“In an era of specialists, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer.” – Jimmy Connors.
I’m a footballer. I’ve always been a footballer. That is not to say that I am an advocate for what the professional game has become, or the direction in which it continues to charge, only that in football lies the majority of my interest in sport – alongside a little golf and some tennis…
That is predominately as a viewer. As a player, though, it is very much the same – only a little more towards golf and a little less towards tennis. It’s always been football. I’m rushing this introduction somewhat as I am off to play in only a matter of minutes. There is just something about booting a ball around that is unequalled in any other recreational activity that I have happened to stumble across. Indeed, I doubt that I will ever come across anything that even rivals the exhilaration of scoring a worldie in Butt-Blast.
I’ve been playing football for as long as I can remember. I’ve been a Man. U. fan for just as long. I’ve probably played for a dozen teams in all, including quintuplet-winning and national finalists of the Tesco Cup, Kempston Colts, for the county of Bedfordshire at various ages, for Luton Town, and for three schools. I started as a left midfielder before advancing my trade to left winger, but I’ve also played right mid and wing, as a striker and in central midfield.
That’s probably evidence enough that I was keen (I still am). I loved to play, certainly in the younger years, and I still love to play now. I did stop playing competitively, however – barring the likes of a recent five-a-side tournament. Why? I’d say as I grew up that life got in the way, and I’ll leave it at that.
I still play whenever I can, though. At the moment, during the summer, I probably get out three times a week on average. Not to play ninety-minute games, but just down the local park with some equally enthusiastic friends.
One might think that Roger Federer is a loose connection to all of this, and they can be forgiven for such a thought, but I assure you that he is not. Did you know that the tennis legend was once a keen young footballer himself, playing to a high standard in his native Switzerland? Well, he was. Not that that holds much relevance, to be honest, because he is a tennis player…
I don’t think that I’ve ever watched a full game of tennis. From start to finish, that is. I do have an interest. I get gripped by all the drama, just as many do when the tennis season comes around – when Wimbledon is on in this country. I just can’t often sit down for a lazy afternoon. I prefer to flitter in and out, only choosing to sit if I feel that something pivotal is about to happen, or that a climax is near.
Even when I do poke my head around a door to a room from which I can hear the hitting of a ball, with the grunts and groans of play and the scurrying of feet, I might go in and sit down, but it can’t be whilst Federer is on. It has to be between two players who I have no particular affiliations towards. I can’t as much as watch the matches of earlier rounds against supposed minnows, lower-ranked or unranked players or even wild-card qualifiers.
I might have once been able to (not that I did), perhaps during one of the two-hundred and thirty-seven consecutive weeks in which Federer held the ATP World No.1 ranking, and was favourite for most tournaments, but definitely not any more. Why is that? I just can’t bear to see him lose, or as much as sit there watching with even the slightest inkling of that outcome being present.
I don’t know exactly from where this deep-rooted adulation for Federer comes, or when it began, but I believe that it has derived from the composure with which he leads his life. I can’t help but eulogize his equanimity; I am in awe. For me, it is that which makes him a truly great ambassador for the sport, or indeed any sport; smooth and cordial on the surface, concealing the killer instinct of a champion within. It’s that which makes him truly unique. There are few others out there who are able to replicate the modesty that he possesses, even whilst playing at such a high level for so many years.
He’s a one-woman family man and father of four whilst managing to remain a magician on the court, playing with an unprecedented, unrivaled style, fusing composure and the utmost grace. A genuine role model, certainly to the likes of I. There aren’t many, but he’s somebody who I truly idolise – I admire and respect a lot of athletes, but none like the great man.
I’m going to confess my love for Roger Federer now. I do love the man. I mean, I’m not fanatical, I’m not a stalker, who Google’s pictures of his house taken by paparazzi, of his wife at home with the children or Roger himself nipping out to the local convenience store to buy some bread or anything like that; I only care about his family because he does. What truly captivates me is the manner with which he carries out his work.
