First he wins it all; now he’s embraced fatherhood. In a rare and revealing interview, the Swiss explains himself
How did Roger Federer become the greatest? He was not born in Sweden (Bjorn Borg). He was not shaped by a dominant parent (Ivan Lendl). He is not fuelled by rage (Jimmy Connors) or tortured by demons (John McEnroe). He has never had sex in Nobu (Boris Becker), smoked crystal meth (Andre Agassi) or been afflicted with odd sleeping habits (Pete Sampras). He is as affable as Tim Henman.
Somebody will have to explain him.
We meet in Basel, the city of his birth. He is looking fit and relaxed after a lengthy break from the most remarkable season of his life. It began in tears at the Australian Open in February, when, six months after losing the greatest final ever seen at Wimbledon, he lost again to Rafael Nadal.
It was his fifth successive defeat to Nadal in a final, and it raised an interesting question: how could he be deemed the best of all time when he might not be the best of his own era? But the obituaries were premature
In April, he married his long-time girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, and a month later beat Nadal to win his first tournament of the year at Madrid. In June, he won his first French Open and equalled Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. In July, he beat Andy Roddick in an epic final at Wimbledon to surpass the record, and became a father two weeks later when Mirka gave birth to twins. In September, he lost the US Open to Juan Martin Del Potro — his sixth consecutive appearance in the final.
He did not marry a supermodel (Roddick). He does not make fun of his rivals (Novak Djokovic) or pick continually at the crack in his backside (Nadal). He has worse fashion sense than Andy Murray.
How does he explain it?
He begins with a story about a script he received for a commercial for Nike with Tiger Woods in 2007. “We had these different lines,” he explains,” and I was reading through it and said I’d like to take the text where it says, ‘I love winning’. And they said, ‘Well, that works perfectly because Tiger says he hates losing’. So that’s a part of it, I suppose. I feel I’m the ‘love winning’ rather than the ‘hate losing’ type.”
“That’s interesting,” I observe, “because it would be easy to consider them to be the same thing.”
“No, I see it in two different ways, but both work.”
“McEnroe said this about you: ‘One of the important things [Federer] has over everyone, and he has it more than any other player I’ve seen since Connors, is his love for the sport. Real love. He loves to be out there, to be around tennis, everything about it . . . There is none of the angst that I had, no demons playing with him’. Can you explain that love?”
“Well, I’m a positive person, a very positive thinker,” he replies. “That’s why I like the more positive approach of ‘I love winning’, because to hate losing, to me, is a bit negative. I guess my love for the sport started as a little boy watching Becker and Edberg facing off in the Wimbledon final. I dreamed about it but I never thought it would happen to me. It’s so difficult to keep winning and to keep your love for the game because of all the travelling and the sacrifices, but I just said, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to me. I’m going to take a positive approach that travelling is great and that I’m going to see different cultures and places I would never see if I wasn’t a tennis player’. My wife loves it. I love it, so ‘let’s have a good time because it’s not going to last until I am 70’. And so far that approach has worked for me.”
“A lot of the great tennis stars have had some sort of kink. McEnroe referred to it in that quote: they were all driven by demons.”
“Yeah, he did have some,” Federer responds with a laugh.
“You seem so normal but have achieved more.”
“It was difficult in the beginning,” he says. “People were always saying you can’t be a nice guy and be No 1 in the world. And I was like, ‘So, I have to be mean? Is that what it takes?’ We had Connors and McEnroe and Agassi and Sampras and Becker, and they all had something [an edge to them] where you thought, ‘Oh, okay’. And then I came along and it was, ‘This guy speaks three perfect languages! He’s from Switzerland, neutral, he’s nice, polite, he plays a wonderful game . . . what’s wrong with him?’
“It was difficult to handle. People used to say, ‘He’s so talented, it’s too easy for him’. It wasn’t until I showed more grit when the going got tough that they started to respect me. Then it was, ‘Well, this guy is not just a wonderful shotmaker, he can also fight.”
“Can you pinpoint when that was?” I ask.
“The first time I really showed it was against Nadal in Miami [April, 2005]. I was down two sets to love and a break and two break points down to go down a double break. He would have crushed me 6-2 7-6 6-1 but I came back and won 7-6 6-3 6-1. That for me was a key moment. I was able to turn around the match and dominate Rafa in the end.”
“This rivalry with Nadal is fascinating. You sent him a text message later that year to congratulate him when he won in Madrid, and spent time with him this year in Basel. When is the last time you sent him a text?”
“When he got injured this year. He congratulated me for winning Paris, and I sent back a message saying I hoped he was going to be okay when he pulled out of Wimbledon. But we see each other quite often because I’m president of the players’ council and he’s vice-president, so we have a lot of stuff to talk about.”
“I ask because another of the things that surprised McEnroe about you was how friendly you are with your rivals.”
“He hated Lendl and Connors [Federer laughs]. He doesn’t understand how you can be so friendly with Nadal.”
“Has the chemistry between you changed over the last couple of years?”
“No, not really. I’m surprised myself by the degree to which we actually get along because we’ve had a very intense rivalry and you could say he has hurt my career and that I’ve hurt his career, but we’ve actually helped each other become the players we are today. And the rivalry has helped the game. It’s nice that the two greatest players in tennis, or in a sport, actually get along well, because normally there is all this hate and it’s so negative, and I don’t like that. We’ve had enough controversy in recent years with athletes and it’s a welcome change.”
“You don’t like controversy?”
“I don’t mind it. I don’t care. It’s interesting sometimes, but at the end of the day we are also role models for a lot of children, and sometimes that gets forgotten.”
HE HAS pulled up a chair and put his feet up. We are revisiting reflections he has made at different points on his climb to the summit and I want him to join the dots . . .
“You’ve just won your first Wimbledon and have taken a holiday in Sardinia,” I announce. “You’re lying on a beach with the sun beating down, and this is what you say: ‘So now you’re a Wimbledon champion. Nobody can take that away from you’.”
“This was after I won my first one?” he queries.
“Yes, in 2003.”
“A year later, in the autumn of 2004, you return home feeling pretty pleased after winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. You have now won four majors. This is what you say: ‘Everything from now on is only positive. I’ve lived up to all expectations. It’s a huge relief. I can look in the mirror and know I can achieve.”
“Yeah,” he nods.
“Now we jump forward to the Australian Open this year. You’ve won another nine Grand Slams since the ‘relief’ of 2004 but have just lost the final to Nadal, and the quote that jumps out at everybody is: ‘God, this is killing me’.”
“Yes.” He laughs. “Is there a question?”
“The question, I suppose, is your changing mindset as your goals continue to evolve. In 2003, it was almost enough to have won Wimbledon. In 2009, you’ve just failed to win a 14th major and it’s: ‘God, this is killing me’.”
“That quote . . . was seen the wrong way. The thing that was killing me was having to talk while crying. What I meant was, ‘I wish I could stop crying and could talk normally and give Rafa the stage he deserves and not make everybody feel so bad [for me]’. This was upsetting me more than having lost the match. The last thing I wanted was for people to feel bad for me. I played a great tournament. I was happy with the way I played. I wish I would have won, but I had to accept, and accepted without a problem, that Rafa was better on that day. So it was [misinterpreted].
“I left the court and went on holiday and came back and heard all these things like, ‘He started crying . . . He’s gone . . . This is it . . . The downfall’, and I was like, ‘What?’ I have been crying after losing matches since I was five years old, so to have cried after the loss of a Grand Slam final was normal for me, but there was this big fuss that I didn’t understand. It was almost amusing how it was taken out of proportion.”
“You say you love winning, but the flipside of that is that losing hurts. I read a line somewhere that you had not looked at the 2008 Wimbledon final and would never look at it?”
“You won’t look at it again?”
“I’ve seen highlights, but, no . . . not because I want to run away from it, but it’s the whole positive thing again. I lost a massive match in the fifth. That was a negative experience. It was a final and we played great tennis and I know what I did wrong. I analysed it in a second when I left the court, so it was fine.”
“How long does it take to recover from a defeat like that?”
“The tough part is the trophy presentation [laughs]. That was hardest because I have been on the winner’s side and it’s so enjoyable, but on the losing side it’s just, ‘Please let me go’. Then I come into the locker room and take a shower, and once I have done the press, I’m fine. You think about it for half a day or maybe next morning when you wake up — ‘What could I have done differently?’ — but it goes pretty quickly, the winning and the losing.”
“You played another epic final at Wimbledon this year. Given what had happened a year before, how tough would it have been to have lost against Roddick?” “Really tough. I don’t know if I was thinking about the Nadal match during that Roddick match, because I didn’t really have time, but with five- setters there’s definitely a bit of luck involved. But I’m a great believer that you can push luck on your side. I also believe things happen for a reason, and maybe that sixth [successive] Wimbledon in 2008 was not meant to be. Rafa was playing great early on and I just kind of didn’t believe . . . I lost the first two sets, and then the rain delay came and woke me up.”
“I heard a story that your wife intercepted you as you walked to the locker room during the rain delay and said: ‘Remember, you are Roger Federer’. Is that true?”
“I don’t remember that.” He smiles. “She wouldn’t say that, I don’t think, to be quite honest.”
“It’s a good story,” I say, laughing.
