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Home / Opinion / Columns /  The beauty of Roger Federer’s sport is a privilege of our life

Not all good things make us feel lucky. We enjoy a sport, for instance, with an unspoken sense of entitlement. We have given a significant portion of our lives and a lot of emotion to it, so we feel we deserve all its joy. But there are some athletes who are so exquisite that their performance is disproportionate to all that we have given their sport. They make us feel lucky, lucky to be alive in this moment and in this era. That is what Roger Federer did for millions when he reigned. On Thursday, he announced that our luck has run out. He was quitting professional tennis.

How lucky exactly were we to have him play for us? What grade of luck was he to us? I would say he was quite a bit more than paracetamol, and a notch less than our birth. Federer as a matter of generational luck is in the same category as the internet, vaccination and free speech. Especially for many of us who had grown bored of watching professional tennis by the turn of the millennium, when Roger Federer arrived and played the game in a manner that was at once new and old. Even his decline, over the past decade, was so beautiful to watch that we felt lucky to watch him lose, which always had a tragic quality to it. Not only because he wept, but also because in his decline was evidence of our own mortality, an omen of the inevitable. We are so full of ourselves that we mark our time in our greats. The sorrow we feel at the passing of the Federer era is not for him, but for our own decay.

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We are told that the world is “polarized" today, but the world mostly fights over facts, because facts tend to come out of untrustworthy mouths. On beauty, we all agree. When people say beauty is subjective, they are referring to something that is not beautiful. This is because we agree on actual beauty. On many abstract things, we always agree. The beauty of Roger Federer’s game is not disputed by reasonable people. He was great, of course, but it is not his mere greatness that made him so precious to millions around the world. Half a dozen people can be great in a sport in every generation, but not that many are aesthetic. Like Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman in cricket—and Roger Federer.

But what is the big deal about sporting aesthetics? In every other profession, the aesthetes are peripheral, unloved, sometimes even starving. But this is precisely why people go wild when they witness artistic beauty in sports—most people are not used to it outside sports. A sport is a mass spectacle that does not punish the occasional artist who stumbles in.

When we listen to Federer speak of his craft, he does not sound as esoteric as writers, including me, who try to explain his beauty. His grace appears to be an accident of his personality. Reading him, listening to him, I have never got the feeling that in his formative years he deliberately tried to look aesthetic. He only trained to play the game in the most efficient manner available to his arrangement of muscles, and it turned out to be beautiful.

Style, in sports, is strange. It is not a rebellion against the conventions of a game. It is the convention. A beautiful sprinter or a swimmer or a batsman, for example, is often doing what the theory of a sport had prophesied was the best way. And Federer was the triumph of theory on the tennis court. But his rivals were technically perfect too. There is no way you can play a sport at that level without technical perfection, but they never looked as good as he did when they played. Rafael Nadal’s two-handed forehand stroke never had the grace of a Federer moment, but it was highly effective, often more so. Every muscle of Nadal moved right for him to achieve that stroke; it simply did not require the inconvenience of beauty to achieve its end.

Elegance is extraneous to the dry objective of a sport, perhaps even a liability. All of Federer’s beauty on court emerges from the fact that he never holds the tennis racquet with both hands. Many others, if not all, do so because that is more efficient. At his peak as a player, Federer’s single-handed strokes never appeared to be a handicap, but I do wonder if Federer would have been an even better player if he had a few ugly efficiencies in his game as well.

In public perception, Federer’s artistry often eclipsed other important aspects of his game. For instance, he had a lot of power, and his serves were fast. But all his strength was couched in grace.

What is our obligation to Roger Federer? He would probably say we have done enough and he could not ask for more. His net worth at retirement is more than half a billion euros, partly because millions admire him enough to let him sell things to them. But do we still have an obligation to repay the gift of Federer? He is, after all, a privilege of life.

I think it is disgraceful that science, for all its shine, has let Federer down. In his goodbye note, what he said was that he tried to fix his body, which is 41 years old. He tried to fix it with surgery and other forms of modern medicine. But nothing that he could do, the millions of euros he was surely willing to spend, could heal the injuries he has accumulated over time and make him fit enough to compete with younger players at the highest level of the sport. I consider it yet another failure of science that in 2022, despite its glorious reputation as our finest achievement, it cannot mend the ailments Roger Federer.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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