This post is clearly inspired by Federer’s recent success at Wimbledon. I shall admit that I was asleep through most of the final after a heavy night before (again, not that I would have watched it anyway), but I woke up in time to see the last two games of the third set. A record-breaking moment which I think that I will remember for a long time. I thought that it might have already been too late, but after his endeavours in January, proving that he was not just a man with the drive but still the capability to emerge victorious at a grand slam, there was hope.
I was actually in Switzerland of all places (on the French-Swiss border of the Alps) when he won in Australia. I was on the BBC Sport live updates page praying with all my heart that good news would present itself.
I did question back then why I felt such affiliations towards the man too. Perhaps it was seeing him so often at Wimbledon throughout the majority of my childhood, when, over a decade and a half ago, he was first starting to make history with a five-set fourth-round victory over then reigning champion Pete Sampras.
Today, the list of his achievements is extensive. Commentators and journalists and just about everyone else has been throwing statistics around, just like they did in January at the Australian Open, and indeed they do when such feats are achieved elsewhere in the sporting world. I won’t delve too deep, but the records truly have fallen at Federer’s feet, certainly during 2017.
I just want to offer a gauge as to just what he has achieved: He’s become the stand-alone record holder with eight Wimbledon titles, now the oldest Wimbledon winner in the Open Era (by four years) and the oldest winner of a grand slam since 1972. He’s 36 next month. That’s retirement age for many athletes, or even past it. And what did Federer say after this year’s final? “I hope this wasn’t my last match [at Wimbledon], and I hope I can come back next year and try to defend the title.”
Some love to play and indeed keep playing for that sole reason, but in most of those cases their winning days are behind them. Not only has Federer won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017, but he’s come out on top at the Indian Wells Masters, as well as the Miami and Halle Opens. He now has a total of 93 ATP singles titles to his name, including his nineteen grand slams, which are both records within themselves.
I mean, if you look at some of the other totals, none really come close. Not to mention that most are held by those of the Modern Era, i.e. his current competitors. The so-called ‘four pillars of modern tennis’ in Roger Federer (93), Rafael Nadal(73), Novak Djokovic(68) and Andy Murray(45). These four players make up four of the top six of the most ATP titles of all time, including the first three positions.
There are far more tournaments across the globe which players can compete at these days, so much so that they often coincide or overlap, enabling the Big Four, or even other big names, to avoid facing off against each other, but to be honest the standard is so high across the board that in my opinion it hardly matters where you play. In this day and age, with the encompassing reach of talent seeking professionals, the facilities and coaching then available to nurture that talent, the competition will never be scarce.
I’m not suggesting that those who have their names etched onto these age-old trophies are undeserving, only that if you look at other champions of previous times, the game has changed a lot since then. I’m only highlighting and emphasizing the level at which these achievements sit. There is nothing to say that with greater competition, Herbert Lawford, of Wimbledon 1887, for example, would still not have come out on top. Equally, you can only beat who is put in front of you, but with even the level of coaching in this modern age the competition is far tougher, the distinction between each individual much reduced, and now on a far wider scale too.
With greater facilities and coaching etc., it is all relative to the time in which you are or were a player, but in comparison to the days in which Herbert Lawford competed there was far more of a gap between the elite level players and the so-called amateurs, making the competition less.
Some would argue that the Big Four of this generation are a way ahead, between them winning forty-eight of the last fifty-six slams, and forty-four of the last forty-nine, but I believe that that is testament to their ability, not the deficiencies of their opponents. They are all still beaten; anyone can beat anyone. It has just happened that in those instances more often than not one of the other three has taken up the mantle.
If you look at Wimbledon in recent years this proves the point that I’m making. In 2012 Nadal went out in round two. In 2013 Federer went out in the same round as defending champion. That year Nadal hadn’t made it past round one. In 2015 Nadal overcame round one but fell again at round two. Even last year Djokovic couldn’t make it past round three – also as defending champion.
It’s the hardest era of tennis that there has ever been, which makes each success even more of an achievement, and that applies to any winner of a slam in recent years (though the list is short). It is true that in the Four Pillars we have four of the best tennis players of all time, and they all deserve much credit, but, having said that, perhaps more credit is due, then, to the three players who have taken grand slam titles from all of their hands since the 2005 Australian Open – Juan Martín del Potro, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Čilić.
