Roger Federer: Anatomy of Glory

On Thursday, September 15th, 2022, the sports world got news it had been expecting, but had hoped wouldn’t get for at least another year. Roger Federer was retiring from tennis after 24 years on the tour and almost two decades spearheading the sport. Obviously, when people will think of his career, they will look at the numbers, and they don’t lie. The ATP Tour dutifully posted some of them the moment he made his announcement.

Importantly, they did not mention his signature record: his 237 consecutive weeks as World No. 1 from February 2004 to August 2008, though it certainly will be mentioned in this ongoing tribute to his records. I do not think that this incredible feat will ever be surpassed.

However, math won’t be the reason that people will remember Roger Federer. More than anything, it was the incredible way he racked up those numbers that will come to mind. Watching Roger Federer play was an experience unlike any other. It was almost like watching a dance or a magic show than watching tennis. His style transcended the sport, creating its own form of glory with it.

We may not ever see such a style again.

Roger Federer transcended his sport. In many ways, he was to tennis what Michael Jordan was to basketball, Muhammad Ali was to boxing, Babe Ruth was to baseball, and his friend Tiger Woods was to golf. We periodically see athletes transcend their respective sports, but only a few times in a century does an athlete take their sport, elevate all the other athletes in it, and create a golden age for it. Roger Federer did that with tennis, drawing in millions to the sport because they couldn’t miss seeing him play. To compete with him, all the athletes in tennis needed to step up their own games to even have a chance at glory, solidifying those new fans.

Roger Federer’s glory on the court is unquestioned. Everybody who encounters the sport, now and in ages to come, will know his name. He may no longer have the most Grand Slam title wins, but he set the bar that his rivals needed to follow in order to compete. As a result, the entire sport leveled up, even if only two other men were able to rival him for any considerable period.

But there was another reason that Federer will be remembered, and it is the thing that secures his glory.

There are many other successful athletes, but success is paradoxically often the worst enemy of glory. We can turn to Sallust on this, with his introduction for his histories. “Glory based on riches or appearances is transitory and brittle” so goes part one of that peerless sentence. This is precisely the pitfall that many successful people face, both in and out of sport. Alex Rodriguez serves as an excellent example. He dominated his sport for a time, if not quite to the same degree that Roger Federer did his at his peak. Yet, he was so concerned with how he looked that he caved into the pressure to do performance-enhancing drugs and defend himself from media criticism. As a result, he eventually fell from grace and missed the Hall of Fame.

There is a second part of Sallust’s sentence: “but masculine virtue is pure and eternal.”

Roger Federer wasn’t always the most well-behaved player. He was infamous for his tantrums as a minor. His parents were adamant that if he continued that behavior, he would not have been able to achieve the feats that he did.

His matured character traits are also what endeared him to fans. Alex Rodriguez may have been the best player of his generation, with or without the steroids, but the fans never loved him the way they loved Derek Jeter. But Roger Federer earned the love of the fans. He attracted them by the way he played. He kept them by his mentality and the way he conducted himself, and those traits in turn allowed him to play better.

If the Greek kleos means “what others hear about you,” then one only need look at some of the messages he received from competitors and people all around the world. One of them particularly stood out, though. It was from his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal. Who else could it have come from?

Of course it’s easy to send such messages when a player announces his retirement, but one understands that this sentiment will last forever. His glory is secured and it provides some hope for an ailing culture.

Last week, I pondered whether the death of Queen Elizabeth II was a crossroads for Western civilization. The Queen was the last prominent world leader to have experienced the true hardships of the Great Depression and Second World War, at least in some fashion. As those memories faded and we had three successive generations of relative peace and prosperity, the “good times create weak men, weak men create hard times” phase of the cycle seemed to kick in. The stoicism of Queen Elizabeth II became replaced by the epicureanism of her grandson Prince Harry. The situation in the British Royal Family was a perfect microcosm of the upside-down clown world we’ve created, one which values warped and unsustainable things.

Yet, men like Roger Federer still exist, informed by the same value system of Queen Elizabeth II. We don’t know what his future holds. I doubt he will seek office. Yet, our culture is still capable of producing and training people like him. That may prove the most important part of Federer’s career and his glory.

Roger Federer Glory

You can read more about what glory truly means in Lives of the Luminaries.

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