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Roger Federer Knew THEIR OWN Greatness

Roger Federer was on the telephone line, from his home in the Swiss Alps. He explained he was gazing out at the mountains, tired but relaxed and reflective. If he wasnt sipping on some fine Cabernet as he spoke, he sure must have been. Merely to complete the picture of a guy enjoying his moment.

This is back on February 1, 2017, a couple of days after Federerwho announced his retirement from tennis, at 41, on Thursdaycompleted another signature feat of his astounding career. Back from the six-month layoff following a knee injury, one of the numerous physical setbacks that stilted the later stages of Federers run, and ultimately drove him to his decision to avoid playing, Federer battled back from the fifth-set deficit to best his era-defining rival, and today friend, Rafael Nadal, in the Australian Open final. The win gave Federer his 18th Grand Slam titlehed finish with 20at age 35.

He started checking to TIME about how exactly this gritty win might finally silence those that would nitpick possibly the only flaw in his game: the opportunity to rise to the mental challenge contrary to the fierce player who got the very best of him generally, Nadal.

My mental toughness is definitely overshadowed by my virtuosity, my shot-making, my technique, my grace, Federer told TIME that day. Thats why when I lose, it looks like, Oh, he didnt play so well. So when I win, it looks very easy. I had that already when I was just a little boy. You understand, Why dont you try harder? After all, honestly I tried precisely what I really could. Because I dont sweat constantly and I dont grunt, I dont have this face on when I hit the shot like Im in pain, doesnt mean Im not trying hard. Its precisely how I play. Sorry.

No apologies needed. For these words, a lot more than any others I could recall over almost 2 decades of covering Federer, neatly summarize a champion in his element. My virtuosity, my shot-making, my technique, my grace. Federer never trafficked in false modesty. And just why should he? Hes graceful, and he knows it. He was great, and he knew it.

But arrogant? No chance.

MORE: Roger Federer Is Retiring. Watch THINK ABOUT His Career.

Its only fitting, then, that Federer leaves tennis a couple weeks after Serena Williams. Theyre now forever connected via similar comfort within their own greatness. We changed the overall game of tennis, Williams told TIME in August, before her final tournament run at the U.S. Open., discussing herself and her sister Venus. We changed how people play, period. Whats her legacy? Confidence and self-belief, Williams responded.

Exactly the same could possibly be said for Federer. Super fast, tennis lost two players with 43 Grand Slam titles between them. Sure, tennis won’t function as same. However the game is indeed far better for them.

Unlike a few of his superstar brethren, Federer hardly ever really slipped, with techniques big, small, or elsewhere. PADRAIG HARRINGTON peccadillos altered his trajectory. LeBron James approval ratings dipped after YOUR CHOICE. Lionel Messi ran afoul of tax laws. Count Deflategate against Tom Brady, if you want.

Serena had several spats with umpires shed prefer to have back. Relatively small potatoes, sure. But something.

But understand that Roger Federer controversy everyone got so excited about? Neither do I. Its extremely difficult, beneath the glare that global-athlete icons face in the 21st century, never to make some type of public mishap. Its a testament to Federer he hardly ever really did.

Is Federer the GOAT, at the very least in their own sport? His acolytes, who swarmed his years U.S. Open wearing their RF capseven though Federer was nowhere near NY Citywill never be convinced otherwise. Roger Federer as Religious Experience, in the end, was the headline of David Foster Wallaces seminal 2006 NY Times Magazine feature on Federer. Anyone who lived through his apex was fortunate to witness it. From 2004 through 2007, the four consecutive calendar years he ended his campaign as No. 1 on earth, Federer won 93% of his tennis matches. In 2004 and 2005, he reached the finals of 23 tournaments. He won a silly 22or 96%of them.

As Nadal emergedRafa won his first Grand Slam, at 19, at the 2005 French OpenFederer felt his heat. He wasnt comfortable having his tennis reputation defined by Nadal. I am aware the idea that [fans] think my career might proceed through him, Federer told TIME back 2006. I believe it undergoes titles. But by both measures, face to face and the Slam wins, Nadal happens at the top. Nadal finished 24-16 against Federer. He tops him in majors, 22 (and counting?) to 20.

Like the majority of people, however, Federer evolved. He swore, in a late 2019 interview, that irrespective of where he stood in the Slam pantheonNovak Djokovic, who owns 21 major titles, also passed himhe was totally at peace. Totally at peace.

Theres no real reason to doubt him. To the overall game of tennis: I really like you and can never leave you, Federer said in a statement Thursday. He’s got yet another tournament left, the Laver Cup in London, in a few days. Nadal has confirmed hell be there. Federer wont get a swan song at a significant, like Serena Williams did last month at the U.S. Open. Sports fans surely wanted that moment. But Roger Federers given us plenty of.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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