Many thought Roger Federer’s career was on the slide, but a smashing start to the 2017 season shows that, 20 years after he became a pro, the Swiss tennis legend can still ace it. And might he win Wimbledon again?
When Roger Federer is winning, the world is a better place. He is the clean-cut sheriff of tennis, John Wayne in a bandana. And his version of sport feels like something primal: the pursuit of an ideal, rather than a cheque or trophy. It triggers something equally primal in us: the joy of being alive.
Take the moment in Miami six weeks ago when Federer confounded Tomas Berdych – a muscle-bound 6ft 5in Czech – with a viciously sliced drop shot that dipped like a doodlebug. The fans gasped, and then erupted into childlike laughter – the same sort of involuntary reaction that Usain Bolt evokes when he destroys his rivals on the track.
After that match – which Federer won, maintaining his best start to a season since 2006 – he changed into a black velour tracksuit and we strode together through the maze of tunnels underneath the stadium court. He was still grinning about the drop shot.
It was like one I hit against Simone Bolelli a couple of years ago,’ Federer told me. Only this was even higher – I thought for a moment it was going to bounce and spin back over the net. Playing creative is gold: players are stuck in their ways, their patterns, and sometimes you just have to break it.” We turned left and into a long, low-roofed lounge filled with scatter cushions. Federer threw himself full-length on to a sofa and arched his back luxuriously, a black panther in his lair ‘I was in this room just before with Ivan [Ljubiči] and Severin [Lüthi, his two coaches]. We talked about how it’s quarter-final day: I am supposed to win but, actually, I would have been happy just to be here in the quarters a year ago. So just chill out, relax, play free. After winning in Australia, this season is pure joy.’ He raises an eyebrow. ‘It wasn’t always like this.’
Of course it wasn’t. But then Federer’s career contains epochs. It separates into a minimum of four distinct phases: the petulant teenager (1997-2001), the super-smooth champion (2002-2007), the senior, fading, pro (2008-2016) and the impossible rebirth (right now).
As Federer resumes his former dominance, it’s worth re-emphasising one basic statistic: he is 35 years old. Yes, 35. This summer represents the 20th anniversary of his departure from school, in favour of a professional sporting career. In other words, he came in with Tony Blair and New Labour. For a sport weary of Pete Sampras’s perpetually creased forehead, things could only get better.
Back in the Miami recreation room, I asked Federer what he remembered of those first skirmishes with adult opponents. ‘I was very convinced school was slowing me down,’ he said, ‘though I promised my dad I would go back if tennis didn’t work out. I won my first rankings point against a Russian guy; Igor Tchelychev was his name. And my friend got me so good. He had all these people calling me, pretending to be interviewers, wanting to know how I feel. They all had my number and they were so excited. I said, “Oh my God, so many guys are calling me,” and he said, “You’re not believing what’s happening, right?”
The unformed Federer was a tempestuous teen, who once earned himself a week of toilet-cleaning by ripping the courtside curtain in Biel – home of Switzerland’s national tennis centre – with a thrown racket. Yet he had charm too. His first real interview was with René Stauffer, a reporter from the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, who wrote that Federer was anything but the ‘reserved and taciturn’ character he had expected. ‘He spoke flowingly and confidently with a mischievous smile.’
Others remember Federer’s unfeigned fascination for the world around him, his love of heavy rock band AC/DC and his extraordinarily speedy texting on his entry-level Nokia. There was even a girlfriend at this stage, though he is understandably coy now about revisiting the subject (he was soon to fall in love with a Swiss tennis pro, Mirka Vavrinec, whom he met in 2000; they married in 2009). ‘I was so young, at that time. It was way before everything happened.’
Federer possessed such prodigious gifts – he had already ‘mastered every stroke’, in Stauffer’s words, when they met in 1996 – that he was bound to climb quickly. But no one knew how quickly until he dethroned Sampras at Wimbledon in five sets in 2001. Federer didn’t lift the title – that didn’t come until 2003 – but he admitted recently that the whole occasion gave him a huge rush. ‘All of a sudden it started to make sense. Why you’re doing weights. Why you’re running. Why you try to sleep well at night.’
The essential parts of the puzzle were beginning to mesh. Peter Lundgren had taken over as coach, with Pierre Paganini as fitness trainer. And Vavrinec had been on the scene since an exploratory kiss at the Sydney Olympics. The daughter of Slovakian émigrés, she had grown up on the shores of Lake Constance, where she preferred ballet to ball games – until a chance meeting with Martina Navratilova shifted her sights. With a peak ranking of number 76, she might have made a substantial player in her own right, but for the foot injury that forced her retirement at the age of 24. So she directed her energies into Federer’s career instead. ‘He gave my tennis life back to me,’ she has said. ‘When he wins, it’s as if I win as well.’
And there was a whole lot of winning going on. Between 2003 and 2005, Federer maintained a 100 per cent record in finals: 24 trophies from 24 attempts. ‘It was like being on a speed train,’ he recalled. ‘I was learning so much: how to deal with TV shows, red carpets, pressure, press, travel. This is where my fitness coach, Pierre, and Mirka, my wife, have been unbelievable. They were the rocks behind the whole organisation.’
Admittedly, the train began to decelerate towards the end of the decade, thanks partly to the emergence of Rafael Nadal, and partly to glandular fever. (‘It made a big dent in my career; in 2008 I felt a step slower.’) But Federer was about to enter a new phase of his life.
