- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
LONDON — Roger Federer’s third-round match against Cameron Norrie on Centre Court had a familiar feel.
Fans stood dressed in Federer regalia, some of whom held up a sign which read, “Federer is forever.” It was as if these fans were on a pilgrimage, following the 20-time Grand Slam champion with an adulation reflected wherever Federer goes at the All England Club. His post-match on-court comments are greeted with nothing but appreciation and laughter, to the point where he could criticize the England football team this week and even the most fervent fan would shrug it off: “Yeah, but it’s Roger.”
Because, in men’s tennis, few players if any have been loved on Centre Court as deeply and adoringly as Roger Federer.
And although the 39-year-old is in the twilight of his career, any match here for the 20-time Grand Slam champion is still a bucket-list destination for sports fans who know they will witness a spellbound and emotional experience.
Centre Court at Wimbledon is a place where, regardless of what’s going on in the world, the expectation and experience remains the same. It’s a patch of grass where adored protagonists are cheered to the (new) rooftops and welcomed back in post-tennis life as old friends. It is a tennis haven from the day-to-day hurdles of normal life, including a global pandemic.
Combine it with Federer, dancing along the baseline and finding a precise blade of grass with his sweeping backhand, and it is a Lilliputian experience.
“Federer is beloved, because of the style he plays and people feel like he’s their own,” ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert said. “He has this stylistic side to him, and honest to God, I think Americans think that like he’s like Sampras, he’s from Southern California and he’s not really from Switzerland,” Gilbert said. “The Aussies think he’s Aussie, the French think he’s French … for some reason he transcends where he’s from, you know, and he’s just this global icon.”
Federer’s resilience does not come at the expense of grace and benevolence off the court. The racquet-smashing teenager learned to channel his on-court frustration into form, and with that came emergence into tennis’ consciousness. Federer himself finds it hard to pinpoint exactly when he first started to feel the love on Centre Court. Maybe it was around 2002, after he had upset Pete Sampras in the final the previous year. Even now, he doesn’t bank on having the support.
“I never really walk out and expect everybody to be for me, to be honest,” he said Thursday. “When you see another guy hit great shots, I hope they applaud the guy. You want the atmosphere to be there. If it’s sort of one way only, it’s also not what it’s supposed to be. I think you applaud in tennis the good shots, the good plays. Maybe with me they know me a little bit better, they’ve heard of me. But not everybody in particular has to be for me.”
But watching him dispatch France’s Richard Gasquet on Centre Court earlier that day, only the random shout of “Allez Richard” broke through the Federer love-in.
“More than anything, it is the ballet-like way that he moves on the tennis court,” Cliff Drysdale, who is also calling matches for ESPN, said. “He is very forthcoming in interviews and his public persona, and to see him on the tennis court is to watch the best mover in the history of the game and combined with his shot-making capabilities.”
With Federer, you know you’re going to be put through a display of aesthetically pleasing tennis. You’ve seen it before, but it’s just as thrilling — like watching the Rolling Stones on one of their biannual farewell tours as they play out their full repertoire with energetic finesse.
“If someone can go to Wimbledon just once, it’s to go and see Fed play,” Gilbert said. “It’s like seeing this famous conductor, like seeing somebody that’s like a living legend.”
Before Federer dispatched Britain’s Norrie in four sets on Centre Court on Saturday, Gilbert suggested the home hope would be “lucky to have 15% of the crowd.” This was certainly the case at the start of the match, but the Centre Court crowd also love an underdog, especially when he’s one of their own. Norrie had a touch more support at the start and the crowd admired his tenacity and effort, even cheering the Brit to the open roof and back after he handed a towel to a spectator he had hit with a previously wayward serve.
As Norrie took a set off Federer and hinted at a monumental upset, you could determine who had won points when you stood outside Centre Court waiting to go back in at a break in play: an ear-splitting cheer meant Federer, another with slightly lower decibels for Norrie. But Federer closed out the match to advance to the Round of 16, fans living off his every word when he spoke after the win.
Fans appreciate players showing emotion here, part of Andy Murray’s incredible appeal. Only Murray could have burst the bubble of Federer devotion on Centre Court, but it’s a different type of love. Murray has a touch of the Everyman about him: he mutters to himself like the regular at your local pub who props up the bar on his own. He battles through adversity. He hurts like Britain, too, mentally and physically. He doesn’t bottle emotion. He cries, just like Federer. Before this tournament Murray spoke of wanting to appreciate the experience more, having previously been in his uber competitive tunnel vision. He spoke pre-tournament of how much he’d enjoyed practicing with Federer.
“When I take a step back from that, as a tennis fan, getting to play with Roger Federer two days before Wimbledon, it’s really great,” Murray said pre-tournament. “I haven’t had the opportunity to do that sort of stuff much over the last few years. I enjoyed that.”
And that’s translated through to the supporters: watching great athletes, unknowing when the chance will be gone. These moments have been onlu heightened by the restrictions the world has faced because of the on-going pandemic.
It all contributes to the collective Wimbledon experience, where the smells and sights are familiarly comforting: overpriced strawberries and cream; creeping chatter between points; the embarrassed stifled laugh when a champagne cork heads off into the SW19 sky; and the applause when an umpire reminds folks to switch off their mobile phones.
The next batch are still yet to achieve that same adulation. On Thursday, Alexander Zverev was doing his press duties on the broadcast balcony which hugs the southwest corner of Centre Court. A couple of fans stood beneath hoping to catch his eye. Later that day, Federer was standing in the same spot, while 100 or so fans beneath him were clamoring to grab a glimpse.
“I don’t think it is ever going to be Federer-like for those guys,” Drysdale said. “It is hard for me to imagine anybody enjoying more popularity than Federer in history. The closest I have seen was Bjorn Borg. Tennis has a way of giving birth to iconic champions because once you start winning in this sport, winning breeds winning, breeds confidence.”
So just like Borg and the other greats who had their time in the sun (and rain), the Federer dynasty will eventually come to an end, but there will be few who will be similarly adored on the 99-year-old Centre Court.
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