2024 Commencement Address by Roger Federer

News subtitle

The tennis champion says “effortless” is a myth.


Thank you!

Hello, Class of 2024!

It’s an incredible feeling to be here with you.

I am so excited to join you today.

Really, you have no idea how excited I am. Keep in mind, this is literally the second time I have ever set foot on a college campus. Second time ever.

But for some reason, you are giving me a doctorate degree.

I just came here to give a speech, but I get to go home as “Dr. Roger.” That’s a pretty nice bonus.

“Dr. Roger.” This has to be my most unexpected victory ever!

President Beilock, the Board of Trustees, faculty members—thank you for this honor.

President Beilock, I’m incredibly grateful. And I’ll try my best not to choke.

I’m a little outside my comfort zone today. This is not my usual scene...

And these are not my usual clothes.

Do you dress like this every day at Dartmouth?

The robe is hard to move in. Keep in mind I’ve worn shorts almost every day for the last 35 years.

I’m not a person who gives a lot of speeches like this. Maybe the worst... but an important speech... was when I started out on the Swiss national team. I was 17 years old, and I was so nervous that I couldn’t even say more than four words:

“Happy… to… be… here.”

Well, here we are, 25 years later. I still feel a little nervous, but I’ve got a lot more than four words to say to you. Starting with: I’m happy to be here! Happy to be with you, here on the Green.

As you might have heard... grass is my favorite surface.

“Big Green”... it must be destiny!

There is another reason I’m here, and I can sum it up in two words:

Beer pong.

Or pong, as you call it. And I guess you can call it what you like—I’m told Dartmouth invented it!

Now, this sport... Wait. Is pong a sport?

Or is it a way of life?

Either way, Dartmouth is the Wimbledon of pong.

I’m glad I got to work on my shots with some of you. I’m actually thinking about turning pro.

But I know there’s more to Dartmouth than pong. I have spent an amazing couple of days here, and you have made Hanover feel like home. The mountains here are exactly like the Swiss Alps.

Just… shorter.

But I’m loving it here. I got a chance to hit some balls with my kids at the Boss Tennis Center... I did a Woccom… I got to climb the Baker Tower, saw some incredible views and took my kids to see the Dr. Seuss books at the library. Of course I also crushed some chocolate chip cookies from FoCo… and ate an EBA’s chicken sandwich from Lou’s.

But there is another big reason I’m here: Tony G., Class of ’93.

Are we rapping now?

Tony Godsick is my business partner, my longtime agent, one of my closest friends, and most important...

The proud father of Isabella, Class of 2024.

From Tony—and now Bella—I know how special this place truly is. And how loyal you are to each other, and how obsessive you are about this color Green. I was with their family, including Mary Joe and Nico, the day Bella got into Dartmouth. I remember how crazy happy she was. I saw a smile and a level of excitement on her face that I had never seen before...

But then I got here... and actually, everybody is smiling like this.

I can see how proud you are of this place... and this moment.

You have worked so hard to get here. I have huge respect for all you have achieved.

And for the family and friends who have helped you achieve it. Let’s give them a big hand.

I’m even more impressed, because 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 know the word is “retire.” “Roger Federer retired from tennis.” Retired... The word is awful.

You wouldn’t say you retired from college, right? Sounds terrible.

Like you, I’ve finished one big thing and I’m moving on to the next.

Like you, I’m figuring out what that is.

Graduates, I feel your pain.

I know what it’s like when people keep asking what your plan is for the rest of your life.

They ask me: “Now that you are not a professional tennis player, what do you do?”

I don’t know… and it’s OK not to know.

So what do I do with my time?

I’m a dad first, so, I guess, I drive my kids to school?

Play chess online against strangers?

Vacuum the house?

No, in truth, I’m loving the life of a tennis graduate. I graduated tennis in 2022, and you are graduating college in 2024. So I have a head start in answering the question of what’s next.

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.

Here’s the first:

“Effortless”… is a myth.

I mean it.

I say that as someone who has heard that word a lot. “Effortless.”

People would say my play was effortless. Most of the time, they meant it as a compliment... But it used to frustrate me when they would say, “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 whining... swearing… throwing my racket… before I learned to keep my cool.

The wakeup call came early in my career, when an opponent at the Italian Open publicly questioned my mental discipline. He said, “Roger will be the favorite for the first two hours, and then I’ll be the favorite after that.”

I was puzzled at first. But eventually, I realized what he was trying to say. Everybody can play well the first two hours. You’re fit, you’re fast, you’re 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, and I’m ready to go on this journey now. I get it.

My parents, my coaches, my fitness coach, everyone had really been calling me out—and now even my rivals were doing it. Players!!! Thank you! I’m eternally grateful for what you did.

So I started training harder. A lot harder.

But then I realized: winning effortlessly is the ultimate achievement.