Though for now those pillars continue to stand strong, I did think that Federer’s time of glory might have passed. After two final defeats to Novak Djokovic it was an easy idea to conceive. At the time, Djokovic looked unbeatable, and his ability to make seemingly impossible angles with such consistency made Federer look slow. It wasn’t just that, though. The numbers were aligned. Last year, with Djokovic suffering that shock defeat in the earlier rounds, the tournament had opened up, but Federer only slipped further away from his prize with a semis defeat to Milos Raonic. That was after a far from convincing performance in the quarters, having to save three match points and come from two sets down to beat Marin Čilić. By the time that the semi-finals came around, it was clear that those additional hours on court had caught up with him; once famed resilience and stamina seemed foregone.
His reoccurring back problem also resurfaced. There were real signs that he was fading. This caused a six-month hiatus from the sport. Six months of recovery. It was never in doubt that he would return, but I don’t think that anybody quite expected the man who did. He changed his approach, altered his game to suit, and he has now taken two of the three slams so far this year. Besides obvious raw talent, his self-belief is just incredible. It is that which I want to reflect and emulate in my own life. That drive to succeed. I think that it is inspirational.
The man who gets up from setbacks is a man who has the resolve of a champion. This is how Federer has gotten up from his setbacks; titles are his evidence. Understandably, as one would, he doubted himself. He also said after this year’s Wimbledon: “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be here again in another finals after last year. You know, I’ve had some tough ones, losing to Novak in ’14 and ’15.” This is perhaps a confession that he too shared the belief that he would follow the trajectory in which it appeared he was heading, gradually slipping further and further into the background…
I don’t have any other true sporting idol, of any era – or even another idol outside of sport. Roger Federer is mine in all aspects of life. I aspire to achieve as he has, to follow in his humble footsteps.
It might be strange that I don’t hold that much of an interest in tennis, then. I don’t know; I don’t know the science behind it. To put it as simply as I can, it just has nothing on the thrill of smashing a ball into a goal. Each to their own… What about the professional game? That’s where the guillotine falls.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching a good match of football, and there is something to be said for sitting down and doing just that: it’s an excuse to put your feet up, whilst remaining a sociable activity; and it’s entertaining! The game is not without its faults, but its popularity continues to grow and I can completely see why. What’s not to love? The appeal is clear. From Iceland to Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia… Africa… The concept is so simple. All you really need to play is a ball.
Football does a lot of good all over the world, to its farthest and most deprived reaches – that should be noted. It’s that, however, which greater highlights its shortcomings. How can something so uplifting share its fundaments with such petulance? That’s why it falls down kicking and screaming whilst clutching its ankle when its best players have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons once again. Whether it’s for squabbling over how many hundreds of thousands of pounds per week they’re getting, which model they’re gorking, or some other even more ludicrous debacle.
I can’t subscribe to the theatre of it all, both on and off the pitch. It’s that which means football will never hold the same level of prestige as tennis. It will never have a reputation as a gentleman’s game, simply, because so rarely do gentleman play it.
Morally, Football is not in a good place at the moment. I don’t think that it’s ever been in the best of places, but it’s getting worse. Besides the ability to play, new art forms have emerged in deception and perversion; from the managers to the players and right the way through to the fans. This is not a completely inclusive statement, but on the whole, it has to be said, there is little positive influence that comes with it. The baggage of these incongruities really drags the sport down. It shouldn’t be the way, but things happen with such regularity that it has even come to be what is expected. We aren’t surprised when Karim Benzema is caught speeding at 135mph (double the speed limit), when Mario Balotelli sets off fireworks from his bathroom, or when Luis Suarez has taken another bite out of a defender… These transgressions have been normalised.
It should be noted also that the headlines are sometimes made for the right reasons; the sport is more than engaging, at times completely enthralling and even awe-inspiring. I’ve been off my seat when Messi sat down Boeteng, before chipping Neuer and leaving Lahm in a heap in his own net; when Sergi Roberto scored that sixth goal in injury-time against PSG; and most recently when Mandžukić scored that bicycle kick in the Champions League final. The talent is incredible; it’s just everything else around the edges. It is a drama, of course it is, but is it worth sacrificing our ethics for?
