The wait to see him return had to end through an emotional letter on Instagram. In the letter, Roger Federer announced his retirement from tennis. He said, his body of 41 years of age can’t bear the load of tennis anymore. The Laver Cup, set to take place between 23-25 September, will be his swansong.

Named after the legendary Rod Laver, this tournament is Federer’s brainchild. Like the Ryder Cup, where European and American golfers compete against each other in teams, in Laver Cup it’s Europe against the rest of the world.

It would’ve been more fitting for the 20-time grand slam winner to bid adieu from a grand slam tournament. That regret will always remain. But as that’s not going to happen, we can focus on the significance of the Laver Cup being his swansong.

The trio, whose rivalry is an incredible story in tennis history, will be teammates in the Laver Cup. In the five-member Europe team, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will be alongside Federer. Federer bidding adieu to tennis, sitting on the shoulders of his two fiercest rivals, what’s the harm in imagining that. Could something like that happen in a grand slam?

In terms of grand slam wins, the other two have already surpassed him. Nadal has ascended to 22 grand slams and Djokovic to 21. Still, in the debate on who is the greatest of all time, Federer’s name will come up the most. The debate used to be, who is the greatest, Rod Laver or Roger Federer? While this debate was going on, the other two burst onto the scene.

The numbers themselves used to proclaim that Federer was the greatest. Now, even though Federer is behind in terms of number, he is still the front runner in the debate of who is the greatest tennis player of all time. Why is that?

There may be only one explanation behind this- no one has played tennis quite like Federer. There was ease in everything he did, a sort of lazy elegance. In the age of power tennis, Federer was a treat for the eyes. There was a grace in everything Federer did. Even his ‘ace’ was elegant.

I don’t see anyone like Federer in tennis. For comparison, I have to look around at other sports. From there, I see two such sportspersons. In cricket, Mark Waugh and in football, Zinedine Zidane. Just like Federer, I can easily use the words ‘silky touch’, ‘grace’, ‘elegance’ to describe them on the field.

Federer’s magic is not just limited to the sport. In a career spanning decades, there is not even a trace of controversy surrounding him. As an example of an ideal sportsperson, only cricket’s Sachin Tendulkar can come close to Federer. Who knows, maybe even Tendulkar can’t match Federer.

I have taken one-on-one interviews of Tendulkar, I have attended his press conferences many times. I never saw multiple journalists prefacing their questions to him with, ‘I’m a huge fan of yours.’

I’ve seen that happen in Federer’s press conference. That press conference didn’t take place at a country that is lagging way behind in tennis, like Bangladesh. I witnessed such unfettered outpour of affection among the journalists for Federer at a global event like the Olympics.

It happened at a press conference in the 2012 London Olympics. After the press conference ended, the journalists that were Federer’s fans became even bigger fans of the icon. His refined way of speaking, immense warmth takes the person Federer to a loftier place than the player Federer.

I also asked him a question. A question that should’ve hurt his pride. I asked him who is the biggest star in this year’s Olympics- Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Roger Federer?

With a smirk, Federer said, “Not me.”

Why not?

“There are many great Olympians here. Many of them have won a lot of medals. Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or someone from the NBA must be the biggest star.”

While listening to his answer, I thought to myself, being a great tennis player is may be the reason behind Federer’s fame, but his greatness doesn’t end there. The person Federer is as much a champion as the tennis player. He is a champion that you can’t help but love. Even if you are a Nadal fan.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy