If Roger Federer seems almost insouciant about plotting his next move in tennis, it is because his very existence brings incomparable cachet.
Here is a figure whose 10-year Uniqlo deal will take him to the age of 46, far beyond the Japanese fashion giant’s typical target market, and whose pristine image has persuaded Moet & Chandon to produce limited-edition magnums entitled “Greatness since 1998”. So lucrative is the business of simply being Federer, he could become a virtual recluse inside his Lake Zurich mansion and still have the blue-chip corporates beating a path to his door.
The Laver Cup, where Federer bids a poignant farewell on Friday night at the event he created, is helplessly in thrall to the power of his presence. His own sponsors, from Rolex to Credit Suisse, are plastered over every billboard. His two fellow titans in the game, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, parade in matching Uniqlo outfits.
On the approach to the O2, there is even a space reserved for the Swiss tourist board. It all feels like the foretaste of the future, in which Federer finds himself repackaged as an aspirational lifestyle brand.
The question of what Federer conjures as an encore is surprisingly urgent. For all we assume that the most luminous stars never fade, they can, in retirement, become lost to the sports they once dazzled. Take Usain Bolt: in the five years since he ran his last race in London, the Jamaican has drifted into a listless torpor, experimenting with everything from music-producing to ill-fated football trials, all while displaying barely the faintest interest in promoting athletics.
In tennis, Bjorn Bjorg vanished off the grid even more dramatically. One moment, he was the iconic Swedish poster-boy with the headband and the wild hair, mobbed wherever he went in London. The next, he had disappeared to an island idyll outside Stockholm, forsaking the global circus of his young life for good. He would not return to Wimbledon, the place that had cemented his legend, for another 25 years.
It is a relief to hear Federer assure that he will not follow Borg’s example by being a “ghost”. True, nobody would begrudge him if he wanted a life of unbroken leisure back at his picture-perfect Alpine retreat. But he suggests that such a life would not satisfy him, teasing the prospect of a stint behind the microphone at next summer’s Wimbledon.
Frankly, tennis needs him to keep generating the electricity. What, for example, do you imagine the Laver Cup would be without him? It would turn into the most hollow of exhibitions, denuded of the glamour that only Federer can confer.
Even with his rackets stashed away, he is required still to turn up in a statesman’s role, especially when the event heads to less tennis-obsessed territory in Vancouver next year.
Alone among the Big Four, who count Andy Murray as an honorary inductee, Federer boasts a truly supranational appeal. When he contested the “Match for Africa” against Nadal in Cape Town in 2020, the occasion drew more than 51,000 people, a record crowd for any tennis match.
The only numbers that could compare had been recorded during his tour of Latin America the previous year. The games themselves were forgettable hit-and-giggles, but they reduced audiences to raptures everywhere from Quito to Mexico City.
One reporter who travelled with his entourage recalled seeing fans openly weeping. Such is the potency of the Federer effect: even in countries that he is visiting for the first time, he receives a reception that would make a pop idol blush.
Compare this to this month’s Davis Cup matches in Glasgow, where, irrespective of Murray being the main attraction, there were still swathes of empty seats.
Federer can expect such adulation to be sustained, despite ceasing to hit a ball in anger. He might be planning to return to Wimbledon solely as a talking head, but he will still be mobbed on the gangways to a degree to which only David Beckham could relate.
At the Centre Court centenary celebrations this year, he raised a cheer so loud, you would have thought he had finally won his ninth title there. The thought of him switching to punditry is one to relish. Given the peerless intelligence with which he played, he would be sure to elevate the art.
The option of coaching seems less plausible: Federer, with four children, shows little appetite for any form of life on the road. But as an ambassador, his value is incalculable.
In contrast to Bolt, all but divorced from track and field these days, he insists he has “fallen in love with too many things” to be idle for long. “I have the great luxury of not having to do anything I don’t feel like doing,” he admits.
Tennis must hope that its ultimate icon will, beyond his emotional London curtain-call, find ways to ignite his passion. He is too priceless an asset to risk losing altogether.