not to.
In his own way, he seems to need the adulation as much as the world wants to give it. Does he seek reassurance? Or maybe it’s his way of paying tennis back for the pleasure it’s given him.
Whatever his motivation, there are still a few hearts out there ready and waiting to be conquered.
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