Roger Federer slowly, lovingly, takes the wrapping off his new racket, like a little boy with a giant lollipop. “It’s my Wimbledon racket,” he says. He runs his fingers along the frame, bounces a hand against its head. He’s got plenty of rackets, of course – he’ll sometimes use nine in one match – but this is the one he’ll start with. With a bit of luck, he says, it could last him five years.
He passes the racket to me – it is light and not highly strung, which could also be said of the man. We are in a vast warehouse in Zurich, Switzerland, and I’m swinging away with the racket and imaginary balls. He looks lean, tanned, glowing, in the way only an elite athlete can. Federer has more time on his hands than he had hoped, after pulling out of the French Open with a back injury. He’s using the opportunity to launch a new clothes line – smart, spare, the kind of thing you’d imagine Federer wears in his down time.
We sit down to talk, and I hold on to his racket, hoping he’ll forget. He can’t focus. “Can I have my racket back, please?” he eventually says.
Federer was not always a respecter of rackets. Since winning his first major tournament, he has been known for his calm. He doesn’t shout at himself or his coaching team; he smiles rather than snarls on court; and he rarely questions decisions. The young Federer was a quite different proposition. He was an outrageously talented sportsman, at football as well as tennis, but he was almost undone by his attitude.
Roger Federer of Switzerland holds up the Wimbledon trophy in July 2003, after defeating Mark Philippoussis of Australia
First Wimbledon win, in 2003. Photograph: Getty
He loved tennis from a young age, always playing against a wall at home, at a club with his Swiss father, a chemical engineer, and South African mother (Federer holds dual nationality). But when he started to compete, aged eight, he would get frustrated, berating himself, telling himself he was rubbish. “I wasn’t the angry type, I was always the sad and disappointed type.” Really? I heard he was a racket smasher. He smiles. OK, he was a bit angry. “But I’d throw the racket tactically, into the nets, so it wouldn’t break and I wouldn’t have to go to my parents, because it’s a lot of money. I’d commentate on each shot, saying, how in the world could I miss that, I can’t believe how badly you’re playing, this is just a joke.” For a second, he sounds like John “You cannot be serious” McEnroe. Tournament officials would tick him off for being too verbal, and tell him he was putting off other players. “My parents would get so disappointed in me and upset, they would just walk away.”
Could he have become a champion if he’d stayed that way? “Yes, but not to the extent I am today. I might have won a few slams, big tournaments, stayed in the top 10 for a long time, who knows.” He says this as if most of us were capable of a few grand slams. He grins. “Well, I’ve won 17, so maybe I could have won a few being a little bit cuckoo, but I’m not sure. You have to be mentally tough, physically strong, consistent, and I wasn’t. So I’m really proud I managed to turn it around.”
Tennis player Roger Federer wearing clothes from his news sportswear range with Nike
Jacket, £215, T-shirt, £95, and shorts, £100, all from the NikeLab Presents NikeCourt x Roger Federer: ‘Unlimited Class’ collection. Trainers, Federer’s own. Styling: Martina Russi. Grooming: Julia Ritter. Photograph: Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer/The Guardian
Federer is missing his first grand slam in 17 years (there are four a year: the French, US and Australian Opens, and Wimbledon). He has played in 65 successive slams, a testament to his hunger and his fitness. Then there is his record. Or records. Federer’s grand slam total makes him the greatest male tennis player ever. His closest rivals, Pete Sampras and Rafa Nadal, have 14 each. The world’s No 1, Novak Djokovic, who has achieved the near-impossible this year of holding all four major titles at once, is coming up fast behind – but has only 12. To put Federer’s achievement in context, Andy Murray, Britain’s finest player since Fred Perry and world number two, has won only two grand slams.
Federer will be 35 in August. Most players his age have retired, but he is still ranked three in the world and believes he can win another Wimbledon.
It’s not simply his record that makes Federer the greatest, it’s the way he plays. Only once in a blue moon does somebody come along who transcends their sport, elevating it into a thing of beauty: Lionel Messi in football, Muhammad Ali in boxing, Ronnie O’Sullivan in snooker, and Federer. There’s the spirit with which he plays, and the elegance – the single-handed backhand, the driving forehand (his shirt rising to reveal his washboard stomach). Federer can match today’s baseline bullies, but he can also mix it up with the serve and volley that used to dominate the men’s game. His appearance is every bit as stylish. It wasn’t always that way: when Federer first emerged on to the scene, he looked fresh out of a teenage heavy metal band. But once he chopped off the ponytail he cut a different figure – more Jay Gatsby than Ozzy Osbourne.
