Roger Federer is a man of many talents, and giving honest and stirring interviews is no exception. On Tuesday evening at the Manhattan Hotel in Rotterdam, Federer participated in a JURA coffee sponsorship event, where he was interviewed in front of exclusive guests before participating in a media conference. Federer reminisced on his top three grand slam wins, spoke on overcoming obstacles and becoming mentally strong, elaborated on his love for tennis, and gave his thoughts on retirement.
Roger Federer sat, calm and relaxed, fielding questions that brought guests and journalists to both laughter and astonishment on several occasions. Dissecting a champion’s brain is no easy task, but Federer always brings new inspirations to the table.
After former ATP professional and current Rotterdam tournament director Richard Krajicek was presented with a limited edition Roger Federer coffee machine from JURA as a token of appreciation, Federer was quick to recall Krajicek’s everlasting presence in tennis. It seems that any bad blood between the two that occurred at the end of last year when Federer opposed Krajicek’s candidacy for the ATP CEO position has washed away.
“I remember when [Krajicek] won Wimbledon [in 1996] … and he beat one of my heros back then, Pete Sampras, along the way. It’s great to see him again and still around tennis because I think it’s nice when legends and great players are still seen within the sport.”
In going back to his own history with Sampras, the only meeting between the two occurred at the 2001 Wimbledon where Federer prevailed in five sets over his hero. In those days, serve-and-volley style dominated the game. But today, the courts and technology have been built so that courts are slower, balls heavier, rallies longer, and this has all been done, as some speculate, to increase the entertainment factor for tennis fans.
“To some degree I wish that we had serve-and-volleyers in the game, but players just move and return and serve so well today that it really makes it difficult to come to the net, and then you get into the habit of playing from the baseline mostly. It’s really gotten different since I started because I did play Sampras, Krajicek, Henman and that generation, and I do miss that.” Federer then joked: “[The baseline style] doesn’t worry me too much yet, but if it stays like this for another 20 years, then I will start to worry!”
Federer was also quick to point out that “there is definitely not the outright clay-court specialist anymore or a true grass-court specialist. I think they have all merged together and today, you have to be able to play on any surface. You saw that in Davis Cup as well, as sometimes a home court advantage and choosing your own surface [as Federer’s Swiss team did], is not such an advantage anymore. We lost 5-0 this past weekend; Germany picked clay as well at home and lost 5-0 as well, so I think today players can really play on all surfaces.”
As a junior, Federer was often seen in tears following defeat and in recalling what made the difference for him during those early years, he concluded that “the biggest improvement that I have been able to make is the mental part. I used to be quite crazy when I was younger, and I eventually got my act together and started to understand why it’s so important to work hard. Once I started to work extremely hard, all of a sudden, I had this really fluid game and I was able to unlock my potential — which I knew was big but I didn’t know it was this great. I’m really amazed overall how well I’ve done.”
To hear Federer say those words reaffirms that nothing in life comes easy, even for a champion that holds countless records, including 16 grand slams and 70 career titles. People may be gifted and talented, but without the proper supplement of training and support, the world may have quickly ended up in short supply of grand slam tennis champions.
“You always have to re-invent yourself; come up with different ideas of how you can improve as a person and as a player. For me, it’s been a great evolution through the rankings from back in ’98 when I was a junior to today, and [how] the game has changed tremendously… I never thought I could play such good tennis. I really had to put in a lot of hard work. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because it’s all so fluid and people give me so many compliments. But I did put in the hard work and there’s no way around that in the professional game of tennis.”
As he alluded to earlier, Federer credits his success to equal parts mental strength, fitness and technique, and talks about “tennis as an emotional sport” when you are just starting out in the smaller Futures and Challenger tournaments. To transition overnight to playing top players on a center court is “not so easy … as that can play a lot of tricks on your mind, and fighting your own demons is a difficult thing. I had them as well when I was younger … afraid of the unknown and [asking yourself questions] ‘How confident are you?’ and ‘Are you doing the right things?’ A lot of open questions is sometimes a difficult thing to handle — especially if you bring in the pressure, the travels and the tiredness of it all … I think if you work hard, are smart and have enough breaks, the right tournaments and schedule, the results will follow. That is my personal opinion.”
It looks like Federer has taken his own advice in conquering his “demons” and is one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. But some opponents still stump the Swiss maestro, including Rafael Nadal whom he holds a 9-18 losing record against, and Novak Djokovic, the current world number 1.
“I think the ranking doesn’t lie in our sport. I think Novak has had the best year in the last 360 somewhat days of all of us, otherwise he wouldn’t have won so many matches in a row. I think the big difference at this very moment is that he has more confidence than we do … But maybe I do struggle more against Nadal and maybe he’s the toughest competitor out there, but the other guys are equally strong, if not better at the moment, like Novak.”
And what of his current streak of not winning a major since the 2010 Australian Open?
“I think it’s in the details. I don’t think I have done a whole lot wrong. Obviously, things have changed in the last few years since having a family but I don’t put that down to less success. I just think I was extremely close but wasn’t able to push luck on my side. I had an extremely tough last year at the Grand Slam level to be honest; I think I could have won [the matches I played in].” (Click here to see video of Federer answering this question.)
