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A Roger Federer Retirement Mailbag

Reflecting on the Maestro’s career and decision to hang up his racket after this week’s Laver Cup.

Hey Everyone…

Happy Laver Cup Week.

The dreaded ICYMI: here’s a Federer send-off piece from Sports Illustrated last week.

Good soldiering: Tennis Channel will be the U.S. home of the 2022 Laver Cup in London this weekend. The first Laver Cup match will be live on the network Friday, Sept. 23, at 8 a.m. ET (complete schedule below).

Onward...

Mailbag

Jon, 

Let me get this straight: Federer and Serena retired within weeks of each other. This will be the craziest Hall of the Fame induction class of all time!

Ann S., New York

Not so fast. A few of you wrote about this and number of people—including Andy Roddick—speculated about this on the social medias. There’s a spirit-of-the-law and a letter-of-the-law angle. Either way, there’s little chance both Federer AND Serena—43 Majors among them; twin tennis cynosures; titans for all-time—descend Mt. Olympus and converge on Newport the same year.

The boring legalese. The ITHOF policy states that players are eligible for consideration “five years after they are no longer a significant factor.” This is first-rate—Hall of Fame worthy!—drafting here. It doesn’t tie eligibility to a firm retirement date. It uses the purposely mushy “significant” standard. Was Federer “significant” in 2022? It’s hard to make that case, given that he didn’t a play a match. Was Serena significant? She beat the No. 2 player in the world.

The spirit? Inducting them both in the same year serves no one. It would dilute the experience for both, deserving as they are of being a headliner and not a co-headliner. It would be a feast of riches one year—and then, likely, a famine the next. From a crass commercial perspective, the ITHOF, which relies on this week for much of its operating budget, would be better served with ceremonies in successive years.

This speaks so well of the sport: the tennis backstories or Federer and Serena are almost comically divergent. Culturally, geographically, contextually, they arrived to tennis in such different ways. She was raised to be a tennis player. His parents say they often wished he’d spent less time hitting a ball over a net. We can keep going.

And yet there is all kinds of symmetry between the two. They were born within weeks on each other in 1981. They both enjoyed their greatest success at Wimbledon—and least success in Paris. They often won the same Major, the same weekend. Who won the women’s title when Federer won his first Major? Serena. Who won the men’s title the year Serena won her last Major? Federer. (h/t Matt Roberts who notes that they never lost at a Major on the same day.) They both chased history and didn’t quite achieve that goal. They both married and became parents. They announced their retirement within weeks of each other. And somehow that was fitting.

Hi Jon. Two-parter for the mailbag, if you'll indulge me:

Your Unstrung piece on Roger for Tennis Channel was really beautiful. So many great lines, like "he played without sound or sweat" and "he turned the global sport into a series of home games." I've always wondered if it was hard for you, and tennis writers, to capture Roger's greatness in words. Did he challenge you as a storyteller? Also, The Tennis Podcast interviewed Ivan Ljubicic about coaching Federer, and he said Roger doesn't need to hold onto records forever. He doesn't think records should be held for a long time. He got his joy from achieving those heights, and he wants other players to experience the same joy. It doesn't serve his ego to have the records for a lifetime. I found this remarkable for two reasons—the lack of ego, and that I really believe him. This example of grace and fellowship is the lesson from Federer that will stay with me the longest.

Megan F. Indy

Thanks, that’s very kind. As for writing about Federer, it ended up as a fair exchange....We were challenged to come up with fresh ways to describe him and the magic (Virtuouso? Check. Pointillist? Check. Surgeon? Check. Sorcerer? Check.) He helped, though, by being so accessible and quotable.

As for the records, that’s an interesting approach. It’s almost like a public trust. Enjoy it, take your proverbial hit, and then pass it on. It’s either noble; or a way to salve a wound. Note that this isn’t confined to tennis. The 1972 Miami Dolphins take all sorts of pride in being the last NFL team to go undefeated. When Kareem Abdul-Jabaar surpassed Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record, the latter said, “If this [record] is so great, well, it’s only one of about ninety I held. I must be in a world by myself.” Others holders—Roger Maris’ family, Sampras w/r/t Federer—are more gracious, and proffer the “records were made to be broken explanation.”

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Jon,

I know it’s been overshadowed by Serena and Roger but how about some farewell words for Sam Querrey?

Charles, L.A.