I got that reputation because my warm-ups at the tournaments were so casual that people didn’t think I had been training hard. But I had been working hard... before the tournament, when nobody was watching.

Maybe you’ve seen a version of this at Dartmouth.

How many times did you feel like your classmates were racking up “A” after “A” without even trying… while you were pulling all-nighters... loading up on caffeine… crying softly in a corner of Sanborn Library?

Hopefully, like me, you learned 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.

I believed in myself. But BELIEF in yourself has to be earned.

There was a moment in 2003 when my self-belief really kicked in.

It was at the ATP Finals, where only the best eight players qualify.

I beat some top players I really admired—by aiming right at their strengths. Before, I would run away from their strengths. If a guy had a strong forehand, I would try to hit to 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. So why did I do it?

To amplify my game and expand my options. You need a whole arsenal of strengths... so if one of them breaks down, you’ve got something left.

When your game is clicking like that, winning is easy—relatively.

Then there are days when you just feel broken.

Your back hurts… your knee hurts… Maybe you’re a little sick… or scared…

But you still find a way to win.

And those are the victories we can be most proud of.

Because they prove that you can win not just when you are at your best, but especially when you aren’t.

Yes, talent matters. I’m not going to stand here and tell you it doesn’t.

But talent has a broad definition.

Most of the time, it’s not about having a gift. It’s about having grit.

In tennis, a great forehand with sick racquet 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 the process, loving the process, is a talent.

Managing your life, managing yourself... these can be talents, too.

Some people are born with them. Everybody has to work at them.

From this day forward, some people are going to assume that because you graduated from Dartmouth, it all comes easy for you.

And you know what? Let them believe that…

As long as you don’t.

OK, second lesson:

It’s only a point.

Let me explain.

You can work harder than you thought possible... and still lose. I have.

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 did I miss that shot?”

Imagine if, today, only one of you got a degree.

Congratulations, this year’s graduate! Let’s give her a hand.

The rest of you... the other one thousand of you... better luck next time!

So, you know, I tried not to lose.

But I did lose... sometimes big. For me, one of the biggest was the finals at Wimbledon in 2008. Me vs. Nadal. Some call it the greatest match of all time. OK, all respect to Rafa, but I think it would have been way way better if I had won...

Losing at Wimbledon was a big deal... because winning Wimbledon is everything.

Obviously, except winning the Dartmouth Masters pong title, sophomore summer.

I mean, I’ve gotten to play in some amazing venues around the world, but when you have the chance to walk onto Centre 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 a record sixth consecutive title. I was playing for history.

I’m not going to walk you through the match, point by point. If I did, we would be here for hours.

Almost five hours, to be exact.

There were rain delays, the sun went down... Rafa won two sets, I won the next two sets in tiebreaks, and we found ourselves at seven all in the fifth.

I understand why people focus on the end... the final minutes so dark I could barely see the chalk on the grass. But looking back... I feel like I 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, and I thought... this guy is maybe hungrier than I am... And he’s finally got my number.

It took me until the third set before I remembered... hey, buddy, you’re the five-time defending champion! And you’re on grass, by the way. You know how to do this... But that came too late, and Rafa won. And it was well-deserved.

Some defeats hurt 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, perfection is impossible... In the 1,526 singles matches I played in my career, I won almost 80% of those matches... Now, I have a question for all of you... what percentage of the POINTS do you think I won in those matches?

Only 54%.

In other words, even top-ranked tennis players win barely more than half of the points they play.

When you lose every second point, on average, you learn not to dwell on every shot.

You teach yourself to think: OK, I double-faulted. It’s only a point.

OK, I came to the net and I got passed again. It’s only a point.

Even a great shot, an overhead backhand smash that ends up on ESPN’s Top Ten Plays: that, too, is just a point.

Here’s why I am telling you this.

When you’re playing a point, it is the most important thing in the world.

But when it’s behind you, it’s behind you... This mindset is really crucial, because it frees you to fully commit to the next point… and the next one after that… with intensity, clarity and focus.

The truth is, 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. To feel sorry for yourself.

And by the way, your opponents have self-doubt, too. Don’t ever forget that.

But negative energy is wasted energy.

You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments. That to me is 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’ll lose... again and again… and have learned how to deal with it.

You accept it. Cry it out if you need to... then force a smile.

You move on. Be relentless. Adapt and grow.

Work harder. Work smarter. Remember: work smarter.

Lesson three...

Are you guys still with me?

For a guy who left school at 16, this is a lot of lessons!

OK, here is the third one:

Life is bigger than the court.

A tennis court is a small space. 2,106 square feet, to be exact. That’s for singles matches.

Not much bigger than a dorm room.

OK, make that three or four dorm rooms in Mass Row.

I worked a lot, learned a lot, and ran a lot of miles in that small space... But 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 to me to have a life... a rewarding life, full of travel, culture, friendships, and especially family... I never abandoned my roots, and I never forgot where I came from... but I also never lost my appetite to see this very big world.

