Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal, his long-time rival, in the Australian Open final last weekend, making it his eighteenth Grand Slam title and his first Grand Slam win since Wimbledon in 2012, despite the fact that hard court tennis isn’t even his specialty; he’s the king of grass courts. Even more remarkable? He is thirty-five years old and just came back from a six-month hiatus he took to recover from injuries.
This is why everyone calls Federer the G.O.A.T.—the greatest of all time. He holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles for a male tennis player. But the real reason he is one of the few professional athletes worth admiring these days isn’t because of his wins on the tennis court; it’s the values he demonstrates both on and off of it. Consider what he said after his hard-fought victory against Nadal at the Australian Open which is worth quoting in full:
“I’m out of words and Rafa said so many great things . . . I’d like to also congratulate Rafa on an amazing comeback. I don’t think either of us thought we’d be in the finals of Australia . . . And here we stand in the finals. I’m happy for [Nadal]. I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest. The comeback was perfect as it was. Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws. But if there was going to be one, I would have been happy to accept one and share it with Rafa. Everybody says they work very hard—I did the same—I try really not to shout about it because we got some serious legends and toughest guys in the game, like in Rafa, here tonight. But I’d like to thank my team. It’s been a different last six months, let’s be honest. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it here but here I am and we made it, so I’d just like to thank you guys . . . Of course there’s also Rafa’s team, you guys worked so hard over the years and deserve everything but more, so I wish you continued success this year and many more years to come. Stay on the tour. Keep playing, Rafa, because tennis needs you.”
Can you get any classier than that? In the speech, he spent half the time complimenting Nadal (even though they’re rivals, they do have an adorable relationship in part because they are both classy competitors), and the other half talking about how, as he worked through his injuries, he was grateful for the training team that helped him along the way. He barely spoke about himself, even though it was such a huge moment for him.
With all the injuries Federer has had lately and the natural ravages of time (thirty-five years old is old for a professional athlete, unless you’re one of the Williams sisters), he could have just retired and lived quite comfortably on his winnings and sponsorships. But he worked hard to come back, and his hard work paid off with another Grand Slam title. What emerges from Federer’s win is something that should inspire all of us: He didn’t return to the court for the money or glory; he did it because he loves the game. As he noted in his remarks, “I would have been happy to lose, too, to be honest. The comeback was perfect as it was.” He was so happy that he had been able to work through his injuries that he was content with just making it to the finals. Federer was just as happy with his comeback as he was with his win. And that’s what makes him so admirable.
More young athletes should model their behavior on Federer’s. He reminds us that playing a sport is more than just playing a game to win. It’s about sportsmanship and relationships and hard work, among many other things. With athletes making headlines for domestic violence or dog fighting or even just poor behavior such as tripping players on the basketball court and throwing tantrums, children can learn a thing or two from seeing respectful and kind athletes like Federer. He has worked hard to overcome painful injuries and competes against players who are much younger than he is, but he doesn’t give up and he gives credit to the people who help him, such as his wife and his training team. He is humble without “humblebragging,” like so many athletes and politicians these days, and he appreciates and respects his opponents. That’s the kind of athlete children need to see and imitate. With Federer’s retirement (very slowly) approaching, we’re going to need some young athletes to step in and fill his classy shoes. Or perhaps his go go boots, because Federer is also a man with a great sense of humor.