The statuesque of Roger Federer
When lawn tennis was invented on the green lawns of Victorian England in the 1870s, the elites across the Channel were living in the cult of ancient Greece. Architecture, sculpture, drama, poetry and even a fascination for the youthful, moving bodies of the Greeks had become fashionable again in the art world.
Tennis, which supplanted cricket in private clubs during this period, was the perfect embodiment of this Hellenistic vogue, with players full of pre-Raphaelite grace, displaying chic outfits, elegant wooden rackets and nimble movements. Tennis had an airy quality about it, a combination of dance and geometry, and something chivalrous in its heroic ascents to the net.
For more than a century, tennis remained an elegant, ethereal and slightly aristocratic game. Then it was exported and from the 1970s and 80s onwards, it was a revolution. Tennis opened up to a wide audience of players and spectators, and evolved under the pressure of the market, technology and competition. It then became a much more metronomic sport, with a steamroller logic: The technological evolution of much lighter and more efficient rackets; the arrival of the lift to give the ball more spin, combining both strength and security; the two-handed backhand; the heavy groundstroke taking over from the airy serve-volley of yesteryear…
The profile of the players also changed with the appearance of Vikings from the North, American bad boys, Mediterranean toreros or Balkan gladiators, each more impressive than the last, all of whom contributed to making the sport a perfect spectacle.
Roger Federer’s genius is to have been able to continue to embody the formal ideal of the original game in this joyous maze. Better still, since 2003, the date of his first Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon, he has never ceased to refine it, to purify his game, coming ever closer to the Platonic idea of tennis. His achievement is to have proved that this quest for purity could also be effective. Making him one of the greatest champions, if not the greatest in the sport with a plethora of titles including 20 Grand Slams: the beautiful gesture associated with the gesture of a champion
Who better than Federer to embody the perfection of the Apollonian style of Greek statuary? With the purity of his backhand (one-handed), the perfect fluidity of his movements, the (Swiss) precision of his strokes… With something of an Olympian demi-god above men: without ever giving the impression of sweating, making an effort or even rushing, transgressing without forcing himself the laws of geometry and gravitation.
An Apollonian style, which found in Rafael Nadal (another semi-god) his alter ego with a Dionysian style made of fury, ruptures and excess. Two perfectly opposed approaches that have taken them to the top of the tennis world, producing dazzling encounters.
A t 41, Roger Federer had pushed the age limits of the sport so far (before him, you became an old man barely past 30) that it was thought he could push them even further. By deciding, as he declared this week, to stop competing in the fullness of his means, he signs a new exploit, a new beautiful gesture, perhaps the most brilliant of his career: his definitive victory against time by reaching, safe and sound, the land of legends.
By retiring today, he reaches a form of eternity.¶