It’s not that everyone who participates is unsportsmanlike, that’s not what I’m suggesting. Unprofessional mistakes are made, there are always those, but it’s how they’re managed to weave themselves into the modern game through sheer persistence, so much so that they are now just another integral part, inherent in every footballer’s DNA. They are so frequent that we no longer think twice about simulation, harassment, shouting, swearing, intentional ‘professional’ fouls.
There are some players who are still genuine, but on the whole it has become a cynical affair.
It’s not just on the pitch, though, it’s also off it. Current England captain, Wayne Rooney, cheated on his wife with a prostitute. Former England left-back Ashley Cole was labelled a ‘love rat’ for his multiple affairs whilst married to Cheryl Cole. John Terry went as far as to bed teammate Wayne Bridge’s partner (whilst also married); there are even reports that he impregnated her and paid for the abortion. These are all English national players, two having captained the side for a total of fifty-seven games between them over the course of eleven years.
They have all been icons for over a decade. Icons. Stars. Heroes. Whatever you want to call them. Perhaps not heroes for their country, but at club level they are certainly all revered – I have a lot of respect for them too. Rooney has dragged records down to claim them for his own – just look at the past twenty-four months. Terry is a legend in his own right, with a mountain of accolades stemming from the defensive spine that he gives teams. He’s also the highest scoring defender in premier league history. Even his longevity is creditable; I believe that he is one of the best centre-halves of all time. I don’t like Chelsea or wish them any success, but he has been an exceptional player for them over the years. Even Ashley Cole was the best left-back in the world on his day, despite his size and stature – his skill alone bested his opponents more often than not, which is even more admirable. I think Ashley Cole has cleared more balls off the line than I’ve had hot dinners…
I know that I’ve spoken a lot about football, that’s just where the bulk of my knowledge lies. I’m sure that there are graceless stories to be told from most sports; I’m just shocked with what comes from mine… Ryan Giggs had a nine-year affair with his brother’s wife. Zinedine Zidane headbutted an opponent in the World Cup final. These are just off the top of my head. Some other examples, in other sports? O. J. Simpson and Tiger Woods come to mind.
It’s a complete disregard for the position that society has elevated you to. It’s arrogance at its razored peak, egotism at large. All of these things just highlight, for me, Federer’s class. These are celebrities that we’re talking about, of national and often global status; they have the ability to influence people on a mass scale, especially those younger and more impressionable. Certainly in world-spanning sports, these players need to attune their awareness to the effects that their actions have. They need to be more responsible.
If we go back to the start, then… Without being a tennis player or much of a viewer, why do I have so much love and admiration for Roger Federer? I am simply in awe of his capacity to both persevere and continue to prevail despite the obstacles that life has thrown in his way – that life will inevitably throw at us all. How humble he is in both victory and defeat; his ability to remain composed at all times, and just his wholehearted, giving nature. You don’t choose who you idolise; Roger Federer is that man. It’s because I love him so much that I just can’t bear to watch him lose. I wish him all the success in the world because I truly believe that a man of his calibre deserves it.
I said before the tournament that I’d rather he had this Wimbledon, taking him ahead of Pete Sampras outright, than Man. U. win the Champions League next year. I prayed for just one more. Ha!
If this is his last triumph at a grand slam, none can question the career that he has had. It’s a record-breaking nineteenth slam. He didn’t even drop a set! I’m not exaggerating when I say that he has not only changed the world of tennis, but the world of sport forever. With perhaps the help of Rafael Nadal, he has revolutionised the game. Everyone associated can only complement and congratulate the man. None have ever before continued to play to such a standard with such effortless grace as Roger Federer. What a legacy he will leave. The challenge is set.
“Federer is the most beautiful man to watch play tennis. The most beautiful I’ve ever seen play.” – John McEnroe
“The best way to beat him would be to hit him over the head with a racquet.” – Rod Laver
“For me, in my prime, I felt unbeatable. In Roger’s days, he’s unbeatable. It’s really hard to put one guy over the other. Having said that, I think Roger is dominating the game much more than I ever did. I think he’s going to break all records.” – Pete Sampras