Roger Federer Inspires a Global Devotion Like no Other Sportsperson

 Aimee Lewis

It is a global traveling troupe like no other in sport. A patchwork of nationalities, from India, Lebanon, America, on a summer pilgrimage to worship the most successful tennis player in history. These are Roger Federer fans. But his admirers have taken their devotion to a new level of intensity at this year's Wimbledon, descending in heavyweight numbers in a quest to watch their heavenly hero perform in his Centre Court cathedral.

Some are dressed in the red and white of the Swiss flag, others are sporting the "RF" monogram somewhere on their person -- on earrings, t-shirts, bags, caps, tattooed on body parts. Certain fans are in a permanent state of flux. Stressed, panicked, their brains whir with worry. Followers of the 18-time grand slam champion have been making this annual journey to London for over a decade and the Swiss' supporters are well-known for their unwavering commitment to their man.

Waiting in the snaking Wimbledon queue, a perplexed Novak Djokovic supporter asks why every Federer fan on the planet has descended to SW19. "But this is not all of us," laughs 25-year-old Myriam Khalil of Lebanon. She is still recovering from the shock of arriving at Wimbledon Park -- a recreational ground where the famed queue for on-the-day tickets starts -- at 3am only to discover a few hundred people had already beaten her to the front of the line.

A chance to be part of history

"It's been crazy. Ever since we arrived, we noticed a greater amount of Roger fans everywhere.
"It's great but, at the same time, it's stressful because everyone wants to see Roger on Centre Court. This year, in particular. It's been special."

It's no secret that Federer has always been popular. He has 7.5m followers on Twitter, nearly 15m on Facebook and last year won the ATP World Tour's Fans' favorite award for the 14th successive year, even though he had played just 28 matches. The 35-year-old has been the biggest draw at tournaments for over a decade, but Federer in 2017 has an added allure. Cocooned from the normal ravages of age, he's winning again -- he has yet to drop a set at Wimbledon -- and is favorite for the men's title. In beating Milos Raonic, a man 10 years his junior, in straight sets, the father-of-four is now two matches away from a record eighth Wimbledon crown -- eclipsing the seven won by the Pete Sampras.

With Federer turning 36 next month, the sand is falling to the bottom of the hourglass all too rapidly, though the "R" word (retirement, not Roger) is rarely whispered among his disciples. "Oh no, why think about that?" says Karen Wilson, red and white "RF" earrings dangling from her lobes. The American-born grandmother-of-four jokingly describes herself as "Grannie the Groupie." But, like it or not, Federer is in the autumn of his career. And the reality of the situation is writ large as his fans camp, sit, stand in line for days in the hope of watching him play.

'I could watch him play every day 24/7'

Like Khalil and Wilson, Sunita Sigitia is a member of the official Federer fan club -- Fans 4 Roger. She has been making the 7,966km journey from Calcutta to Wimbledon to watch Federer's feather-soft volleys and beautiful backhands for the last 10 years, but has never felt pressure such as this in her mission to watch him in the flesh. Not even an "RF" tattoo, subtly inked on the back of her neck, or the great man's signature -- permanently marked on the inside of her forearm -- can help her gain access into The All England Club.

For those curious about the tattoos, Federer's initials were added in 2010 to show she "still believed in him" despite a quarterfinal defeat at Wimbledon. (He occasionally loses, though only twice this year.) The signature is a celebration of the player's 18th grand slam title, secured at the Australian Open in January.
The great man himself has seen the tattoos. He did not comment.

Throughout this tournament, Sigitia has narrowly made the cut to watch Federer on Centre Court, but this does not stop the Indian businesswoman from worrying about what could lie ahead. Her mind is racing with queuing strategies for the matches which may come. "It's basically for Roger this year. That's why it's tougher," she says, giving her own take on why the masses are queuing. "I could see him play every day 24/7. Just watching him play is amazing. "We used to be able to come the day before, maybe noon, and we'd be okay for Centre Court, but now we're not so certain.

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Category: Sports
Aimee Lewis
29 October, 2017
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