Roger Federer was graceful in play and gracious in defeat

Well, it had to happen. But then, in a sense, it already had. We hadn’t seen Roger Federer play since he was beaten easily by Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon in 2021. After that, he announced he was having surgery on his troublesome knee and taking the rest of the season off. This was followed by further surgery and a longer period of rehab. So, whereas Serena Williams went out in a blaze of announced glory at this year’s US Open, Roger’s retirement has taken the form of perpetual postponement.

His unsurpassable haul of 20 Grand Slams was surpassed, first by Rafael Nadal and then by Novak Djokovic, but still the official word was that he would be back. Was so much invested in him that the belief of a return had to be kept alive, even when it came to seem increasingly unlikely? The eschatological and the financial had become hard to disentangle. Still, we wanted a chance to show our love at Wimbledon next year, something ceremonial instead of this slow and invisible fade.

We can itemise the elements of Federer’s appeal in ascending order of importance. He played quickly. Watching Nadal has become an ordeal, with those interminable rituals between points; for Federer, a couple of bounces of the ball and he was ready. He was uncompromisingly aggressive, the opposite of a grinder, always trying to win points.

He was also the most graceful player of all time – Baryshnikov in sneakers, as the brothers McEnroe put it. His play was often described as effortless, but seeing him up close and in the flesh you were conscious of how hard he had to work to produce that illusion of ease. The single most beautiful component of his play was the one-handed backhand. He and Richard Gasquet saved the one-hander from extinction to the extent that, like some endangered species released back into the wild, it is now alive and flourishing in the men’s game.

Andre Agassi once said that tennis is all about someone’s weakness – and Federer didn’t have any. That was why, after taking his first Wimbledon title in 2003, he went on to win everything in sight – although it took until 2009 for him to win the French. It turned out that under the relentless scrutiny of Nadal, this graceful backhand was susceptible to pressure and, like many beautiful things, could become fragile. And so the aura of invincibility dimmed.

He was simultaneously the greatest player of all time – and beatable. Federer was still the player people most wanted to see, but it came to seem inevitable that he would fall short against Nadal or Djokovic. He kept playing because, unlike Agassi, he not only loved playing tennis, he loved everything about being on the tour, loved being loved and finding new ways to monetise that love.

Having achieved consummate grace in action he became gracious in defeat. At Wimbledon in 2003 he was just a great tennis player with a spotty face and a ponytail; over the years he became charming, funny, famously nice to everyone. And then, after a first round of knee surgery, came the wondrous year of 2017 when he beat Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, hitting shoulder-high backhand winners to his opponent’s terrifying forehand. This was followed by titles at Indian Wells, Miami, Wimbledon and, the following year, Australia again.

Our capacity to appreciate what we were seeing had improved; was it possible, also, that he was playing better than ever? Either way, we were privileged witnesses of a blissful phase when the most aesthetically pleasing play was also the most efficient. Tennis as an ideal – of play and comportment – had been realised. He had two match points in the fifth set against Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2019 but failed to convert them (or Djokovic saved them) and the satisfied ideal gave way to an agonised “if only …”.

I wonder: is the newly crowned US Open champion and world No 1, Carlos Alcaraz, already feeling a pinch of that, thinking to himself: if only I’d had the chance to play Federer.

This article was amended on 17 September 2022. An earlier version said that Federer “went on to win everything in sight – except the French” following his first Wimbledon title; however, he won the French Open in 2009. And the reference to unconverted match points against Djokovic was actually in the 2019 Wimbledon final, not 2020.