For all the achievements of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, no player is loved quite like Federer. In a famous essay for the New York Times, the novelist David Foster Wallace wrote that watching him play was akin to a religious experience. And in 25 years of interviewing, I have never had such a swooning reaction from friends and colleagues when I’ve told them who I’m meeting – young and old, men and women, Federer crushes know no bounds. One penny-pinching manager suggests he comes along to carry my bag. People give me hats, balls and books for signing. By the time we meet, I feel more like a merchandiser than a journalist. Even my mother warns me: “Whatever you do, don’t fall out with Roger.”
Tennis players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the finals of the French Open in 2006
After his defeat by Nadal in the 2006 French Open. Photograph: Getty
Federer won junior Wimbledon at 16, but then his emotions kept getting the better of him. Other players realised he had a fatal flaw. “People knew, eventually he’ll crack,” he says. “Just stay with him and he’ll give you some easy mistakes. So I tried to create this aura of invincibility, of being tough to beat.” It took him a long time; Federer was almost 22 when he finally got the title.
So he had to move from being a tantrum-throwing McEnroe to a samurai-like Bjorn Borg? “To some extent, but Borg was all ice.” Federer’s heroes come from a later generation and are fiery types such as Goran Ivanisevic. When coaches told him he had to quieten down, he agreed, but only up to a point. “I said, I have to get my emotion out, I can’t handle it. They were like, yes, it’s good but not so much. Eventually I said, I need to find a balance. I can’t just be ice, it becomes horribly boring. I need the fire, the excitement, the passion, the whole rollercoaster. But I need it at a level where I can handle it: if I’m all fire, I go nuts. It took two years to figure that out. It was a long road.”
Federer says there is a story that Mirka, his wife and the mother of his children (two sets of twins, identical girls Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, who will be seven in July; and fraternal boys Lenny and Leo, two), tells about the first time she set eyes on him. “I was playing club tennis in Switzerland and everybody said, ‘Go see this guy, he’s super talented, the future of tennis.’ And the first thing she saw was me throwing a racket and shouting, and she was like [mockingly], ‘Yeah! Great player, he seems really good! What’s wrong with this guy?’”
Mirka was older and also a promising player, but very different: tough, disciplined, ascetic. She rose to number 76 in the world before having to retire in 2002 with a foot injury.
They met properly at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where they were both competing. She was a mature 21, he was a young 18. “She’s always been older than me.” He means in every sense. That’s a huge difference at that age, I say. He nods. “When I kissed her for the first time, she said, ‘You’re so young.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m almost 18 and a half.’” He laughs. “You know how you try to shove another half year in? And she was like, ‘OK, you’re a baby.’”
Roger Federer’s wife Mirka with their twin daughters Myla and Charlene at Wimbledon in 2012
Federer’s wife, Mirka, and twin daughters Myla and Charlene. Photograph: Rex
Federer says Mirka has played a huge part in his success. Look at the facts, he says. “When I met her I had zero titles, today I have 88, so she’s been on this ride for the whole time.” He talks of her with tender pride: how her parents fled communism in Czechoslovakia when she was only one, then struggled for Swiss citizenship, how she coped. She might not have realised her own dreams in tennis, but you sense she was his role model.
“She used to train five, six hours in a row. Her parents had to work extremely hard. She was tough, and she taught me how to work. I would be at the tennis centre and see her do six-hour sessions, and I’d think, I can’t do that. I’d check out mentally after an hour and go, this is so boring. So I’d get kicked out of practice for bad behaviour.”
There is a conventional wisdom, advanced by author Malcolm Gladwell and former British table tennis champion Matthew Syed, that natural talent gets you only so far: it takes elite performers 10,000 hours’ practice to fulfil their potential. Does this make Federer the exception to the rule? Has he achieved his success without putting in the hours?
God no, he says. He was always putting in the hours; just not necessarily in the right order and at the right time. Only when he put in Mirka-style stints did he start to fulfil his potential. Even then, his progress was hardly linear.
In 2001, he made headlines by beating Sampras at Wimbledon and reaching the quarter-finals; he also got to the quarters in the French Open, but the following year he was knocked out of both in the first round. “All of a sudden, people started to ask, where had the talent gone?” Was he worried he had thrown it away? “Yes, I was.” His parents (“the best I could have wished for”) and Mirka kept their faith in him, but he says the press began to ask whether he was psychologically flawed.