Happily. Querrey was a late bloomer, a lanky kid who didn’t really register until his late teens. His dad’s promising baseball career stalled out when he went to college. So it was, that Querrey forwent USC and turned pro. Even then, it was unclear whether he was committed to a tennis future. (I believe I once wrote words to the effect that he looked like a kid whose aunt had dragged him out of bed to play with her at the club; and he couldn’t hide his indifference.)

He brought his big game and big serve—quintessentially American—to bear. To his absolute credit, he upgraded his fitness and professionalism. By the late aughts, he was a force—note the headline, Sam’s Cub, h/t Chris Hunt. Querrey never won Wimbledon. But he beat Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray there. He won five titles. Had some success in doubles. And he was one of those likable, accessible figures who adds color and character. He’ll be missed. But my moles tell me he’s done competing. Pickleball awaits!

Aside: Querrey made news after the 2020 French Open when, in the throes of Covid, he surreptitiously hired a private jet and escaped Russia. Given the events of the last 24 months (see: Griner, Brittney) Querrey very clearly made a good call in bypassing the Russian authorities.

Jon,

I enjoyed your piece on Federer as well as several others. Is there anything else you think will change about how we see him in the future. For me personally, I wonder if I will ever enjoy another tennis player again.

Steve, Philadelphia

You know what I think ages well? Federer’s grit. His talent is—and always has been—indisputable. But what is the cliché? Talent is the floor, not the ceiling. You don’t win twenty majors on talent. You need some grit to go with the grace.

Jon,

Some factoids about the non-Big-Three winners of majors since '03 Wimbledon (Federer's first Major):

1. Non-Big-Threes have only won 14 of 77 (18.18% of) major titles since then (17.11% prior to Alcaraz's recent win).

2. Non-Big-Three players since then have won 2 Australians, 2 Frenches, 2 Wimbledons, and EIGHT U.S. Opens.

3. Of the 14 non-Big-Three wins, Federer lost one of those finals ('09 US Open vs del Potro), Nadal lost one ('14 Aus vs Wawrinka), and Djokovic lost FIVE Major finals vs non-Big-Threes.

4. Murray won three of them, Wawrinka won three of them, and the remaining eight were one-timers (so far).

5. Non-Big-Threes have only ever won two Majors in a row once (Murray's '16 Wim & Wawrinka's '16 US). All the others have been one-offs.

Keegan Greenier, Macon, GA

Keegan Greenier, tennis statistician, tennis treasure.

Hi Jon,

I’d love your insight on Federer’s post-US Open retirement. I bet he was planning it, but with a big asterisk. Then saw Serena, hmm… then Alcaraz, and thought, “not a chance.” Never an easy decision for an athlete, certainly with his achievements, but it somehow feels right.

Yves, Montreal

I’m told again and again that Federer’s body made the choice for him. He wanted to end as a competitive player—ideally at Wimbledon or Basel—not as a compromised athlete. (As I write this, it’s unclear whether he’ll play this weekend, even amid the hospitable environment of the Laver Cup.) I don’t think Serena impacted his decision. I do wonder (as does another former top player I spoke to recently) if he saw Alcaraz and it crystallized just how far he had to go to be top-level competitive again.

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Jon,

In contemplating Federer’s retirement, I can’t help but feel that we are seeing the end of an era of tennis. Federer’s style of play harkens back to a day when crisp, one handed backhands and pinpoint placements were as important as power, agility and fitness, but when I look at juniors today, I see a lot more of the influence of Nadal and Djokovic, super hustle, aggressive power, etc. When Serena retired, she could look out over the tennis landscape and think “I changed this game.” I think when Federer leaves, his style of tennis will leave with him. Your take?

Paul Haskins, Wilmington, NC

A few years ago, many of us surmised that the era of the teenage champion was over. The sport had become too physical. The rigors of travels were too great. The ability to elongate a career into your mid-30s meant that prospects could slow-play it. Now we have two U.S. Open champs whose combined age is 40. Athletes, like businesses, adapt. If there is a competitive edge to be gained from a one-handed backhand and crisp agile tennis, it will return.

