Bjorn Borg? He’s my friend, but I don’t want to be like him
Just like an amateur tennis player’s feelings before playing the weekend tournament at the club of a lifetime.
Roger Federer loves the run-up to a tennis match: tying his laces, putting on his bandana, looking in the mirror and saying to himself, “Are you ready?”
The ritual is accompanied by those unpleasant knots in the stomach. A stress Federer has put himself through in his career for a quarter of a century, and one that while he loves, he says he’s glad he doesn’t have to follow again.
Eating breakfast with the night’s big match in mind, waiting all day, living those slow days to which the tennis player subjugates themselves. The Swiss remembers that routine also as a stressful situation. Waiting. Waiting a long time to go out and put on a show. Waiting, very tense, to do your job.
Federer will do it for the last time as a professional this Friday. In an exhibition, yes. Is a doubles match. But it will count in the official statistics (a Laver Cup’s achievement) and he will do it alongside his friend and greatest rival, Rafael Nadal.
And the 20-time Grand Slam winner will be nervous. As he prepares for his final match, the 1750th of his career, his tummy will tighten. As if he were an amateur, and not one of the most iconic athlete in history.
This Wednesday, before going for a stroll along the banks of the Thames and taking selfies with the European tennis players with Tower Bridge in the background, he held his last press conference. He spoke to reporters for 35 minutes.
He was honest, profound. He elaborated his answers as befits someone of his stature.
And in that bath of sincerity, without being asked, he took Bjorn Borg to the dance floor to tell people that he doesn’t want to be like him. To the legend of the seventies whom he proudly calls a friend.
Borg (now in London as captain of the European Laver Cup team) had an impressive career with six Roland Garros titles and another five in Wimbledon, but at 26 he decided to quit. Then, with a low profile, he was rarely seen in the tennis world.
Federer does not want to be a coach. Nor does he want to be a tournament director. He wants to enjoy life without a racquet with Mirka and his children. But he made it clear that he will not be a tennis ghost.
“I don’t think Bjorn Borg returned to Wimbledon for 25 years, and that in a way hurts. It hurts the tennis fans. It’s totally acceptable, he has his reasons, it’s his life. But I don’t want to be that guy. Tennis has given me a lot and I want to tell people that they will see me.”
Ever since that 6-0 third-set loss to Hubert Hurkacz at the Cathedral (sadly that ‘bagel’ will go down as his last set as a pro), Federer has been a bit of a ghost in the sport. And the few times he appeared, he provoked the delirium of the people, confirming that collective feeling that he cannot disappoint.
It happened in Paris, during Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s farewell. It was not in person, but on the screens of the Phillippe Chatrier, to send a recorded greeting to the Frenchman. The crowd went wild.
And it happened at Wimbledon, last July. There, his presence changed the vibes at the All England Club, when he visited Centre Court to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It was packed with champions, but his figure provoked popular delirium far more than anyone else.
He knows it. He is the most beloved person to ever pick up a racquet. And he knows he can’t hurt people with his disappearance. He has already broken too many hearts announcing his retirement, but he doesn’t intend to break any more.
Borg hurt too many, and Federer looks at him in that context as someone he doesn’t want to imitate.
(this is a translated version of CLAY’s twice-weekly newsletter in English)
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