The Icon-ic Athlete who charmed his way into Chinese hearts

Bivash Mukherjee
Roger Federer's unmistakable smile, graceful play, and friendly interactions with fans and tournament hosts have won him billions of fans worldwide.
Bivash Mukherjee
The Icon-ic Athlete who charmed his way into Chinese hearts

There is a reason why Roger Federer has endeared himself to fans, whether in tennis or outside the game. His unmistakable smile, graceful play, and friendly interactions with fans and tournament hosts have won him billions of fans worldwide.

On rare occasions, when he let the emotions get the better of him at the end of a grueling, marathon match, the world appeared to cry with him.

Those in Shanghai and China have been fortunate to have seen the Swiss master in his prime compete at the Rolex Shanghai Masters for over a decade. His aura was so captivating that fans from all corners of Asia would fly in by the legions. Everyone wanted to see the "God of Tennis" in action, and they were rarely disappointed.

ROGERRRR FEDERERRRRRR … the stadium announcer would roar in lengthy excitement as he welcomed him onto the court. The crowd at the packed Qizhong Tennis Center would erupt in thunderous applause, standing up and enthusiastically chanting his name: Roger, Roger, Roger ...

The atmosphere was electric, creating a truly captivating prime-time event. Federer would graciously acknowledge the crowd with his signature wave, accompanied by a warm smile, before settling into his courtside seat on the Center Court.

The star of the night would reach into his bag, carefully inspect his rackets, neatly hang his towel on the bench, and diligently organize his belongings. One couldn't help but sympathize with the opponent, who had to find strategies to silence the din of the crowd. For him, the challenge was primarily a mental one rather than a physical one, as he prepared himself to compete against one of the greatest names in the game.

As the chair umpire called "Time" after the warm-up, the stadium would fall into a hushed silence, with only the squeaking sounds of the branded shoes and the smashing of the balls across the court permeating the air.

A usually dignified Shanghai crowd clapped at every point, irrespective of the winner. During the break, there were moments when a single voice from the crowd would shout out the opponent's name, which would be met with a thunderous, Roger, Roger, Roger ...

As a sports commentator told Shanghai Daily, "It almost felt like Qizhong was Federer's home court outside of Switzerland!"

Federer stood out as a rare exception during a time in tennis when brute force reigned and players rarely ventured beyond the baseline. His game was filled with artistry; his shots – elegant and graceful.

The Icon-ic Athlete who charmed his way into Chinese hearts

Roger Federer takes a ride on the Shanghai Metro like a true local in October 2017.

Every time he conjured a moment of magic, the crowd would erupt in thunderous applause. For the countless spectators at Qizhong, witnessing Federer's performance was the epitome of vintage tennis excellence.

His trademarks on the court were elegance and poise. But the usually calm Federer made headlines when he lost his cool over a point deduction in the 2019 edition of the Shanghai Masters.

In the quarterfinal, Federer found himself trailing Alexander Zverev of Germany when he smashed a return volley into the net. In a moment of frustration, Federer grabbed the ball and tossed it into the Qizhong crowd. The umpire considered the action to be unsportsmanlike and immediately deducted a point, sparking a brief exchange of words between the two individuals.

Zverev advanced to the semifinals that year, and with the subsequent editions of the tournament called off due to the pandemic, it was to be Federer's last trip to Shanghai.

That is, up until this point.

The Swiss legend will return to the Rolex Shanghai Masters this year, but only as a guest of honor rather than as a player, and interact with the spectators on October 13.

Federer bid farewell to the game last year, gracefully hanging up his racket at the ripe age of 41. With an awe-inspiring collection of 20 grand slam triumphs and an astonishing tally of 103 ATP titles, he has left an indelible mark on the sport's history books.

The former World No. 1, who has won the Rolex Shanghai Masters twice, in 2014 and 2017, will be honored as the tournament's Icon Athlete this year. The tennis great, who has visited the city with his family multiple times, will be recognized for his contributions to the sport at the event.

And for the trail of unforgettable memories he has left behind in Shanghai.

Off the court, Federer hopped on the subway like a true local, embracing the vibrant energy of the city and frequently testing his Mandarin skills, which won him more friends here.

Like every other visitor, he took a tour of the Huangpu River, reveling in the night views.

The organizers of the Rolex Shanghai Masters did their part to make him feel at home by incorporating elements of local culture, such as dressing him in Chinese tunic suits and even having a statue of him as a terracotta warrior at the stadium.

These timeless elements have seamlessly found their way into this prestigious event, adding an extra touch of elegance and sophistication.

Every time the Swiss steps foot in Shanghai, he's in for a real treat, experiencing the unique appeal of local culture.

The Icon-ic Athlete who charmed his way into Chinese hearts

Roger Federer fans at Qizhong Tennis Center

Wang Dong, a TV host and on-court announcer at Qizhong, believes Federer's admiration for Shanghai is genuine, as is the city's fondness for him.

"Chinese people refer to him as 'wang qiu wang zi,' which translates as 'prince on the tennis court.' The way he executes his shots is textbook style, fabulous ... His forehand is undeniably impressive, but his backhand is equally exquisite. We frequently use the word elegance to describe him. He displays gentlemanly behavior on the court. That is the reason why we adore him.

"He too loves the city and maintains a close relationship with the organizers. He goes to the Bund and other places and wants to interact with people all the time; he wants to dance with you, jump with you and laugh with you. He does not feel intimidated by this type of interaction. That is truly admirable, and perhaps that is why Shanghai and the Chinese people find him so pleasing."

In a statement released at the announcement of this year's event, Federer said, "I remember coming to Shanghai for the first time for the opening of the (Qizhong) stadium, and I have been close friends with Juss Event and tournament organizers. "I am happy to keep the story going …"

So are we, Roger. Shanghai will always be home to you.

Special Reports