“No . . . the Roddick match . . . it was a different approach facing Andy than facing Rafa. I have such a tremendous record against Andy that the expectation was, ‘This is a match I cannot let go’. I had beaten him three times before at Wimbledon and knew that if I played well, I should come through. I never expected it going 16-14 [in the fifth] but my belief was so strong because of my record against him. And maybe what had happened the year before, knowing that mentally I should have started stronger against Nadal . . . I didn’t allow that to happen in the Roddick match, and that’s why I came through.”
“Where are you mentally with Nadal now? You lost to him in Australia but beat him in Madrid.”
“We haven’t played much,” he says. “We played in Australia, we played in Madrid, and that’s it this year. There was a time where we played almost every other week — Dubai, Monaco, Rome, Paris, Wimbledon — it went on and on. But it’s, like, up in the air right now.”
“On the day after he was knocked out of the French this year, you were quoted as saying, ‘Of course my dream scenario is to beat Rafa here in the final’. You don’t seriously expect us to believe that, do you?”
“I never hope guys lose. Tennis is a sport [in which] you have to beat whoever is across the net. I’ve never played Rafa at the US Open but I’ve been there the past six times in the final, so it’s not my mistake, you know?
“I’ve tried really hard for years to win the French, and everybody figured, ‘He needs to go through Nadal to be a worthy champion’, but I disagree. Tennis is different. Tennis is beating whoever is on the other side of the net. Sure, the perfect way would have been to beat Nadal, because he has beaten me so many times [there] but it was not the case and I don’t think it takes anything away from what I achieved. The courage and grit I showed over so many years at the French finally paid off, and it’s probably one of the great achievements of my career.”
“How does it feel, having done it? You’ve broken all the records now.”
“It’s a big relief, especially getting first [the win in] Paris and then the 15 [Grand Slam titles] at Wimbledon within a month. I was shell-shocked that it happened so quickly. To go from being criticised [at the Australian Open] for not being the same anymore to being called the greatest ever was a very fast turn.”
“The year was special for other reasons. You got married in April. You were dating for nine years. Why did it take you so long?”
He smiles. “I started dating Mirka when I was young. I was only a teenager, but the last three or four years it was something we talked about openly. I knew it was not going to be possible in 2008 with the Olympics, so I just said, ‘From 2009, I am ready for whatever you want . . . marriage, kids, whatever’. So it all came together and I’m very happy. We had a beautiful wedding and the kids are healthy. I couldn’t have hoped for more.”
“When did you find out Mirka was expecting twins?”
“In Australia, before the Del Potro match. I beat him 6-3 6-0 6-0, so it gave me wings, you could say.”
“Does it change anything? Does marriage and fatherhood change anything?”
“Yes. I feel more proud when Mirka says ‘husband’. I like it better when I can say, ‘[this is] my wife’. I always thought ‘girlfriend’ was cute, and I loved it, but ‘wife’ to me just sounds so much more serious and better. It goes way beyond what I thought as a teenager that marriage would be. And the babies . . . phew [exhales], that just gives a different dimension to life. To see the fire in the eyes of my wife, waking up 15 times a night if she has to . . . to see that and knowing what she would do for me, knowing what she would do for them, is very emotional.”
“Do you get up?”
“I do sometimes, but Mirka is too quick on her feet. She likes when I get involved, and of course with two you don’t have a choice, but I want to be part of it. I haven’t missed a day apart from my kids yet and I’m very fortunate to be able to experience that.”
“Ivan Lendl never won another Grand Slam after he became a father. And you’ve already lost one [the US Open] against Del Potro since the kids were born.”
“Yeah . . . these are statistics that I really don’t buy into.”
“I’m only kidding,” I insist.
“No, but you’re right. Those stats exist, but normally when you have kids as a male tennis player, it’s later in your career, so that kind of makes sense. I’m still actually pretty young, so that’s okay."
“Where do you see yourself now in terms of your career? Have you reached the downward curve?”
“I’m midway. It feels like the second part of my career right now, although I am trying to avoid saying that because the second part sounds like ‘neehhhhrrrrr’ [motions straight down]. You can definitely play your greatest tennis until 32 or 33, it’s just a matter of how you look at it. I’ve always been a big believer in looking at the big picture. It’s not about, ‘What will we do tomorrow?’, it’s about, ‘How will my life and tennis look in the next five years?’ And I still have the same vision, so that’s going to help me.”
“Have you set a date for retirement? You’ve spoken about London in 2012, when the Olympics are held at Wimbledon, as a good exit point.”
“No, I didn’t mean it as an exit point.”
“It’s a target?”
“Many people were asking me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ And I said, ‘Well, I'm definitely going to play until the 2012 Olympics’, but that was to shut them up, really. It depends how fit you are, but I would like to play beyond that, and Mirka has said that she would like our two daughters to see me play. So they need to grow a little bit and I need to play a little bit, but we’ll see where it takes us.”