In a video made of Roger Federer when he was 36 and had 19 grand slams to his name, the great tennis player looks at pictures from an earlier time, when he was a ballboy at the Swiss Open in Basel. You hardly recognise him because he’s so young. In another section of the video he stands guard for the winner Michael Stich, who presents them with medals.
“I loved being a ballboy,” he says in the video. “I had the opportunity to see the best players up close.” The adult Federer smirks at the “shining eyes” of the child Federer, getting shiny eyes himself. “Like it was yesterday.”
This week I watched a replay of the fourth and fifth sets of the 2017 Australian Open final between Federer and Rafael Nadal. It was not without some feelings of melancholy, because Federer ends his career on Friday. Many hymns have been sung to his one-handed backhand, his elegance, his body control, his creative and featherlight game. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty,” David Foster Wallace writes of Federer.
Federer is an icon of sport. For tennis he had a style-defining effect, like Michael Jordan in basketball or Wayne Gretzky in ice hockey. But there is another, a special reason, why he is admired and loved by everyone: he is a chosen one – and yet the boy from Basel is one of them.
That has to do with his career. It has come about naturally. Federer has made use of the existing opportunities that community and society offer everyone. As a child and teenager, he was in the hands of institutions. It was the Swiss Tennis Federation that sponsored him and educated him at boarding school. So he matured into a world star within society. And he gave something back to it with his triumphs.
That is the reason for his high recognition. Success is not begrudged to Federer. Because everyone immediately knew who he was on the court with when he played against Federer. Everyone immediately recognised his gifted talent.
Federer’s dream of becoming a tennis pro was born when he was a ballboy. I can relate to that. When I was playing for my home club FT Gern at the age of 10 or 11, I was also a ball boy for FC Bayern. Getting close to the best was an inspiration for me.
Federer also says in the video that he kept Stich’s medal and that he still gets medals for ballkids when he takes them out for pizza after the tournament in Basel. “In my heart,” he says, “I will always remain a ballboy.”
Federer’s career path forms a stark contrast to the present. In times of professionalisation, young athletes are often treated like investments – especially in sports where there is a lot to earn, like tennis. At a young age, they are sent to academies and camps, which are talent factories. Athletes’ biographies are increasingly created outside the federation, outside society. They are privatised.
The entertainment industry of sport sees talent as a resource and a capital investment. As soon as it has identified the talent, it becomes a project. You take it out of the structures, do your own thing. The goal of the athlete is no longer to give something back to the community, but to optimise profit and build a business.
Because more and more people imitate this, many end up falling by the wayside. Talent is a rare gift. This is how sport distances itself from society. If it is no longer part of it, it loses its charm and credibility.
On Friday, the world can marvel at the genius of Federer one last time. It’s time to get nostalgic. Many Federer moments come to mind. I often think of the spring of 2017, when he experienced a resurgence after many injuries. He won Indian Wells and Miami, at the Australian Open he beat Nadal in the fifth set despite being behind.
It was the time when I ended my career. I was happy that Federer continued and I watched all his matches then – it was a wonderful pastime. He proved his prowess to everyone again. That’s how I will remember Roger Federer.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.