Roger Federer and Jhulan Goswami: Ball kids, who had similar journeys, finish as legends the same week after inspiring a generation

This week, two of the greatest players of all time, two of the legends of their respective sports will make a permanent stop in their careers. Tennis star Roger Federer and cricketing great Jhulan Goswami will play their career’s last matches on back-to-back days. Federer will feature in a doubles match, on Friday (September 23), with his long-time rival Rafael Nadal as part of Team Europe vs Team World’s Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe in Laver Cup 2022. On Saturday (September 24), Jhulan Goswami too will play her last international match, putting a full stop on her two-decade long career. Both of these legends’ careers have been about big numbers, records. Jhulan has most number of ODI wickets in the world while Federer has 20 Grand Slam wins. But there is something more to these 2 legends apart from big numbers.

Outside the court and cricket field, Jhulan and Federer remain two of the nicest people in world of sports. They began their journeys almost the same time and they bid good bye together as well. Not many know, but there is one more common factor between them. Both Federer and Jhulan fell in love with their respective sport while watching the game as ball kids. 

Federer was a ball kid in Basel , Switzerland, 28 years ago during a tournament. Jhulan, 25 years ago, was a ball girl at the final of the ICC Women’s World Cup 1997 between Australia and New Zealand. Federer in his retirement note mentioned how watching the big boys play, made him fall in love with tennis. 

“I was a ball kid in Basel, watching players with wonder. My dreams led me to work hard and I started to believe in myself. Success brought me confidence,” wrote Federer. 

Jhulan too has a similar story. In 2020, the ace Indian pacer had told this writer that when she watched Australia’s Cathryn Fitzpatrick bowl in that World Cup final, she wanted to become like her. Years later, she ended up breaking her record for most wickets in women’s ODIs. 

“I saw the players from a close distance and thought ‘arey yaar these girls are also playing for their country’. I also started dreaming about playing for my country, hearing fans shout my name. I thought if these girls can do it, so can I. I never thought practically that it was going to happen. But yes, I started preparing myself with the leather ball,” Jhulan had said. 

Jhulan has seen the best and worst days of Indian women’s cricket. She has played the sport with lesser money, without TV broadcasts and no sponsers. A lot has changed in women’s cricket, especiallty after India reached the final of 2017 ODI World Cup in England. But she alongwith the likes of Mithali Raj, Anjum, Chopra and others was not bothered about these negatives.

After picking over 350 international wickets, her biggest impact on Indian women’s cricket cannot just be summed up in wins, losses and records. She has become an inspiration for budding female athletes. This ‘Jhulan di’ for her team leaves the stage after having inspired a generation of cricketers.  

Likewise, Federer will fade away today after an inspiring 24-year career. And just like Jhulan, his impact is more that his achivements on the tennis court.

It’s quite an achievement for Federer that even after working on some crazy numbers in his career – 1526 matches, 0 retirements, 20 Grand Slams and more – it is the Federer, the human and the person, who is being talked about more. He managed to separate himself from the numbers at the end of his career. The tweets, messages after Federer’s retirement announcement is reflective of the fact that his greatness can’t just be measured in stats and numbers. And that’s the reason why his fandom goes beyond tennis. It is true that simply watching him operate on the court was a lesson to many.

Federer has made 20 Grand Slams, itself a humongous achievement, look smaller in front of his grace and smile and that is the benchmark that he has set for others as he walks away. Jhulan too will be remembered for her fight, perseverance and playing the sport without looking at various obstacles.  

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