Hi Jon, first time long time,

I was lucky enough to be at the U.S. Open this week and struck by how big of an effort it was to go green for customers. Encouraging reusable water bottles, no straws, recycling, etc. but it’s such a stark contrast to how the players operate. I’m most appalled by how many single-use bottles they drink on court and the plastic wrap on their rackets. For the bottles in particular, can’t the tours mandate players use reusable bottles they bring with them to reduce plastic waste? It’s a marketing opportunity on the bottles! Just seems like a no brainer. We might not be able to stop them from flying private but this is an easy change.

Is there something I’m missing?

K. Gupta

Boom. You’re not the only to notice this. The fans are confounded figuring what trash goes in what receptacle; using the blight on humanity that is the paper straw. (Aside: anyone see those bucatini straws? You’re literally drinking through pasta.) Meanwhile, the players are littering the courts with plastic bottles, carrying an array of plastic bags, and then jetting off to their next tour stop.

Kevin Anderson, bless him, took up the cause for environmentalism and heightened awarenesss. Who is carrying the (disposable) torch?

Hey Jon, 

Can you please help us with this next year? It was 90% humid and 80 degrees easy, and the only water fountains are deep in the rest rooms—and they don’t work well. I had to buy eight dollar Evians—can you please bring this up to the USTA ?

We don’t mind spending for Ashe tickets and night session, amazing fried chicken and incredibly delish honey deuces, but the water issue is a problem Jon. You can even rephrase this as a question in your column, but wanted to bring this to your attention.

Thanks much !!
Deepak

For the record, this question was dated September 14. Here’s what I wrote three days prior: “[a]n underpinning of advertising is positive association. It’s why brands love sports and concerts and music festivals and marathons. We have fond feelings and warm memories and therefore fond and warm recollections of the products affiliated. But what about the inverse? It’s hot and humid at the tennis event. We fear dehydration, or worse. There are scant water fountains. Yes, there’s a water sponsor! But, no, they’re not giving it out. They’re charging the extortionate price of $8for a bottle. Is it me? Or does this make me feel price-gouged and thoroughly less likely to purchase this product when I am in the grocery store, and have more (any) options.”

This issue isn’t going away. The planet ain’t getting cooler. (We’re all about the side notes this week: at this rate, how many more years do we give the Australian Open as an outdoor summer sporting event?)

Hello Jon,

I assume we will be getting a Serena marathon on Tennis Channel once the tours slow down. How much pull do you have with those who choose the programming? However much (or little), it'd be great to have an advocate for bringing her semifinal match against Venus at Bangalore in 2008 to light.

It's right in that golden period of their rivalry after they got past the awkwardness of playing a loved one but before their levels really diverged. Their (celebrated) Wimbledon and (underrated?) U.S. Open matches that year were high quality and among their best. After years of searching, the most I've found of the Bangalore match is a highlight video on YouTube... I know the community would love the chance to witness it in full. Or at least I would. :)

Sincerely, Robin

• For the record, I have power over Tennis Channel programing much the way Daria Kasatkina has power on her second serve. You sent me down a rabbit hole, though, and holy heck, you are right. Thanks. I don’t know if the rights are available, etc. But here it is: with a finals showdown against Patty Schnyder in the offing, no less!

Noah Baerman, Middletown, CT take us out:

It's not like you need another hot take on Serena's place in  the GOAT debate, but (as someone who has appreciated my and others’ tennis/music analogies in the past) you might find something useful in  my recent essay "None Greater: Serena Williams and the Urge to Quantify  Success" which you can find here:

There is none greater than Serena Williams. We’ll come back to that.

I have been a rabid tennis fan for nearly 40 years, long enough to have seen a lot of shifts in the culture, fashion, gear, fitness, playing styles, and criteria by which fans, journalists, and historians evaluate greatness. They say you can’t really compare athletes across eras, and whoever “they” are, they’re right. But we keep doing it and it reveals something about our desire to rank and to anoint.

In music I see this all the time, and I’m fascinated by the widespread fixation on ranking. When I make my Top 10 lists, I make it clear that I’m discussing personal favorites (to offer a glimpse into the sounds that molded me) but lists of “bests” are inherently absurd. The greatest album ever was of course by the Beatles. Except, no, it was by Marvin Gaye. Or Beyoncé. Or Captain Beefheart. Or . . . never mind. When it comes to individuals and their total legacies (as opposed to a singular work of art), it’s even harder and absurd-er.

