The twilight to Roger Federer’s stellar career lasted longer than most careers in sport.
Even if racquet sports weren’t your thing, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t admire his style, sportsmanship and the effort he put in to making good tennis look so effortless.
The Swiss master hadn’t won a Grand Slam singles titles since 2018 but it never made any of his late-in-career matches less watchable.
It was like admiring the late Shane Warne. You could still marvel at a ripping leggie past the bat or the way he set up a stumping even when his figures for the day were 1-85. Likewise, a Federer backhand passing shot ripped down the line for 30-all could be exquisite even in a lost service game.
With the heavy diet of finals footy coming at us from all angles, it was too easy for some to give just a cursory nod to one of the true greats leaving the stage last weekend.
It wasn’t the Queen bidding adieu but while Federer was in power there was a similar feeling of comfort and stability. He was a sporting security blanket of sorts, certainly when June-July rolled around.
When you have limited time to watch Wimbledon, it’s hard to trust your two-hour commitment to Roberto Bautista Agut or a boring baseliner with a surname ending in “alov” or “ova”. You always knew Federer viewing was the connoisseur’s grass court tennis.
The analogy with the Queen might seem a strange one but Australians have long enjoyed the stable orbits of long-burning sporting stars through their lives.
For any young Aussie growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s, there was always “AB” to count on.
Whether it was a wicked turning pitch in Pakistan, the rearguard 163 needed at the MCG to save a Test against India or standing up against a West Indian paceman, you knew Allan Border would dig in for a fight with the bat.
The same could be said of Wally Lewis at State of Origin time. That baton got passed on many times to reach the hands of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater.
Leroy Loggins was another. “Leapin’ Leroy” played on and on and on. A Brisbane Bullets team without him just didn’t seem right. He played 567 games in the National Basketball League from 1981 to 2001. You could not imagine anyone else wearing the “30” singlet and no one has. His number was retired.
For Geelong Cats fans, they are probably feeling something similar this week now their rock of 16 seasons has retired. Skipper Joel Selwood got the fairytale ending…an AFL flag.
Kiwis would certainly feel a whole lot more at ease about their All Blacks today even if Richie McCaw just hinted he was ready to make a limping comeback at 41.
Such long-term sporting figures provide a sense of equilibrium as well as plenty of success.
Lewis had what made Federer even greater as well. He had rivalries.
Lewis v Mark Geyer, Lewis v Brett Kenny. Lewis against anyone in a blue NSW jersey.
Federer’s epic rivalries with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic elevated all three players.
Federer beating up on Fernando Gonzalez and Robin Soderling for his 20 major titles would not have unfolded as the same magnetic script.
You see some emotional farewells in sport.
Few have or will rival Federer’s exit in London at the Laver Cup where he played his final match with Nadal as his doubles partner.
Post-match, it wasn’t just Federer sobbing. Nadal, seated beside him, shed tears as well before an impromptu moment where Federer briefly held the Spaniard’s hand.
As rivals, they had met across the net 40 times and given everything to those enthralling contests. Millions of fans saw how much. In that moment in London, Federer and Nadal realised what they had and what they’d never have again.
You can define Federer in many ways. He may have won 20 Grand Slam titles but there’s an award that gives you another take on why he’s so admired.
The Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award is presented annually. Yes, Federer has won it 13 times.
Nadal is cut from similar cloth. He has been so honoured five times just as Queensland’s Pat Rafter (four times) was in the past. It is a vote that means something because it comes from their tennis-playing peers.
Most of us didn’t even know there was such an award but it sort of explains why Federer meant something to so many. He cared and he made us care too which is such an important ingredient when sportsmen and women rise above the mere mechanics of excellence.
As much as we celebrate Federer, Lewis, Border, Selwood and so many others over their long sporting careers, one thing is certain for all of them.
The full-time whistle does blow.
Sport has an uncanny knack. What seems like a void is filled. What seems like a little bit of your favourite sport dying is really just a moment before a green shoot appears and some fresh excitement grows.
I’m sure someone said we’d never see anyone win more times at Wimbledon than Pete Sampras (seven). Along comes Federer to win eight. Even that mark may not stand solo for long with Djokovic (seven) still prowling the court at 35.
Only weeks before Federer retired, tennis was saluting a bold new star in Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, the youngest world No.1 after his US Open heroics at just 19.
It doesn’t matter how he hits his groundstrokes, my composite tennis player will always have Roger Federer’s backhand just like my composite left-handed batsman will always have a Border-esque punch through the offside.
Yes, the next generation always seems to fill the void.
Well, almost. No one in Australian cricket has ever spun a leg break quite like the late “Warnie” or followed it with such a wave of competitiveness down the pitch. Will we ever see his like again? That is one void that may never be filled.
Jim Tucker has specialised in sport, the wider impacts and features for most of his 40 years writing in the media. He has covered or been an onlooker to some of sport’s most storied retirements in that time from Greg Chappell to Shane Warne, John Eales to Johnathan Thurston and Jack Nicklaus to Michael Jordan.