Never one to deflate himself, Federer took the opportunity to sit back and recall his three fondest memories of his best grand slam wins, with the first one being his first slam final win at the tender age of 21, at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships against Australian Mark Philppoussis.
“Maybe the first one just because it’s got to be!” Federer remarked. After losing in the first rounds of both the 2002 French Open and Wimbledon, and then following it up with another first round exit at the 2003 French Open, “critics were coming up and saying ‘This guy has talent, but he’ll probably never do it.’ And thank God I won Wimbledon months later,” he joked. “It was a huge relief. After that, everything seemed to hold much easier and clearer because I knew where my strengths are, where my weaknesses are and managing them. It was the ultimate dream achieved for me, winning Wimbledon, where Becker, Edberg, Sampras, all of my heroes, won so many times.”
His next memory was unexpectedly the 2005 US Open final where he beat Andre Agassi, the American’s last slam final appearance. “Playing under the lights, in New York, it’s somehow special and electrifying … The crowds were the toughest that I ever had to endure because I think people thought that Agassi was maybe going to retire if he would have beaten me … It was such a tough match to come through and the emotions were different. It proved to me that I was a worthy number 1 in the world and a good grand slam match player.”
Federer then recalled his win at the 2009 French Open “just because I chased it for so long.” But it doesn’t end there. “The French Open has to be in there, but for some reason, I also have to put in when I was going for my fifth Wimbledon [in 2007] or the ultimate grand slam record at 15 against [Andy] Roddick in 2009 [at Wimbledon where Federer won 16-14 in the fifth set]. Those two matches had something mystical about them. Borg and Sampras were sitting there and all of my heroes were there. There was “record” pressure all around me and I was sort of a character in a play. So, for me to get that Cinderella finish was amazing.”
Being in a fairytale has its disadvantages, but Federer will never admit it. With the ruggedness and brutality of today’s game, it’s rare that a player is not nursing an injury or battling exhaustion from traveling. And after 13 years on the professional tour, Federer still rarely turns down the opportunity to be an outspoken promoter of tennis, even when his schedule is packed with commitments.
“I like when there is an excitement and a buzz for tennis. I am happy when I can promote tennis in a different part of the world than just Switzerland … so I don’t mind all of the stress I have [from doing these events], I really don’t. I was aware that it was going to happen and I was prepared for it … It’s just a natural thing for me today and it gives me an opportunity to also give great stories, meet great people and I don’t mind that part of my job which is part of the joy.”
Outside of his family and friends, another aspect of his life that brings him great joy is his Foundation with the simple mission “I am Tomorrow’s Future,” and he talked about how his involvement will grow once he is no longer playing professional tennis.
“I think the involvement in a few years’ time is going to be a whole lot different. I will have a lot more time to travel and see the projects, go and do more fundraising potentially, and meet more influential people in the field of philanthropy.”
He then touched on the charity his mother instilled in his heart, and also the influence Andre Agassi played in starting his Foundation.
“My mom has always reminded me that when I do have the opportunity to give back in some shape or form, it doesn’t always need to be financially, it can also be something you donate, like time, going to a project, and helping other projects. I also remember Andre Agassi always saying that he should have started his Foundation a whole lot earlier. That quote resonated with me and I thought I would like to start somewhat early and see how it goes.”
And in many ways, Federer’s and Agassi’s Foundations have similar purposes of granting children the help to reach their full potential.
“My dream has always been to support kids ages 5 to 14 in some shape or form, [especially] through education … I am a believer that education is not something you can take away from someone, but can be translated to other people in a very positive way. We have many different projects we support all around Africa, some in South Africa, some in Zimbabwe, in Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania as well. We have had many different countries we have been looking at and we will be expanding more over time and as we are able to raise more money.”
But there is still time before Federer will devote himself more exclusively to his charities and retire his tennis racquet. Recently, Serena Williams stated that she no longer “loves” tennis and Federer agrees that “love of the game is not enough. You need to have the fire and wanting to become better or achieve more.” But unlike Williams in many ways, he is not afraid to show his dedication to the game by stating that playing is still “clearly on my agenda. I would like to re-live the great moments I’ve had, such as Wimbledon. Everybody says, ‘What’s the point of winning another Wimbledon?’ That’s exactly the point. I want to be there hopefully one more time, holding up the trophy, going through the goosebumps before match point, trying to show how good I still am for my team, my country, myself. There’s too many reasons not to be playing, and I’m in physically really good shape today and I feel better than I have in quite a few years.”
That is precisely the reason he is committed to playing an unusually tough schedule this year, including Davis Cup last week, Rotterdam (a tournament he has not played since winning it in 2005), Dubai, and the Summer London Olympics.
“I have a tough schedule that shows I’m very eager and trying to also maybe get back to world number 1. There are still so many things to achieve … Some of the media think ‘What else is there to achieve?’ Well, there’s always more to do in something that you really enjoy. So for me, there’s no reason to even think about how, and when, and what retirement will look like, or how it’s all going to happen. Because I think the moment you start asking yourself those questions, that means the end is near. The body will tell me, and my family, we’ll decide when it’s time for me to hang up the racquet. For the time being, I really enjoy it too much to stop.”
(Roger Federer interview transcript, press conference photo, and YouTube video courtesy of Tennis Grandstand writer, Lisa-Marie Burrows, who is in Rotterdam for the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament as media.)