By Swiss standards, the excitement was at a fever pitch.
It wasn’t always this way. 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 peak dominance. Yet, when the people of Switzerland voted for the national broadcasters’ annual Sports Personality of the Year award at the end of the year, Federer came in second. He was beaten by a motorcycle racer who, though he hadn’t even performed exceptionally well that year, seemed somewhat more likable.
It took the tennis champ a while to recover from that sting. But even as his home country was denying him the recognition he so rightly deserved, he was beginning to get it everywhere else. Shortly after the disappointing Swiss award ceremony, Federer was voted World Sportsman of the Year for the first of five times, and by the time David Foster Wallace had turned him into a literary figure in a 2006 New York Times magazine article, it was clear to every last person in Switzerland: Roger Federer is a global presence, a world star, an icon. And hey — he’s one of ours!
The reluctance with which we Swiss embraced our greatest sportsman has a lot to do with the Swiss nature. The world has long viewed us exclusively through a lens of cliches: chocolate, Nazi gold, cuckoo clocks (which have nothing to do with Switzerland). In movies and books, Swiss characters appear as sinister bankers — uptight, greedy and basically evil.
But in our own minds, we are not merely different from other nationalities — we are special. We even have a word for it: “Sonderfall,” a kind of Alpine exceptionalism. We are a nation of hard-working ordinary people, ever polite and in control. Not too full of ourselves, not too loud, not too ostentatious. We function in an egalitarian, democratic way. We’ve never had a king, and we do not tolerate grandiosity.
Anyone who achieves something extraordinary in this system is subject to critical scrutiny. That’s why the motorcycle racer was voted Sports Personality of the Year. The message to Federer was not very subtle: Don’t get any big ideas.
Federer just continued to do what he had done before. He dominated the tennis world. And he did it like a good Swiss: politely. Severin Lüthi, Federer’s longtime coach, told my newspaper that on the day Federer announced his retirement, he called Lüthi three times to ask how he was coping. “I think many will remember him primarily as a nice person,” said Lüthi. “That’s more important than one title more or less.”
The longer Federer’s career lasted, the more the people of Switzerland came to realize that he was finally bringing the world’s view of us into alignment with our view of ourselves. Suddenly, we were no longer just money-grubbing gnomes from Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse; we were Federer’s countrymen. On tennis’s world stage, people who couldn’t have found our country on a map were waving Swiss flags. Roger Federer was shining, and we were shining with him.
For that, we forgave 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 his excessive promotional activities (including for watches and chocolate. Of course).
In return, we Swiss were given a front row seat to sporting history. It was bear Roger who arguably played the best tennis match ever against Rafael Nadal in 2008 (and unfortunately lost); it was bear Roger who produced one of the greatest comebacks nine years later at the Australian Open; it was bear Roger who raised an entire sport to a new level.
Now, he is calling it quits, leaving us as we were before. In the days after his departure, one newspaper published a rather fitting cartoon. It showed two Swiss watching a giant in tennis clothes stomping away. “And we are small again,” the caption read.
Yes, we are. But it was great while it lasted. And for that, we’ll forever be grateful to Roger Federer.