And yet as much as I try to bypass those conversations, as a music educator I can’t entirely do so. Every time I make a syllabus or plan a lecture, I’m drawing attention to some artists, glossing over others, and skipping others entirely. On the plus side, this offers an invitation to assess my criteria. Does the topic at hand demand that I evaluate musicians based on a certain type of accomplishment? And if so, what exactly is it? Or is it making my best attempt to measure level of influence? And if so, does someone who is a direct forebear of a particular lineage take precedence over an iconoclast? Am I thinking about someone who happens to have created work that is particularly demonstrative of a certain sound or technique? If so, are there any ethical connotations to choosing their work over someone “greater” or more “influential” who happens not to have created work in the particular wheelhouse I’ve deemed most relevant to my students’ needs?

I’ve learned a lot from forcing myself to engage in these awkward contemplations. What I have not learned, however, and don’t expect I ever will is the answer to the question of who can be referred to as “the greatest” without further explanation. And most people who care about art will accept the notion that it’s impossible to measure artists in that way. They may accept it grudgingly or accept it with qualification (e.g. “but you can measure such-and-such, and the greatest by that metric is so-and-so”) or accept it while maintaining that competitions that purport to anoint the greatest are for the greater good (giving attention and funds to deserving artists even if the guise of them being inherently more deserving than others is a fabrication) or accept it in principle while pointing out that of course their favorite avant-garde trombonist or Canadian hair metal band is actually the greatest. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to find someone who loves music and believes that greatness is that quantifiable. It’s not like sports, after all.

Except sports aren’t like sports either. Yes, on a competition-by-competition or statistic-by-statistic level you can quantify accomplishment (Most points! Won the big match!), and there are cases in which someone’s belonging on a rarefied list of the greatest practitioners of that sport is beyond debate due to their superlative achievement by one or more of those metrics (e.g. Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jenny Thompson, Wayne Gretzky, Carl Lewis, Willie Mays, etc.). And yet arguments persist about THE greatest, both because the metrics aren’t universally agreed upon and because people are naturally attached to the folks they’re attached to and will look to cherry pick the stats that make the case for their favorites, a phenomenon ultimately not that different from those lobbying for overlooked bands to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This becomes particularly difficult to navigate across eras as the criteria driving an athlete’s decisions may be at odds with the ones retroactively used to judge them generations later, and all the more difficult when that athlete has chosen a less-common career path. I see this often in music when assessing the stature or defending the greatness of a “quirky” artist. I have, for example, observed as the apocryphal stories come out about iconoclastic musicians demonstrating their never-publicly-documented ability to excel at creating more conventional music. It comes off akin to “my dad is a pacifist, but if he weren’t he could beat up your dad,” but at the same time I do understand the urge to defend their “greatness” from naysayers using different criteria.

In the end an accomplished and paradigm-shifting artist should be recognized as such without having to rank, not just because ranking is silly, but because it’s particularly silly when talking about someone whose disregard for convention renders the usual criteria even less relevant. I think back to an early mentor, the jazz historian Phil Schaap (who was appropriately enough, the cousin of Dick Schaap and uncle of Jeremy Schaap, both accomplished sports writers and broadcasters). When talking about one of the superlative musicians in jazz, he would say “there was none greater.” I’ve really come to appreciate the precision of wording in this – he acknowledged that hierarchies like this are a real thing, while refusing to engage in apples-to-oranges debates over whether Duke Ellington was better than Miles Davis. Frankly, I find that this respects all involved parties more than anointing one of them as the greatest. There was none greater than Charles Mingus, but I highly doubt that he himself would suggest that he was “greater” than Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong except perhaps at being Charles Mingus.

And so it is that there is and has been none greater than Serena Williams. She is certainly the greatest Serena Williams there has ever been and her accomplishments on and off the court, as a technician, tactician, competitor, fighter, overcomer, activist, and cultural figure, are so mind-boggling that it is literally impossible for me to imagine them ever being surpassed. If others find that to be inadequate and enjoy getting deeper into the weeds of ranking and justifying, that’s perfectly harmless and far be it from me to protest. And if labeling her as the GOAT feels like the best way to emphasize her obliteration of the glass ceiling for women of color, then amen to that too. But I would make the case that getting into that level of superlative-measuring doesn’t entirely do justice to her actual greatness. Like Stevie, Thelonious, Joni, and other such groundbreakers who only need one name to identify them, the enormity of her greatness transcends those conversations. However you like to talk about such things, I hope you will join me in basking in and appreciating that transcendence.

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