TENNIS

Reviews | Roger Federer opened the eyes of the world to the real Switzerland

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Philipp Loser is a columnist for the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.

When the moment came, when the inevitable happened and Roger Federer announced his retirement, it was almost as if he was dead for us Swiss.

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On the front pages of the country’s major newspapers, her face was printed in shades of gray, much like Queen Elizabeth II’s a week earlier. There were high praises for “King Roger”, reflecting the elegance of his acting and character. News channels broadcast special reports; on the radio, little else was talked about. Journalists wrote about their personal meetings with the “Maestro”. Politicians have posted selfies they’ve taken with him at some point over the past 20 years, and anyone who’s even come into remote contact with perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time – as a physiotherapist, or ball kid or racquet stringer – had the time and space to tell their personal anecdote.

By Swiss standards, the excitement was at its height.

It has not always been so. In 2005, Federer won 11 tournaments on the ATP Tour, including the US Open and Wimbledon. His match record was 81-4. He was playing more successfully than almost any player before him. He was at the height of his dominance. Yet when the Swiss people voted for the annual National Broadcaster Sports Personality of the Year award at the end of the year, Federer came second. He was beaten by a motorcycle rider who, although he hadn’t even put in an outstanding performance that year, seemed a little more sympathetic.

It took some time for the tennis champion to recover from this sting. But even as his home country denied him the recognition he so rightly deserved, he began to get it everywhere else. Shortly after the disappointing Swiss awards ceremony, Federer was voted World Sportsman of the Year for the first of five times, and just as David Foster Wallace turned him into a literary figure in a magazine article New York Times from 2006, it was clear to the last in Switzerland: Roger Federer is a global presence, a global star, an icon. And hey, it’s one of ours!

The reluctance with which we Swiss have embraced our greatest sportsman has a lot to do with Swiss nature. The world has long viewed us exclusively through a lens of clichés: chocolate, Nazi gold, cuckoo clocks (which have nothing to do with Switzerland). In movies and books, Swiss characters come across as sinister bankers – uptight, greedy, and basically evil.

But in our own mind, we’re not just different from other nationalities – we’re special. We even have a word for it: “Sonderfall”, a kind of alpine exceptionalism. We are a nation of ordinary people who are hard working, always polite and in control. Not too full of ourselves, not too loud, not too ostentatious. We operate in an egalitarian and democratic manner. We have never had a king and we do not tolerate the grandiose.

Anyone who achieves anything extraordinary in this system is subject to critical scrutiny. That’s why the motorcycle rider was voted sports personality of the year. The message to Federer was not very subtle: don’t have big ideas.

Federer just kept doing what he had done before. He dominated the world of tennis. And he did it like a good Swiss: politely. Severin Lüthi, Federer’s longtime coach, told My Diary that the day Federer announced his retirement, he called Lüthi three times to ask how he was doing. “I think many will remember him primarily as a nice person,” Lüthi said. “It’s more important than one title more or less.”

The longer Federer’s career lasted, the more the Swiss realized that he was finally aligning the world’s view of us with our view of ourselves. Suddenly, we weren’t just the money-hungry gnomes of Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse; we were Federer’s compatriots. On the world tennis stage, people who couldn’t have found our country on a map were waving Swiss flags. Roger Federer shone and we shone with him.

For that, we have forgiven him a lot: his second home in Dubai. His deliberately evasive way of not commenting on anything unrelated to tennis (ah, neutrality, another cliché). Or its excessive promotional activities (including watches and chocolate. Of course).

In return, we Swiss were placed first in the history of sport. It was our Roger who played arguably the best tennis match ever against Rafael Nadal in 2008 (and sadly lost); it was our Roger who produced one of the greatest comebacks nine years later at the Australian Open; it was our Roger who took an entire sport to a new level.

Now it stops, leaving us as we were before. In the days following his departure, a newspaper published a rather appropriate cartoon. It showed two Swiss men watching a giant in tennis gear walk away. “And we’re small again,” the caption read.

Yes we are. But it was great while it lasted. And for that, we will be eternally grateful to Roger Federer.

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