Life, love and loss: Roger Federer shares lessons to remember at Dartmouth College

Beloved sportsman Roger Federer shared life lessons from his glorious tennis journey with fresh graduates from the Dartmouth College. His simple yet important lessons have resonated with fans across the world!
Roger Federer at Dartmouth College
Tennis ace Roger Federer delivered a moving motivation speech at the Dartmouth College. Image courtesy: Instagram | Roger Federer
Radhika Bhirani Published: 12 Jun 2024, 11:08 pm IST
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Sportsmanship is not just about knowing how to play a sport. It is also about being a sport – a trait beautifully exhibited by Roger Federer across 24 years of his life as one of the world’s greatest tennis players. The Swiss icon, who enjoys global fandom, has captured hearts once more – this time off the court! The 42-year-old sports star received an honorary doctorate at the Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire recently. In his motivational commencement speech, Federer shared ‘tennis lessons’ from his own life on the court to help young graduates navigate the highs and lows of life.

Roger Federer’s speech went viral for all the right reasons. Here was a chance for fans to reconnect with the very reasons why they love Federer: his humility, honesty, loyalty, love for family and passion for philanthropy.

During his glorious career, the former professional tennis player won a record 33 ATP World Tour Awards. He became the oldest world No. 1 at the age of 36 in 2018!

“I left school at the age of 16 to play tennis full-time. So I never went to college, but I did graduate recently. I graduated tennis… I’m loving the life of a tennis graduate. I graduated tennis in 2022 and you are graduating college in 2024… Today I want to share a few lessons I’ve relied on through this transition. Let’s call them tennis lessons. I hope they will be useful in the world beyond Dartmouth,” Federer told the graduating class at the institute.

Life lessons by Roger Federer

Broadly, Roger Federer shared three life lessons with the students. But a closer look into the speech will give you more lessons to learn and follow for a happier and healthier life.

1. Effortless is a myth

Roger Federer says when people would “compliment” him that his game was “effortless”, he found it frustrating. That’s because he truly believes that nothing is “effortless” in life. He told the students, “The truth is, I had to work very hard to make it look easy. I spent years whining, swearing and throwing my racket before I learned to keep my cool.”

The wake-up call came to him early in my career when an opponent at the Italian Open questioned his mental discipline. Federer recounted, “He (the opponent) said, ‘Roger will be the favourite for the first two hours, and I’ll be the favourite after that’. I was puzzled at first, but eventually I realized what he was trying to say was that everybody can play well the first two hours. You’re fit, fast and clear, and after two hours, your legs get wobbly, your mind starts wandering and your discipline starts to fade. It made me understand I have so much work ahead of me.”

This incident made Federer work harder. “I hope that like me, you learn that effortless is a myth. I didn’t get where I got on pure talent alone. I got there by trying to outwork my opponents,” he said.

2. Self-belief has to be earned

As he spoke about the effort that went behind looking effortless, Roger Federer also emphasized the need for a person to earn “self-belief” in life.

He recollected a moment from 2003. He was at the ATP finals where only the best eight players qualify and he beat some of the top players whom he really admired. “I aimed right at their strength. Before that, I would run away from their strength. If a guy had a strong forehand, I would try to hit his backhand. But now, I would try to go after his forehand. I tried to beat the baseliners from the baseline. I tried to beat the attackers by attacking. I tried to beat the net rushers from the net. I took a chance by doing that. Why did I do it? To amplify my game and expand my options.”

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This anecdote was Federer’s way of telling the fresh graduates about the importance of finding your own ways to win. “Those are the victories we can be most proud of because they prove that you can win not just when you’re at your best, but especially when you aren’t,” he added.

Check out a sneak peek into the Dartmouth College speech by Roger Federer!

 

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A post shared by Roger Federer (@rogerfederer)

3. Talent is not about having a gift, it’s about having grit

Talent matters, whatever field you are in – and Federer doesn’t deny it. But he made it a point to share an important lesson with the new generation: “Talent has a broad definition most of the time. It is not about having a gift. It is about having grit.”

“In tennis, a great forehand with sick racket head speed can be called a talent. But in tennis, like in life, discipline is also a talent and so is patience. Trusting yourself is a talent, embracing and loving the process is a talent, managing your life and yourself… these can be talents too.”

While acknowledging that some people are born with these life skills, he reminded the Dartmouth graduates that “everybody has to work at them from this day forward”.

4. It is only a point

One of the most important lessons in Roger Federer’s speech was simply that: “It is only a point.”

“I have said it many times that tennis is brutal. There’s no getting around the fact that every tournament ends the same way. One player gets a trophy, every other player gets back on a plane, stares out of the window and thinks ‘how the hell dod I miss that shot’… I tried not to lose, but I did lose… sometimes (it was a) big (loss) for me.”

