The most well-known Swiss citizen nowadays is Roger Federer.
Nicolas Bideau, a Swiss official in charge of enhancing the nation’s reputation overseas, once told me that it wasn’t even close.
Federer has played at home in almost every country in the globe, despite the fact that the Swiss have traditionally practiced neutrality.
Pity the Frenchman that Federer faced at Roland Garros, where his fluency in the language and forehand made him a favorite with the audience.
It’s a shame that Juan Martn del Potro, an Argentine powerhouse, felt like the road team when he faced Federer in an exhibition match in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in 2012.
It’s a shame that Novak Djokovic, the Serbian superstar who faced Federer in the 2015 U.S. Open final, had to endure the cheers for his double faults while pretending that the crowd was singing his name rather than Federer’s.
When I began researching and writing Federer’s biography after 20 years of covering him for The New York Times, one of my goals was to fully understand what lay behind that profound connection with so many different cultures. This happened frequently during Federer’s long run near the top of his game.
I concluded with these four main motives:
First and foremost, there was the aesthetic beauty of his game, which was more akin to dance than tennis due to his deft footwork, fluid stroke production, and even more akin to improvisational dance because Federer frequently deviated from the choreography by leaping or lunging to intercept balls and creating new moves with a flick of the wrist and barely a sound.
Show Andy Roddick’s reaction in 2002 after getting Federered in the actual Federer’s hometown of Basel to see how often his right hand sleight left opponents perplexed. Above all, Federers’ match was an immersive viewing experience, one that, thanks to the aesthetic appeal of the defeat, could turn even a rout into an event. At times, the result seemed irrelevant. Federer’s work could make you a tennis fan even if you weren’t a lover of the sport already, which is part of his legacy as he retires from competitive tennis the following week.
Second, Federer persevered while thriving, staying very visible and important without seeing a significant decline in performance or appeal. He was a consistent presence on screen for 20 years, initially on television in the late 1990s and then on a variety of platforms by the time he competed in his final major tournament at Wimbledon in 2021. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have now surpassed him in terms of Grand Slam singles titles (20), but his streak of 23 consecutive semifinal appearances may never be broken. Then there is the piece de resistance of his stats: In 1,526 career singles matches and 223 career doubles matches, Federer never withdrew due to injury or sickness. The only person to have played more tour-level singles matches than Federer, Jimmy Connors, retired after 14 of them. Djokovic retired at age 13 and Nadal at age nine. Tennis by Federer was more than just attractive. It was realistic.
Third, he acted with dignity both on and off the court. Federer had a rocky beginning, throwing rackets and screaming in frustration, but by the early 2000s, he had developed into something much more like to a Zen master. That was partly because he learned he performed best under strict supervision and partly because, as he gained notoriety, he did not want to portray himself as a fiery person to his audience. Even if, as he once told me, the ancient fire still burned fiercely beneath the contemporary façade, the clarity and focus attained by controlling his emotions vastly surpassed the release that came from lamenting the injustice of it all.
Off the court, he stressed the importance of being present and in the moment when interacting with sponsors, the news media, the public, and his family of six (and that does not refer to social media presence). He joined Twitter and Instagram somewhat late in the game and sometimes but skillfully posted. He always seemed to favor face-to-face interactions without interruptions, which at one point branded him old-school but later made him unquestionably ahead of the curve. Whether conducted over food or in the backseat of a courtesy car, an interview with Federer was typically more like a conversation. Paul Annacone, Roger’s former coach, once told me that the reason Roger is so fascinating is because he is so curious.
That is accurate. He was an extrovert who drew energy from interaction, unlike some of his predecessors like Pete Sampras and Stefan Edberg. Federer was aware of his limitations, though, and knew when to take a well-timed break—typically in private—when he was getting near to exhaustion.
The idea was to find enjoyment or at least minimal resentment in the duties that came along with his job and status, whether they were post-match interviews in three languages or meet-and-greet events for his numerous sponsors. This is something that people without extraterrestrial tennis skills can learn from. He has long given the impression that his world is low-friction, as Roddick so brilliantly noted, but this is not just because he has access to private jets and the most opulent hotels and residences. It is due to attitude and a sincere love of travel and adventure, as long as he can occasionally retreat to low-stress Switzerland to refocus.
In addition, Federer was a heavy loser, making him one of the most prolific champions in the long history of the game. This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the popularity equation.
Federer lost to Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final despite having two match points on his own serve at age 37. This loss was particularly painful for those who call Federer home because it occurred in two of his three greatest matches: the Australian Open victory over Nadal in 2017 that launched Federer’s unexpected late-career comeback.
True fans of both Djokovic and Federer will be able to relive those two wasted opportunities in their minds: Djokovic’s crosscourt forehand passing shot winner off an unimpressive approach shot, followed by Federer’s slightly off-balance forehand error off a deep return.
What would have been the greatest victory of his career vanished in less than a minute on his preferred piece of grass, the venue that best suited his balletic style of play and where he had won a men’s record eight Wimbledon singles titles.
Despite his skill, astute planning, and love of the game, he occasionally made mistakes when it mattered—not frequently over a period of more than 20 years, but just enough to make him more relatable.
Then there were the tears, which appeared more frequently early in his career than later and came in times of victory and failure. Federer’s timing was impeccable, just as it was with his rhythmic serve and full-cut groundstrokes close to the baseline and immediately off the bounce. Previously, such public sensitivity from a renowned male athlete would have been branded as soft.
Despite the millions in the Swiss bank, the player in his game was a flesh-and-blood vulnerable person who made him all the more personable. His game was a visual feast fit for framing.