Getting closer to the best was an inspiration for Roger Federer and me | Roger Federer

In a video made of Roger Federer when he was 36 years old and had 19 Grand Slams under his belt, the tennis great looks at footage from an earlier era when he was a ballboy at the ‘Swiss Open in Basel. You hardly recognize him because he’s so young. In another section of the video, he stands guard for winner Michael Stich, who presents them with medals.

“I loved being a ball boy,” he says in the video. “I had the opportunity to see the best players up close.” Adult Federer smiles at the “bright eyes” of child Federer, getting the bright eyes himself. “Like it was yesterday.”

This week I watched a replay of the fourth and fifth sets of the 2017 Australian Open final between Federer and Rafael Nadal. It was not without some feelings of melancholy, as Federer ends his career on Friday. Many anthems have been sung to his one-handed backhand, elegance, body control, creative and feather-light play. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a privileged place for the expression of human beauty”, writes David Foster Wallace about Federer.

Federer is a sports icon. For tennis, he had a defining effect on style, like Michael Jordan in basketball or Wayne Gretzky in ice hockey. But there is another special reason why he is admired and loved by all: he is a chosen one – and yet the man from Basel is one of them.

It has to do with his career. It happened naturally. Federer took advantage of his opportunities. As a child and teenager, he was in the hands of institutions. It was the Swiss Tennis Federation that sponsored and educated him in a boarding school. So he became a global star within the society. And he gave her something back with his triumphs.

This is the reason for his great recognition. The success is not to blame for Federer. Because everyone immediately knew who he was on the pitch with when he played against Federer. Everyone immediately recognized his gifted talent.

Federer’s dream of becoming a tennis professional was born when he was a ball boy. I can understand that. When I was playing for my original club, FT Gern, at the age of 10 or 11, I was also a ballboy for FC Bayern. Getting closer to the best has been an inspiration to me.

Federer, shown here to the crowd at the Laver Cup opening ceremony, is a sports icon and the chosen one has become a global star within society. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Federer also says in the video that he kept Stich’s medal and still gets medals for the ballkids when he takes them out for pizza after the Basel tournament. “In my heart,” he says, “I will always remain a ball boy.”

Federer’s career path contrasts sharply with the present. In times of professionalization, young athletes are often treated as investments – especially in sports where there is a lot to be gained, such as tennis. From an early age, they are sent to academies and camps, which are talent factories. Athlete biographies are increasingly being created outside of the federation, outside of society. They are privatized.

The sports entertainment industry views talent as a resource and a capital investment. As soon as he has identified the talent, it becomes a project. You take it out of the structures, do your own thing. The athlete’s goal is no longer to give something back to the community, but to maximize profit and build a business.

Because more and more people imitate this, many end up falling by the wayside. Talent is a rare gift. This is how sport distances itself from society. If he is no longer part of it, he loses his charm and his credibility.

On Friday, the world will be able to marvel one last time at Federer’s genius. It’s time to get nostalgic. Many Federer moments come to mind. I often think back to the spring of 2017 when he had a resurgence after many injuries. He won Indian Wells and Miami. In Australia, he beat Nadal in the fifth set despite falling behind.

It was the time when I ended my career. I was happy that Federer continued and I watched all his games back then – it was a wonderful pastime. He again proved his prowess to everyone. This is how I will remember Roger Federer.

Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch of Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is published in several European countries.

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