Part ballerino, part boxer, Federer was the best (of both worlds)


Roger Federer is human, after all.

His graceful tennis and gritty consistency, his records and renaissance, his longevity and legacy may all point to a superhuman plane of existence. But Federer is not the religious experience David Foster Wallace claimed; he hasn't been for a long time.

When he announced his retirement saying his 41-year-old body's message to him was clear, it was not a huge surprise. He has not played for over a year after a string of knee surgeries and complications and has fallen off the rankings.

For a player who holds the unique distinction of never once retiring mid-match in over 1526 matches over 24 years, his body falling short at the finish line is a brutal reminder of human frailty. But it also fits into the paradox that has been Federer's tennis career.

Roger Federer is retiring from tennis - but his mark on the sport is indelible

His game is unquestionably beautiful but it was also his ugly perseverance, spoken less about but seen very often in the latter part of his career, that elevated the whole experience into a spiritual realm. It is Federer's rough edges that made his smooth tennis and talking extra special.

To equate it to the man himself, it is the paradox between his impervious inside-out forehand and the less-reliable one-handed backhand. The balance between seemingly incongruent elements - both physical and emotional - was the human experience of watching Federer.

Federer has always been compared to art: his serve a painting, his shot-creation poetry in motion, his movement smooth like jazz and his effortless grace akin to dancing on ice.

But Federer's art was not just visual; under the picturesque front was a more visceral craft. His laser-like focus on the storied serve, his killer instinct in shot placement, his belligerence while running into the net and his competitive streak that was akin to an assassin.

Simply put - it was a boxer's instinct with a ballerino's flair. Two styles that are paradoxical but brought together with Swiss precision.

Think back to 2009 - he lost the Australian Open final to Nadal and was openly sobbing, he had already fallen off the No. 1 ranking he held for years and lost that Wimbledon epic to Nadal. But he bounced back to win a Career Slam and break Pete Sampras' record for most men's Grand Slam titles.

He dug deep to win his first French Open later that year after being two sets down against Tommy Haas in the fourth round. A few weeks later, he showed nerves of steel to then capture Wimbledon, beating Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set. That he went on to lose the US Open final to Juan Martin del Potro in the same year showed that even before the Big 3 era, Federer was never as invincible as hindsight shows him to be, he had to hustle his way even though he was so naturally gifted.

Maybe because Federer balanced his poise with pugnaciousness so aesthetically, it was easy to overlook or miss the effort put in to make it look effortless. But it was never not there. The finesse underscored the fitness, the hard work he put in to be at his physical peak best for two decades, to be able to produce those moments of magic down to his late 30s hardly breaking a sweat.

His unforgettable second wind in 2017-18 is perhaps the best illustration of this boxer-ballerino persona. Having had his first surgery in 2016 and stepping away for six months, he came into the Australian Open as the 17th seed at 35 years of age. But for two weeks, he defied both those numbers mixing his vintage flair and a resolute doggedness. He outplayed Tomas Berdych, outpunched Kei Nishikori, beat Stan Wawrinka in the semis in a five-set tactical battle and overcame his nemesis Nadal in the final, coming from a break down in the fifth set by sheer grit to stay in the game.

His fighting instinct and evolved flair via that backhand saw him win two more Majors - the first man to 20 Grand Slams, the oldest world No 1 at 36.

Then there was a more intangible paradox - an emotional fragility rare in elite athletes. His love for the game was tempered by the anxiety of expectations and the pressure of competition.

The lopsided losing record against Nadal and Djokovic - his two greatest rivals, the 11 Slam final losses - the last from Championship point and the terrible break point conversion rate were all factors of this peculiar flaw.

A famously volatile youngster, his outbursts after losses became disheartened tears as he aged, but the profound emotions were always visible. How he weathered the storm inside his own head to not only become a consistent champion, but a universally admired ambassador of the game is another uniquely Federer factor.

Federer on the Centre Court at Wimbledon sums up the paradoxical rollercoaster. His breakthrough - junior title and beating Sampras. His greatest triumphs - a record eight titles. His most heart-breaking losses - the epic against Nadal in 2008, the meltdown from championship point against Djokovic in 2019. His final Grand Slam appearance - a quarterfinal bagel against a rookie on a dodgy knee no one knew he wouldn't recover from. And he kept trying for, even on that knee.

Federer fought it all to constantly compete at the highest level, adapt alongside players whose game belonged to a more modern time and kept winning with his old-school aura (and even racquet till 2013) intact.

He was pushed into corners; by younger players, power games from the baseline, pressure, physical limitations and mental blocks...he turned around most of them by either producing a stunning shot even when cramped for space or by fighting his way playing as rough as necessary.

That this extraordinary journey ends with injury, unranked and virtually off-court is another brutal reminder of human shortcomings. There will be no diamond-encrusted last dance for him a la Serena Williams - a fellow great bidding goodbye in their 40s.

Roger Federer is human after all.