I left home at 14 to go to school in the French part of Switzerland for two years, and I was horribly homesick at first... But I learned to love a life on the move.

Maybe these are the reasons I never burned out.

I was excited to travel the world, but not just as a tourist... I realized pretty early that I wanted to serve other people in other countries. Motivated by my South African mother, I started a foundation to empower children through education.

Early childhood education is something we take for granted in a place like Switzerland. But in sub-Saharan Africa, 75% of children don’t have access to preschool... Think about that: 75%.

Like all children... they need a good start if they are going to fulfill their potential. And so far, we’ve helped nearly 3 million children to get a quality education and helped to train more than 55,000 teachers.

It’s been an honor... and it’s been humbling.

An honor to help tackle this challenge, and humbling to see how complex it is.

Humbling to try to read stories to children in one of the languages of Lesotho.

Humbling also to arrive in rural Zambia and have to explain what tennis actually is... I vividly remember drawing a tennis court on the chalkboard for the kids to see, because I asked them what tennis was, and one kid said, “it’s the one with the table, right? With the paddles?”

Pong again. It’s everywhere.

I have to tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling to visit these incredibly rural places... and find classrooms full of children who are learning, and reading, and playing, like children everywhere should be allowed to do.

It’s also inspiring to see what they grow up to be: Some have become nurses... Teachers... Computer programmers.

It’s been an exciting journey... and I feel like we’re only at the beginning... with so much more to learn. I can’t believe we’ve just celebrated twenty years of this work... Especially because I started the foundation before I thought I was ready.

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 then figure it out.

Philanthropy can mean a lot of things. It can mean starting a nonprofit, 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.

As a student at Dartmouth, you picked a major and went deep. But you also went wide. Engineers learned art history, athletes even sang a-cappella, and computer scientists learned to speak German.

Dartmouth’s legendary football coach Buddy Teevens used to recruit players by telling their parents: “Your son will be a great football player when it’s football time, a great student when it’s academic time, and a great person all the time.”

That is what a Dartmouth education is all about.

Tennis has given me so many memories. But my off-court experiences are the ones I carry forward just as much... The places I’ve gotten to travel… the platform that lets me give back… and, most of all… the people I’ve met along the way.

Tennis... like life... 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, even your rivals... all these influences help to make you who you are.

It’s not an accident that my business partnership with Tony is called “TEAM8.” A play on words... “Teammate.” All the work we do together reflects that team spirit... the strong bond we have with each other and our colleagues... with the athletes we represent... and with partners and sponsors. These personal relationships matter most.

I learned this way of thinking from the best... my parents. They’ve always supported me, always encouraged me, and always understood what I most wanted and needed to be.

A family is a team. I feel so very lucky that my incredible wife, Mirka... who makes every joy in my life even brighter... and our four amazing children, Myla, Charlene, Leo, and Lenny, are here with me today.

And more important, that we are here for each other every day.

Graduates, I know the same is true for you. Your parents, your families... they made the sacrifices to get you here... They have shared your triumphs and your struggles... They will always, always be in your corner.

And not only them. As you head out into the world, don’t forget: you get to bring all of this with you... this culture, this energy, these people, this color Green... The friends who have pushed you and supported you to become the best version of yourselves… the friends who will never stop cheering for you, just like today.

And you will keep making friends in the Dartmouth community... Possibly even today... So right now, turn to the people on your left and your right... Maybe this is the first time you have met. You might not share experiences or viewpoints, but now you share this memory. And a whole lot more.

When I left tennis, I became a former tennis player. But you are not a former anything.

You are future record-breakers and 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.

So there, Dartmouth, are your tennis lessons for the day.

Effortless is a myth.

It’s only a point.

Life is bigger than the court.

Wait—wait—I got one more lesson.

President Beilock, can I have my racquet real quick?

OK, so, for your forehand, you’ll want to use an eastern grip. Keep your knuckles apart a little bit. Obviously, you don’t want to squeeze the grip too hard... switching from forehand to backhand should be easy... Also, remember it all starts with the footwork, and the take-back is as important as the follow-through.

No, this is not a metaphor! It’s just good technique.

Dartmouth, this has been an incredible honor for me.

Thank you for the honorary degree. Thank you for making me part of your really big day.

I’m glad I got to meet so many of you these past few days. If you are ever in Switzerland, or anywhere else in the world, and you see me on the street... even 20 or 30 years from now... whether I have gray hair or no hair... I want you to stop me and say... “I was there that day on the Green. I’m a member of your class... the Class of 2024.”

I will never forget this day, and I know you won’t either.

You have worked so hard to get here, and left nothing on the court... or the pong table.

From one graduate to another, I can’t wait to see what you all do next.

Whatever game you choose, give it your best.

Go for your shots. Play free. Try everything.

And most of all, be kind to one another... and have fun out there.

Congratulations again, Class of 2024!

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