Back then, there was not such a gap between the world’s top players and the chasing pack; anything could happen. Part of Federer’s legacy is that he’s introduced a new consistency in the elite: today, the top four rarely go out of a grand slam before the semi-final unless they’re playing each other.
In 2003, he finally broke through, beating Mark Philippoussis in the Wimbledon final in straight sets, and over the next six years established himself as the greatest. There is barely a record Federer hasn’t broken: 10 consecutive grand slam finals, 23 consecutive semi-finals, 36 consecutive quarter-finals. He has spent 302 weeks as the No 1 ranked player in the world, 237 consecutively. He is the only player to have won two grand slams five times consecutively – Wimbledon (2003-2007) and the US Open (2004-2008). He is ranked fourth in Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, earning around $67m over the past year, $60m of that for appearance fees and endorsements. He has earned more than any tennis player in prize money alone: $98m.
I ask Federer which match has meant the most to him. He singles out three: the first time he beat Sampras, in 2001, because that put down a marker; his first Wimbledon win (“I’d achieved my dream and my career could stop right then, because all I’d ever wanted to be was a Wimbledon champ”); and his 2009 French Open victory against Robin Soderling (who had beaten Nadal in the fourth round). “That was the one slam I thought, maybe I’m never going to win it. When I did, I was so happy. Plus relief.”
Every final he lost at Paris was to Nadal. Did he think he was jinxed against him? “No. Sometimes I was outplayed, sometimes I was close, but never quite good enough to beat him at the French. But I never lost hope or faith that it could happen.”
Has Nadal been his greatest rival? “For me, he has been. It could still change if I play Novak another few times in bigger matches. Novak and I have obviously had really big matches, but somehow the match-up with Rafa will always stay unique – because of the Wimbledon final in 2008.”
That match verged on the biblical. In the end, Nadal won an epic fifth set 9-7. It began in sunlight and by the end seemed to be played out in a partial eclipse. Federer says he has found Nadal tougher to play than anybody, even Djokovic. “He’s a lefty – all that spin, we’ve not seen spin like that before. I had to change so many things to match him.”
In the fourth set, Federer was 8-7 down in the tie-break with Nadal serving for the match, when he played what is regarded by many fans as his greatest shot ever – a backhand pass down the line. It wasn’t simply the placing, or the power he achieved with that insouciant flick of the wrist; it was the courage of the shot. I ask Federer if there is a favourite shot he’s played. He struggles for an answer, so I mention this backhand. “Oh yes, that one’s good, but it didn’t come to mind because I ended up losing the bloody match. Who cares about hitting a great shot, then losing?”
He has an outlandish shot he loves, called the Sneaky Attack By Roger: charging into the net on an opponent’s serve
He prefers the passing shot he made through his legs in the semi-final of the 2009 US Open against Djokovic. It was deadly, audacious and witty – and it led to match point. Does he have a name for that shot? “No. People call it Hotdog, or Tweener, I call it the between the legs shot because that is just what it is.” Over the past year, he has developed another outlandish shot he loves, which he calls the SABR (Sneaky Attack By Roger), where he charges into the net on the opponent’s serve. “My coach encouraged me and I was like, it’s ridiculous. But he said no, you’re winning a lot of points like that. I started doing it at 15-15, then at break point, then the next thing is, it’s just another fun thing to do.” Few players have experimented the way Federer has, or enjoyed their tennis so much.
Yet since he was 20 he has played with immense discipline – the ice he talked about earlier. It is often only at the end of a tournament that we see his fire, and when it comes the explosion of emotion can be volcanic. His ability to weep after a final has surprised, and occasionally shocked, even him. The first time it happened, he says, he was playing for Switzerland in the Davis Cup against the US in 2001. “We beat the Americans in Basel, in my home city, where I used to be a ballboy. When I finally won the match I was so exhausted and happy, I broke down crying. And I was like, what is this emotion? I didn’t realise I had it in me.” A few months later he beat Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon. “I saved a break point and ended up winning 7-5 in the fifth with the forehand down the line winner, got to my knees, broke down again. I’m like, are you crazy? What is wrong with you?”
Just thinking of all this makes Federer well up again. Did it worry him? “No. I guess it’s one of the reasons I still play today, to relive those emotions.”
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