Roger Federer, who announced his retirement Thursday after 24 brilliant years on tour, was, for a time, close to invincible. The years 2004 to 2007 were Federer’s peak, though that word understates his unprecedented position during that period. With Rafael Nadal only beginning to come into his own on non-clay-court surfaces, Novak Djokovic not yet fully formed, and other rivals (Andy Roddick, an aging Andre Agassi) just not in his league, Federer enjoyed as dominant a four-year run as the game has ever seen. He had won 11 of the 16 majors, ending that stretch just two shy of Pete Sampras’s then-record of 14 while picking up 13 Masters Series titles one level below the majors. He established himself, for many, as the best player of all time. And of course he did it all with his signature blend of grace, artistic wizardry, and panache.
But nothing gold can stay. Beyond the astonishing level of play it contained, the 2008 Wimbledon final is often considered the greatest match of all time because it heralded a clear changing of the tennis guard. Nadal finally defeated Federer on his holy ground, permanently denting his invincibility. (The Spaniard had also thrashed Fed at the French Open months earlier, but this was something different altogether.) Federer’s luster began, slowly but surely, to fade. And he seemed — temporarily at least — pretty upset about it. Federer won the 2008 U.S. Open, his fifth in a row, but then lost to Nadal, again in excruciating fashion, at the 2009 Australian Open. After the match, he famously broke into sobs, exclaiming, “God, it’s killing me.”
The raw emotion would break through again later that year against Djokovic, who at that point had won only a single major and was just proving himself as a rival to the Fed-Nadal duopoly. During a match at the Miami Open, Federer, losing to Djokovic and frustrated by his play in windy conditions, did something even more uncharacteristic than crying: He smashed his racket into shreds, drawing unthinkable boos from the crowd.
When he was a teen prodigy, Federer had a reputation as an emotional and volatile presence on court, often losing his composure and taking out his frustration on his equipment. But Fed hadn’t broken a racket since he ascended to the game’s heights, becoming known instead for his unflappability on court. Nor, it seems, did he ever break one again. The timing of his outburst against Djokovic didn’t seem random but of a piece with a period during which he seemed to be working through some complicated feelings about the end of his utter mastery on tour.
It was by no means a bad year for Federer in 2009. He won his first and only French Open (helped immensely by Nadal’s shocking loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round) and defeated Roddick in an endless Wimbledon final, breaking Sampras’s record. But when he fell to Juan Martín del Potro in the U.S. Open finals that year — and briefly lost his temper again — it was no longer that surprising. Federer never won another U.S. Open, and after 2009, he won only two majors in the next six years as Nadal and Djokovic solidified their dominance over the men’s game. (Fed would win three more during his thrilling comeback years in the late 2010s.)
But as Federer’s supremacy slipped slightly — to be clear, he was still playing at an extremely high level and making it deep into most major tournaments — he seemed to begin relaxing about his place in the tennis firmament. Maybe it was the relief of surpassing Sampras’s mark; maybe it was a newfound perspective he gained after becoming a father in the summer of ’09. Whatever was eating at him in the late aughts seemed to recede even as he continued to lose to Nadal on a regular basis and later struggled to match Djokovic at his best. For years in the 2010s, as Nadal began to beat him consistently, Federer fans like me lamented that his rival’s domination meant he could not really stake a claim to being the GOAT. But even if he had his sullen moments, Federer never seemed particularly bothered about that. There were no more tears of disappointment, just of joy — along with praise for his rivals, a “happy to be there” attitude, and a certain softening of the mild arrogance that often characterized his early interviews.
At the end of 2014, a year that did not include any major victories, Federer told tennis.com he was relieved to have played injury free after a tough 2013: “I have two more kids now, I play great, so overall wonderful season. I could not have been happier.” This was typical late-period Federer, staying positive even as his rivals began to encroach on his records and his status. When Federer finally, improbably, started turning the tide against Nadal in the late 2010s, beginning with the epic 2017 Australian Open final, he was certainly thrilled. But watching his celebration and his speech, one did not get the sense he was removing a huge monkey off his back; this late-career twist felt like more of a happy surprise, coming as it did on the heels of more injuries that threatened to end his career. Commenting on the tremendous quality of his opponent and the match as a whole, Federer said, “I would have been happy to lose too.” It was a sentiment that might have sounded phony but didn’t.
These days, most honest GOAT discussions acknowledge that Djokovic or Nadal probably has the best case. Federer has lavished both with praise over the years, and when Nadal surpassed the major-title record he, Federer, and Djokovic shared at that point, Federer was magnanimous. Now that he’s retired, Fed will officially rank no better than No. 3 on that list. But if there’s any bitterness about that on his part, it’s been hard to find.
Within hours of Federer calling it quits, paean after deserving paean had already been published. David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Roger Federer As Religious Experience,” with its evocative (and sometimes purple) expositions on his otherworldly court movement, circulated once again. Clips of Federer’s circus shots were all over Twitter. These sorts of appreciations focused largely on Federer’s effortlessly balletic movement on court and his unstinting love for the game. But the man deserves some credit, too, for gently coming to terms with his slow descent from the best of all time to merely one of the best.