‘Beauty,’ declared David Hume, ‘is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.’
Beauty cannot be measured. Nevertheless, there is a consensus of opinion that the tennis played by Roger Federer was beautiful. Sport offers a variety of pleasures to spectators, and one of the keenest is aesthetic. Federer’s movement on the tennis court pleased the eye as a dancer does.
His admirers long ago hailed him as the greatest of all time tennis players. This too cannot be measured, for circumstances alter cases. There is even a brisk argument as to whether he is the greatest of his own times, greater than his rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Between them the three have won more than sixty Grand Slam titles. There has never been such a dominating triumvirate over so many years. Figures would suggest that Federer was the best on Wimbledon’s grass, Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros, Djokovic on the hard courts of Melbourne and New York. Perception and prejudice might dispute these verdicts; judgement is personal, and might say that Federer played like a king, Nadal like a street-fighter, Djokovic like the most efficient of officials, a Proconsul say.
Comparison with the past is irresistible and yet vaguely absurd. Even Federer never dominated Wimbledon as Pete Sampras did in the 1990s. So what? Beauty did not exist much in a mind which contemplated Sampras, even while one marvelled at his mastery, and the same might be said of Bjorn Borg, unbeatable for five or six years at both Wimbledon and Roland Garros.
There were only two things missing from the experience of watching Federer: a sense of vulnerability and a sense of danger. Stefan Edberg with his glorious backhand and net-play had that vulnerability — you felt the gods might desert him at any minute which was never the case with Federer, serene even in adversity. John McEnroe, a Prince of audacity, was like a simmering volcano or time-bomb, very different from Federer’s Olympian calm. ‘Olympian’ is right for Federer, a favourite of the gods. Indeed his serenity could be irritating. Watching him graciously receive yet another trophy, I sometimes felt like the Athenian citizen who voted for the ostracism of the politician Aristides because he was tired of hearing him called ‘the Just’; a mean and sour sentiment on my part. But there it is — the momentary resentment of a favourite of the Gods is natural, if deplorable.
In other more admirable and generous moments, one admired Federer’s calm and serene style, his good manners and generosity to opponents, his ability in our frenetic and self-indulgently emotional times to treat Kipling’s two imposters — triumph and disaster — just the same.
When Tom Kiernan, the great rugby player, the Irish full-back and captain of the 1969 Lions in South Africa, was asked on the occasion of his fiftieth cap — a national record in his day — who was the player of his time he had most admired. Without hesitation he replied, ‘Ken Scotland. It was an honour to be on the same field as him.’ Almost everyone who played against Roger Federer at Wimbledon and elsewhere, but especially there, for it was his domain, would surely say the same of him. He honoured the game he played and honoured his opponents too. As for the beauty of his game, its memory is imprinted in the minds of those who contemplated it.