Federer’s three lessons: Effortless is a myth, perfection is impossible, life is bigger than a tennis court

Roger Federer was in the United States earlier this week to give a speech at the graduation ceremony at Dartmouth University

Roger Federer, Dartmouth University graduation address 2024 Roger Federer, Dartmouth University graduation address 2024

When Roger Federer speaks, you sit and listen. Having retired from tennis in 2022, the 20-time Grand Slam titlist was in the United States on Monday to give the 2024 graduation speech at Dartmouth University. For about twenty minutes, the Swiss champion enthralled the Class of ’24 with stories from his time in tennis, adding his own personal tough of humour along the way.

Federer based his speech around three major lessons learned during his career as a tennis player. The first? Effortless is a myth. Considered the most elegant player in history, Federer often gave the impression that excellent tennis came effortlessly to him. He was quick to dispel that idea.

“Effortless… is a myth. I really mean it. I say this as someone who has heard these words many times. ‘Effortless’. People said my game was effortless. Most of the time, it was a compliment.

“But it frustrated me when they said, “He barely broke a sweat,” or “is he even trying?” The truth is, I had to work very hard to make it look easy. I spent years complaining, swearing, throwing my racquet, before I learned to keep my cool.

“Winning effortlessly is the ultimate accomplishment. I got this reputation because my warm-ups at tournaments were so casual that people didn’t think I had trained hard. But I had worked hard – before the tournament, when no one was watching me.

“Maybe you’ve seen some version of this phenomenon in Dartmouth. How many times have you felt like your classmates were racking up A’s without even trying, while you were spending sleepless nights, stuffing yourself with caffeine, until you are crying softly in a corner of the Sanborn library?

“I hope that, like me, you have learned that ‘effortless’ is a myth. I didn’t get to where I am because of my talent alone. I did it by trying to outdo my opponents. I believed in myself. But self-confidence must be gained.”


The second lesson Federer delivered during his speech on Monday was about the notion of perfection. His message was that, whether in tennis or in life, perfection is impossible. You have to know failure to be able to get up and move forward.

“In tennis, perfection is impossible,” explained the Swiss.

“Out of the 1526 matches of my career, I have won almost 80 percent of these matches. I have a question for you. What percentage of points do you think I have in these matches? Only 54 percent. In other words, even the best players in the world earn just over half the points they play.

“In life, no matter what game you’re going to play, sometimes you’re going to lose. A point, a game, a season, a job. It’s a roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs and it’s normal to doubt yourself when you’re at the bottom and feel sorry for yourself.

“But your opponent also has doubts. Never forget that. But negative energy is wasted energy.

“Becoming a master of overcoming the bad times is, for me, the sign of a champion. The best in the world are not the best because they win all the points but because they know they will lose again and again and they have learned to manage it.

“You accept it, you cry if you need to, and then you force yourself to smile. You move forward relentlessly, you grow, you work harder, smarter. Remember, work smart.”


Roger Federer

The third and final lesson of Federer’s address is what he has learned from life, from his travels, from his experiences off the tennis court. A crucial lesson for students to remember – “life is bigger than a tennis court.”

“A tennis court is a small space. No bigger than a dorm room. OK, more like three or four student rooms in Mass Row. I worked a lot, learned a lot and ran a lot in this small space.

“But the world is much bigger than that, even when I was just starting out, I knew that tennis could make me discover the world. But that tennis could never be the world.

“Tennis has given me so many memories. But it’s mostly my experiences off the court that accompany me. The places I’ve had the opportunity to travel, the platform that allows me to give back, and above all, the people I met along the way.

“Tennis, like life, is a team sport. Yes, you’re alone on your side of the net. But your success depends on your team. Your coaches, your teammates, even your rivals. All these influences contribute to making you who you are.

“Graduates, I know the same is true for you. Your parents, your families, they have made the necessary sacrifices to bring you here. They shared your triumphs and your struggles. They will always, always be by your side. And not only them. As you set out to explore the world, remember that you are bringing it all with you. This culture, this energy, these people, this green colour. The friends who pushed and supported you to become the best version of yourself. The friends who will never stop cheering you on, like today.”

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