‘The beautiful times came in 2009,’ he said, ‘where I finally won the French, Mirka got pregnant, we had the kids, I won Wimbledon and broke the record [Sampras’s 14 grand slam titles]. That was the dream summer with everything. We were trying to keep it under wraps that she was pregnant. That was fun in itself because we didn’t want people to find out because we wanted this to be private, and we achieved that, which was great.’
Is it possible fatherhood might have lengthened his career, rather than shortened it as so many pundits had predicted? “Yeah,’ he answered. ‘Even though, when we found out it was twins in Australia in 2009, Mirka was very worried that the logistics weren’t going to work. That she would have to be at home and I would be playing and we would be separated, and it made her very sad, in that moment. And I told her, “Not for a second do you have to worry; we will make it work somehow.” Actually the first year when they are that small it’s quite easy, the travel. It gets tough between one-and-a-half and four, when they want to walk a marathon on the plane. That’s why, for me, 2010 and 2011 are a blur. My memories are much more with the kids than they are with tennis.’
By now Federer had a second home in Dubai, and a jet set of internationally famous friends that included rock star Gavin Rossdale and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. (‘I am finally going to the Met Ball with Anna this year,’ he said, ‘because she has invited me for years.’) But he still keeps up with the old gang from his embryonic years in Switzerland: fellow Biel trainees Yves Allegro, Michael Lammer and Marco Chiudinelli, plus Vincent Christinet, the room-mate who became like a brother when Federer lodged with the Christinet family in his late teens. These two old allies meet for coffee whenever Federer is in Geneva, and Vincent ‘writes me after every match basically’.
“Actually the first year when they are that small it’s quite easy, the travel. It gets tough between one and a half and four, when they want to walk a marathon on the plane. That’s why, for me, 2010 and 2011 are a blur. My memories are much more with the kids than they are with tennis.”
For Federer’s most ardent fans – who tend to resent Nadal and his other rivals – this blend of domesticity and movie-star glamour only adds to his appeal. When at his main home, in the small Swiss town of Valbella, he eats fondue at the local restaurant and practises at the public sports centre.
‘You have to book the court.’ He smiled. ‘Let’s say you book from 4pm to 6pm, you have to go and wait in front of the door until 3.59. You shyly open the door, you see they’re packing up their stuff, you come in. ‘Oh! Can I take a picture?’ No problem. They walk off and then you play until the next guys walk on. I like it like this. It keeps me grounded; it keeps me in a normal state. I even pay for the court there, and that’s cool.’
Court time was not a priority for Federer last season. He enjoyed his six-month lay-off as an opportunity to dine with friends, but described it as ‘brutal’ in tennis terms. The starting point was the knee injury he suffered in the most bizarre fashion in January, while running a bath for his seven-year-old twin daughters (he also has twin sons, aged three). A torn meniscus sent him to the operating table for the first time in his life – an extraordinary statistic for a man with 1,355 tour-level matches under his belt.
Federer’s personal time warp peaked four months ago, at the Australian Open. The tournament was a festival for the over-30s, reported as ‘the flashback slam’. Nadal sweated his way to finals weekend, along with both Williams sisters. But it was Federer, impassive under his white headband, who commanded the stage. For a fortnight in January – the same fortnight, incidentally, during which Donald Trump was sworn into office – his drive to an 18th major title felt like the sunniest storyline in human existence.
‘This win, it came from so far left field,’ he said. ‘I am 100 per cent truthful when I say that not for a second did I really believe I was going to win. Severin hinted to me in Dubai in December: “I tell you, if you play like this you could win this thing,” and I said, “Yeah I guess so,” but you never take that too serious. But I was winning so many sets in practice and I was playing so well that he just thought, “Jeez you never know.”
Having received his replica of the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup – his fifth, in all – Federer was photographed embracing it in his luxurious Swiss chalet. He giggled when I mentioned the picture. ‘Yeah, that’s what I do at home. I sit there every day with my trophy on my fur rug for 15 minutes like a weirdo.’ For all Federer’s surprise and delight, though, he declined to class his Melbourne miracle as a fluke. He sees it as something closer to a scientific breakthrough, earned through three years of tireless experimentation in the lab.
‘2014 is when I feel like a new career started, because of the racket,’ he said. ‘I know you might think it’s a marketing thing but it’s not; for me it’s so special. I just thought I have to move along with the times, so I designed the RF97 [so called because the surface area is 97sq in, seven more than the old model] by myself, I tested it, I did all that stuff.
‘I had to figure out myself what works better and what doesn’t with the new racket, and then as I always said, I just need hours and hours of practice. At 5-5, 30-30 in the third set, do you trust yourself to go for the backhand down the line, on the line? That’s essentially when you know you can trust your racket. Winning now in Australia, you can imagine what it meant to me. And I am having fun playing this way.’
And so to the question that no Roger Federer interview can ignore. How many more aces does he have up his sleeve? How much fire still burns behind that suave exterior? In February, he signed a contract extension for his home tournament in Basel that will take him up to 2019. But no one, including Federer himself, really knows how his Indian summer will end.
‘You have to be hungry,’ he said. ‘If I’m losing second round every week, yes it makes me happy that I’m healthy and I can play, but it’s not going to make me particularly happy as a tennis player. I’ve had too much success for a second round to keep me entertained.
‘At the same time, it doesn’t mean that I have to finish as world number one or achieve certain things. Some people would always feel that it needs to be this fairy-tale ending, but I feel like the time will be the time. I just hope I can do it on my own terms.’