Federer shared a vivid memory of the 2008 Wimbledon finals where he competed against Spanish player Rafael Nadal. It was touted “the greatest match of all time”, and marked Nadal’s maiden Wimbledon title.

On a reflective note, he said, “Losing at Wimbledon was a big deal because winning Wimbledon is everything. I’ve gotten to play in some amazing venues around the world, but when you have the chance to walk onto court at Wimbledon, the Cathedral of tennis, and when you finish as the champion, you feel the magnitude of the moment! There’s nothing like it. In 2008, I was going for record sixth consecutive title… I was playing for history.”

Federer admits feeling like he had lost at the very first point of the match. “I looked across the net and I saw a guy who just a few weeks earlier crushed me in straight sets at the French Open. I thought, ‘This guy is maybe hungrier than I am, and he’s finally got my number. It took me almost the third set before I remembered ‘Hey buddy, you’re the five-time defending champion and you’re on grass!’ But it came too late, and Rafa won. It was well-deserved. Some defeats are, more than others. I knew I would never get another shot at six in a row. I lost Wimbledon. I lost my number one ranking, and suddenly people said, ‘He had a great run’, ‘Is this the Changing of the Guard?’ But I knew what I had to do – keep working and keep competing in tennis.”

Federer shared that of the 1,526 singles matches that he played in his career, he won almost 80 percent of those matches. Yet, he had actually only won 54 percent of points in those matches.

Summing up the core lesson of his story, he said, “When you lose every second point on an average, you learn not to dwell on every shot. You teach yourself to think, ‘Okay, I double faulted. It’s only a point.’ Even a great shot an overhead backhand smash that ends up on a channel’s top 10 playlist… that too is just a point. I’m telling you this because when you’re playing a point, it has to be the most important thing in the world. But when it’s behind you, it’s behind you.”

Adopting this mindset is crucial for every person because it makes one fully commit to the next point with intensity, clarity and focus.

“Whatever game you play in life – sometimes you’re going to lose a point, a match, a season, a job… it’s a roller coaster with many ups and downs, and it’s natural when you’re down to doubt yourself and to feel sorry for yourself. But negative energy is wasted energy. You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments, and that is to me the sign of a champion! The best in the world are not the best because they win every point. It’s because they know they can lose again and again, and have learned how to deal with it. You accept it, cry it out if you need to, and then force a smile. You move on, be relentless, adapt, work harder and smarter.”

5. Life is bigger than the court

A tennis court is a small space. And while Roger Federer worked a lot, learned a lot and ran a lot of miles in that small space, he always knew the world is a whole lot bigger than that!

“Even when I was just starting out, I knew that tennis could show me the world. But tennis could never be the world. I knew that if I was lucky, maybe I could play competitively until my late 30s, maybe even 41. But even when I was in the top five, it was important for me to have a a rewarding life full of travel, culture, friendships and especially family. I never abandoned my roots. I never forgot where I came from. And I also never lost my appetite to see the very big world,” Federer said.

Roger Federer is also a philanthropist. He was very sure he wanted to do something to empower others. In 2003, the tennis ace started the Roger Federer Foundation that supports educational projects in southern Africa and Switzerland. So far, his Foundation has helped nearly 3 million children to get quality education and trained around 55,000 teachers.

“I was 22 at the time like many of you are today. I was not ready for anything other than tennis. But sometimes you’ve got to take a chance and figure it out. Philanthropy can mean a lot of things. It can mean starting a non-profit or donating money, but it can also mean contributing your ideas, your time and your energy to a mission that is larger than yourself. All of you have so much to give and I hope you will find your own unique ways to make a difference because life really is much bigger than the court,” asserted Federer.

6. Your success depends on your team

Taking another important leaf out of his tennis life, Roger Federer shared that like life itself, tennis is a team sport. “Yes, you stand alone on your side of the net, but your success depends on your team, your coaches, your teammates and even your rivals. All these influences help you to make you who you are.”

Personal relationships matter the most. Federer says he imbibed this way of thinking from his parents, who have always supported and encouraged him. Federer also acknowledged his “incredible wife” Mirka for “making every joy in my life even brighter”. He also mentioned his four children, and expressed how his family members are all there for each other, every day.

Roger Federer and wife Mirka
Roger Federer has a strong family support. He is seen here with his wife, Mirka. Image courtesy: Instagram | Roger Federer

As Federer wrapped up his speech, he infused the crowd with an invigorating spirit of being “future record breakers, world travelers, future volunteers and philanthropists, future winners and future Leaders”.

“I’m here to tell you from the other side of graduation that leaving a familiar world behind and finding new ones is incredibly, deeply wonderfully exciting,” he concluded.

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About the Author

Radhika Bhirani is a journalist with close to 15 years of experience in the Indian media industry. After writing extensively on health, lifestyle and entertainment, she leads the English content team at Health Shots. She has a special interest in writing on mental health and wellness. ...Read More

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