Tadhg Coakley: The enduring beauty of Roger Federer is a joy forever

In a way he wasn’t even Swiss, he transcended nationality. And in another way he transcended sport, he was grace incarnate
Tadhg Coakley: The enduring beauty of Roger Federer is a joy forever

A light that'll never go out: Team Europe's Roger Federer applauded ahead of day one of the Laver Cup at the O2 Arena, London. Pic: John Walton/PA Wire.

And so, the extraordinary and beautiful career of Roger Federer fades into memory this weekend. But what memories we have to console us.

I was in France when the news broke last week and when the sports newspaper L’Équipe came up with the perfect front page headline (in English): ‘God Save the King’. And devoted more than half the newspaper to the great man. It didn’t matter that Federer wasn’t French, in a way he wasn’t even Swiss, he transcended nationality.

And in another way he transcended sport, he was grace incarnate. And I’m using the past tense deliberately, because Roger Federer, the tennis player – the King – is no more. Famously described by David Foster Wallace as being Both Flesh and Not, now alas, Roger Federer is flesh alone.

Wallace said: "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty … it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to with sex or cultural norms. What is seems to do with is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body." 

In one of his celebrated footnotes Wallace expands on that, too: "… great athletes seem to catalyse our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space and interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important – they make up for a lot." 

Adrian Duncan’s short story ‘Prosinečki’ is about an ageing footballer who realises he’d based his career on an illusory ethic revolving around beauty. When the writers Wendy Erskine and Danny Denton discussed the story in The Stinging Fly magazine’s podcast, they said that the beautiful doesn’t elevate writing, the pragmatic is more important – it serves the story more. There is no beauty without purpose; beauty for its own sake is meaningless. Perhaps this is why we admired Federer so much. He was beautiful, stunningly so, but with purpose. The beauty was not for its own sake, the beauty’s purpose was to win. And he did.

His quietness. His dignity in victory or defeat. His dignity outside the game. The way he moved. The appearance of having the ability to slow time down, to master it. We see that mastery of time in Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona, Wendie Renard, Michael Jordan, Simone Biles, Mikey Sheehy and Jimmy Barry-Murphy. And we love them for it.

Maybe the game of tennis also allows us some glimpses of the Ancient Greek aesthetic ideal of physical form. In the reaching high for the serve, in the body’s movement across the court, in the swinging of the racket and the release after the hit, in the speed of the ball, in the brevity or longevity of points, in the back and forth of the ball over the net (one player mirrored on either side), in the lack of time limits in the game, in the ineffable poise of Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand.

There are moments of exquisite movement in every sport if you look for them. How a boxer evades a punch, how a hurler or camogie player controls the sliotar on the hurley, how a footballer fields a high ball, how a scrum half passes long and hard just ahead of a running out half, how a soccer player volleys to the net, how a basketballer spins and shoots for three points in one reaching arcing movement, how the favourite surges to the line in a horse race. It’s all there and it’s all affecting.

The ‘Greatest of All Time’ trope (I won’t even dignify its acronym with a mention) was shredded last week by Eimear Ryan in this newspaper and rightly so. I have never understood it, given there is so much time left. Christy Ring said the best players are yet to come, which is a very consoling thought, especially this weekend. No pressure, Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Świątek.

And what is greatness, anyway? I certainly don’t know. In tennis is it measured in the number of Grand Slams, or match wins, or tour wins? I don’t think so. I think it’s all subjective, it has to be. All I know is what I felt while watching Roger Federer. All I know is that he was beautiful to me. Beautiful and purposeful.

I vividly remember his epic Wimbledon final losses to Nadal in 2008 and Djokovic in 2019. I don’t know why those matches stand out so much, apart from being stunning in their own right. Maybe his star shone brighter in defeat, somehow. Maybe I felt more when he lost than when he won.

If you feel powerful emotions being immersed in a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, a Victoria Kennefick poem, or a Leonard Cohen song, it’s enough. It’s more than enough. What more do you want? Some pointless number-based definition of ‘greatness’ or ‘the greatest’? 

As David Foster Wallace said: "even to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled." In a way, it doesn’t matter that Roger Federer, the tennis player – the man both flesh and not – is no more. It’s enough that we experienced him and that those experiences endure.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

The beautiful game's ugly side is really showing

More grim news from the home of football this week in Pete Pattisson’s Guardian piece. Qatar’s World Cup organising body, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (Ed: don’t go there) claims that the living and working conditions of low-wage labourers have been transformed for the better, but the workers continue to toil in squalor and debt.

Pattisson interviewed Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Indian workers who were forced to pay illegal fees to agents in their own countries to secure their jobs. One worker says he paid nearly €3,095, a huge sum in Bangladesh. And his salary for labouring in intense heat and all day long? €258 a month, the equivalent of about €1.14 an hour.

Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex (SAIC), the workers’ employer, claims that since 2020 it has stopped the abusive kafala system – under which workers are not allowed to change jobs – but the workers say this is not true.

Likewise, assertions that SAIC have reimbursed €33,246 to workers to allow them to repay recruitment fees are also denied by workers.

So, who do you believe?

Meanwhile, the good news reported by Andrew Mills in this newspaper on Wednesday that Qatar is to soften its laws so World Cup fans can avoid prosecution for drunkenness and minor offences is welcomed by all. ‘Someone who removes a T-shirt in public will [merely] be asked to put his T-shirt back on,’ a spokesperson said.

Phew, what a relief.

Some good news to finish

Some sportspeople are more beloved than others, but the most revered of them all is surely Muhammad Ali. He still fascinates us six years after his death (too soon) and 41 years after his last fight (too late). And nobody can quibble with him being referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

Ali could not be more different in personality from Roger Federer, but their supreme beauty and mastery in their prime are things of wonder and inspiration.

Corkman Dave Hannigan has recently added to his own and the general canon of Ali books with Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness: Muhammad Ali (Pitch Publishing). It’s a brilliant read with a fascinating and free-flowing structure.

Following Ali in snappy newspaper accounts from 1982 (the year after his last (disastrous) fight) to 1996, the book charts his continued popularity, his beautiful soul, many bizarre events and his poignant descent into the grip of Parkinson’s Syndrome.

Go read it.

The Game: A Journey into the Heart of Sport (Merrion Press) by Tadhg Coakley is available in bookshops now.

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