As I watched Roger Federer fall to Novak Djokovic in their 5-set Wiimbledon thriller on Monday afternoon, I realized something.
In my lifetime of watching sports, Roger Federer is the greatest of all the great sportsman I’ve watched compete.
No one has done it better.
No one has been a better representative of his sport.
No one has showed young athletes how to do it better.
Roger Federer is the best I’ve ever seen.
For him to operate in that kind of air — “greatest sportsman of my lifetime” — means he ranks above guys like Nicklaus, Woods, Jordan, Manning, Jeter, Ripken, Duncan, Montana and more.
I understand all of the men I just listed were, or still are, great competitors on their respective playing surfaces.
None of those athletes, though, have matched Federer’s on-court quality with his demeanor and incredible sense of perspective for the moment at hand. He won with a gracious style that made you wonder if anyone could be that humble in victory. He lost with the same spirit, leaving you to sometimes jokingly question whether or not he perhaps felt it might have been better for his opponent to win on that given day.
Win or lose, Federer didn’t change. He won with grace and dignity, he lost with grace and dignity.
In the moment, he remains the quintessential stylist and professional performer. There are no outrageous confrontations with umpires, referees, fans, etc. He’s not tweeting stupid stuff after a match. Never does he blame a bad bounce, an opponent’s good fortune, the weather or any other act of God that might have seemingly conspired against him on the rare occasion things don’t go his way.
He’s also courteous and remarkably poised for a celebrity-athlete of his stature. No run-ins with the police. He’s not on TMZ every other month. No baby-mama drama in his camp.
It’s just tennis, winning and the rare air of a champion who is the same in the December of his career as he was in the January of his career.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s loss to Djokovic, Federer handled it all with unparalleled responsibility. He was disappointed and it showed, the way it should when you’ve had the chance to win your 18th major title but failed to finish off the job. He wasn’t bitter, though. In fact, if you stumbled in front of the TV as the post-match awards ceremony commenced and you didn’t know better, you’d have to ask someone sitting at the bar who won and who lost. When he spoke afterwards, it was with glowing respect for his counterpart, Djokovic, who later did the same when speaking of Federer.
I can think of a lot of professional golfers, for instance, who are front and center when they win and nowhere to be found when they shoot 38 on the back nine to lose the tournament by two shots.
There are plenty of football players asking for the camera crew when they make a play to win or save the game — and hiding in the training room when they don’t.
That’s not how Federer does it. Win or lose, he’s the stand up guy of all stand up guys.
He’s as close to perfect as you’ll ever see in a professional athlete.
No one in my lifetime became a better symbol for what an athlete should be than Roger Federer.
As he lost his grip on the 5th and final set during Sunday’s Wimbledon final, Federer started to show cracks of normalcy that we’ve seen more and more over the last 18 months or so. Father time, as He always does, is starting to win a set or two more from Roger every time he goes out on the court. It’s only noticeable if you look really hard. Even at the not-so-old age of nearly-33, the legs are a tick slower now. The mind still works, the thoughts are still there, but every set now, a shot or two “the old Roger” would have pulled off instead creases the net near the top of the tape and stays on Roger’s side of the court.
He’s still great. He’s just not great every single time he steps on the court anymore.
But, as I realized yesterday while he was losing to Djokovic, he’s still the consumate professional and sportsman. “How does he compare to Tiger?”, I thought while watching Federer shake hands with the chair umpire.
For starters, Federer is revered, first as the tennis virtuoso he’s been since 2003 and now, these days, as the guy every young player wants to become before his playing days are over. Everyone in tennis wants to be Roger Federer because everyone in tennis likes him. Everyone in golf wants to beat Tiger Woods because very few people like him.
His career statistics aside, the real value in having Roger Federer as a role model is this: You’ll never find a time in his career when he wasn’t himself. Meaning, he’s always been a winner. Always been gracious. Always been the kind of athlete you would say to your son or daughter, “that’s how you compete and carry yourself as a champion, whether or not on that day you’re actually winning.”
That’s not something you would say to your son or daughter about Tiger Woods.
It might be the type of thing you say about Derek Jeter, actually. He’s as close to perfect as it gets, but team sports being what they are, it’s sometimes difficult to slice open the individual vs. team component and see how much of Jeter’s Hall-of-Fame career is connected to those who have played with him.
In my lifetime, no one has done it like Roger Federer has done it.
It’s truly been a privilege to watch him compete.
I’ll be passing his name and story along to my two children when they’re old enough to understand what it takes to be an athlete.
No one – in my lifetime – has ever done it better.