Idol No More

Why I wasn’t inspired when I met Roger Federer


Jai Uparkar

I thought meeting Roger Federer would change my life.

Roger Federer is considered by many to be the best tennis player of all time, holding the greatest number of Grand Slams for men and collecting 20 Majors in the Open Era, an era of tennis after 1968 when professionals could compete with amateurs in Grand Slams. He held the number one position in the world for the most amount of weeks on tour. And at the age of 37, when most athletes retire, he is still considered to be at the top of his game. He’s like the Michael Phelps of swimming, the Michael Jordan of basketball, or the Pele of soccer— everyone knows who he is — and he’s adored by fans for his humble attitude, poise and elegance on and off the court, as well as his record-breaking achievements.  

I was stuck in traffic when coming to school on a Wednesday morning, listening to my dad drone on about the news, when I heard a notification alert on my phone. It was my coach. The text read, “I need you to be a ball kid for Roger’s match on March 5th. Can you make it?” I thought it was a joke. I looked at the text for two solid minutes, sitting in silence, mulling my thoughts before telling my dad. He responded with shock and amazement, shaking his head in disbelief

The idea of meeting my idol seemed so unimaginable and insane that I was an emotional mess. I had watched Roger play for most of my life, witnessing his growth into one of the greatest. It was Roger’s shot-making ability and cleverness on the court which initially captivated me. The way he played the game was like no other. He invented tactics, like the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger), he defied his age, and his fearlessness on the court was a quality that I always admired about him. From that day, Jan. 31, 2018, to be specific, I started to dream about the endless possibilities of interacting with Roger Federer.

The romanticized version of him washed away, and he was no longer untouchable.

I thought to be on the same court and breathing the same air as him would be a turning point in my tennis career, a memory that would motivate me every day to be a better athlete. I had always been captivated by Roger’s elegance, by his focus and his composure. But truth be told, meeting Roger Federer was not as exciting as I thought.

I thought it would be life-changing. I really did. But somehow watching him play didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would. The romanticized version of him washed away, and he was no longer untouchable. The experience ruined Roger for me because I saw he was human. I saw him make mistakes I would make in a match. I thought Roger’s game had always embodied perfection and precision, but when I saw him play, I didn’t see that. I had believed that meeting my role model would change my life for the better, making the experience something that would push me to achieve unimaginable motivation and success.

I’m not saying he isn’t good —he’s one of the best— but because I had idolized him for so long that the idea of him seemed impenetrable and seeing a kink in his armor was disappointing.

But nonetheless the experience was one of a lifetime and  I still remember his dominating presence; he emitted this powerful aura of confidence and grace. I was intimidated just standing next to him.

While I came out of that match disappointed with my experience, I have never taken it for granted. His footwork was graceful and so elegant; it looked as if he was gliding on water. The placement of his shots and the efficiency of his movement were so precise that he didn’t even break a sweat.

I still remember the SAP Center packed with tennis fans from all over the country to watch one of the greatest players of all time play. The stadium lights shining above Roger made him seem like an angel descending down from the heavens, while the crowd erupted with applause at every one of Roger’s movements. And here I was, next to him, next to my idol — wondering why I wasn’t feeling the same fervor.  

Looking back at this experience six months later, I can still vividly picture it the emotions behind being a ball kid for Roger. Even though I was not inspired by my role model, my motivation for the game hasn’t stopped.

Experiences like these on and off the court remind me that I don’t need to depend on others to do well or be inspired. I can do that all by myself.