One year into his retirement, Roger Federer remains Shanghai's all-time favorite, with or without a racket in his hand.
With world-class tennis on display and a lot going on at the Rolex Shanghai Masters' maiden upgraded edition, the Swiss legend's return to the tournament last week still easily stole the show at Qizhong Tennis Center, where fans have embraced him as their own and adored him since his first visit to the city in 2002.
The 20-time Grand Slam singles champion made his first appearance at the tournament in four years on Friday, since he last played at the tournament in 2019 before the pandemic break, only to realize that his popularity in the eastern metropolis has not waned at all.
Cheered on by a full house at the stadium court, Federer was awarded an "Icon Athlete" of Asia's only ATP 1000 event by tournament director Michael Luevano, with Chinese women's legend Li Na and the country's current men's No 1 Zhang Zhizhen in attendance during a ceremony that honored every classic moment he spent in Shanghai.
From his first trip in 2002 to competing at the season-ending ATP Masters Cup (now known as the ATP Finals) to his last visit as a player in 2019, Federer has built a special connection with Shanghai, where the growth of tennis in the city overlapped with the upward trajectory of his stellar career.
"Ever since I showed up here as a teenager in 2002, maybe I even had a ponytail, I looked different, I played different, but I got so many fans," said Federer, who announced his retirement 13 months ago due to a nagging knee injury.
"I feel like, from the first moment I came, I got the most incredible support here in Shanghai and in China. I've been very fortunate to play here for so many years."
Thanks to his elegant style, exquisite skills and celebrity charisma, Federer's popularity in Shanghai has transcended the sport. It's fairly safe to say that, other than two-time major winner Li, it was Federer who took tennis to the masses in the table-tennis-loving nation.
And now he can rest assured that the sport's future here is in good hands.
"It's been great to see tennis grow in China. One icon is standing here and a future superstar in the making there," Federer said of Li and Zhang, who shared the stage together with him at the ceremony.
Managed by Federer's former coach, Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, Zhang has enjoyed a strong surge on the ATP Tour since becoming the first Chinese mainland man to crack the world's top 100 in October 2022. He carried on that momentum to reach the round of 16 in Shanghai last week.
"From watching my idols play courtside to standing side-by-side with them is amazing, I feel so honored," Zhang, a 26-year-old Shanghai native, said of sharing the court with Li and Federer on Friday.
After a four-year break from visiting China, Federer reacquainted himself with Shanghai last week — taking a city walk on Friday morning, when he strolled around a local neighborhood near his hotel, visiting a fresh-food market and enjoying a few steamed buns to go with his cappuccino as breakfast.
Despite his zealous fan following, the affable Federer always tries to make time to experience local life in Shanghai, highlighted by his subway ride to the tournament venue in 2017 and his repeated appearances in the landmark Bund area.
Back when he was still a superstar in the making, Federer was given the honor of opening the newly built Qizhong Tennis Center at its unveiling ceremony in 2005. He later won the prestigious tournament twice, in 2014 and 2017, and racked up a 23-6 win-loss record on the center's courts.
His appearances are showstoppers every time.
"I saw him before the match. I know Roger for a couple of years. When he got to my match, obviously, all the spectators stopped watching tennis, because they started watching only Roger, so it was a fun moment," tournament finalist Andrey Rublev said of Federer's appearance in the stands during his quarterfinal win over Ugo Humbert on Friday.
"Obviously, when Roger comes to the court, it's always a special moment."