The Durability, Grace, and Resilience of Roger Federer

Yesterday, in Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, (where else?) the world’s greatest Tennis player won his 18th grand Slam Tennis Major, and with the victory, Roger Federer extended his world-record number of wins to match the same record number achieved in golf by by Jack Nicklaus.

The 35 year-old sporting legend from Switzerland charmed everyone at The Australian Open, and in the process, revealed all the qualities of a role model sporting champion. Graceful movement and strokeplay, tactical wisdom, remarkable physical fitness, resilience under fire, an indomitable will to win underpinned by a deep inner confidence.

His mature, classy response to his opponent and long-term rival Rafa Nadal, and all the spectators present (plus those around the world connected via internet and satellite TV) in the moments which surround the spoils of victory revealed his admirable generosity of spirit. Such class and ambassadorial qualities which come to the fore despite the heat of the moment is what distinguishes Federer from so many other elite sportspeople as a human being.

Such grace seems beyond lesser men who seem to succumb to a large degree of self-absorption in their moment of glory – this may be interpreted as a lack of respect for others as a consequence of their lack of emotional control.

But Federer, is a rare animal – he can display the ruthless qualities of an assassin and ‘take out’ his opponent in a hotly-contested fifth set of a Final, and reveal a rare depth of self-focus and immersion in his play. And then, as if flicking a switch, he can return to being calm, composed charming husband and family man that makes him such a special person. Gracious in defeat, humble in victory – that is Roger Federer. It supports an important maxim: ’Nice guys can come first.’

It was five years since Federer last won a Major, a period which co-incided with the emergence of Novak Djokovic, causing a seemingly terminal interruption of his flow of success. Despite three appearances as a losing finalist, it seemed Federer’s days as a Grand Slam winner were over.

But, this past fortnight in Melbourne, and playing in his first proper tournament for six months due to a knee injury, saw the champion of champions sweep aside all-comers. Andy Murray (who has recently become the world’s number one player) was among others in a strong field who failed to match Federer’s quality and durability in the cauldron of Australia’s sporting capital.

Federer’s first title was at Wimbledon in 2003, and he now has 5 Australian Opens to go with his 7 Wimbledon’s, 5 US Opens, and 1 French Open. What makes his number of victories so remarkable is that the field has comprised other top-level players too. To overcome the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Raonic and Wawrinka is an incredible achievement.

Quality opposition is the lifeblood for progress as a sportsperson – it helps prevent complacency. For Federer to have touched the heights he has, he has needed to be pushed by such quality opposition. That is what makes top sport – the pursuit of individual mastery linked to the challenge of intense competition. And the richness comes from having to excel against a variety of styles and tactics according to the approach of different opponents. Ultimately, champions need contenders snapping at their heels to ensure the standard of play continues to evolve over time.

In a sport, it is a world where age is often an impediment to progress. Jack Nicklaus may trump Federer’s achievement purely in age terms, when he won the US Open golf tournament at 46, but the athleticism required for golf is totally different to that required to excel at tennis. Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman (‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire) for the world Heavyweight crown at the age of 45, but whilst I remain in awe of Ali as a sportsperson, I would suggest that one-on-one bouts (that allow for a knockout blow to terminate the contest) do not test the athlete’s durability in the same way.

Tennis players have to deal with round after round of tournament play against all of the world’s best players. The finalists have to strain every sinew of the mind and body for duration of the tournament and with such little time between semi-final and the final, have to summon up incredible resilience and determination to produce their best performance when it matters most.

Put simply, I suggest that Roger Federer’s 18th Grand Slam win yesterday has confirmed him as the greatest professional sportsman.

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