From The Times, June 23, 2008
Why do they want to shoot me so soon?
Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent
The most recent interviews with Roger Federer have been conducted as if one was participating in a fireside chat, with the Wimbledon champion dressed in smoking jacket, sipping on a brandy. So what should the approach be this time — to hell with it, let’s cut straight to the French Open final? Or lull him into Wimbledon first and then surreptitiously slip Paris in the conversation? The wound was so recent and so deep.
As I mulled these things over, the five-times champion glided in, slipped into one of the All England Club’s superior leather sofas and if the expectation was of finding someone whose brain was mush after the worst performance in terms of games won by a world No 1 in the history of grand-slam finals, who had been finally cowed by slavering critics, or was concerned that he is about to become the victim of a lawn mowing, then I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man.
The greeting is warm and eye contact immediate. He is dressed head to toe in white, the RF hat dispensed with, nothing to hide (the new cardigan is being saved for Centre Court today). He is enjoying being a tour guide to Gary Hamilton, his Australian fitness trainer, the newest member of Team Fed. “For me, this is a very, very special place and it’s nice to pass those feelings on to somebody else,” he says. “I came here first in the juniors, in 1998, when I was one of so many, but now I am the one.”
He knows his place, does the man. “Winning the singles title once was incredible because this is Wimbledon, the most important, and then two becomes three and then four and then five and five is definitely a different league again. Six would be extraordinary and I have a great opportunity.”
OK, that’s enough luxuriating. Aren’t you hurt, devastated, aren’t you less of a player because of what happened in Paris? “Well, I’ve come from Halle, where I didn’t drop serve and that was only the second time in my career, with Doha, that that has happened,”
he said, disarming once more.
“I decided straight after the French final I wanted to go there. Normally, I sleep on a decision like that, but it wasn’t as if the final had been particularly tough; it was over so quickly. I’d felt physically fine throughout the tournament. I was over it fast.”
Really? Truly? “Rafa was outplaying me in the first set. In the second, I had a good start, but he fought back. I had a small chance, but when he is up two sets to love, he does not waste time. I didn’t think at the start it would happen the way it did, but it did happen and it’s, ‘Oh well, what the hell.’ Rafa will be the favourite in Paris for years to come, but why should I not believe I can beat him? A player who has won 12 grand slams can never go into a final thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ I never will. On any given day, on any surface, against any player, I am the favourite. I felt I had him figured out, the conditions were in my favour, but it wasn’t meant to be. What am I supposed to do?”
Rafael Nadal’s reaction to his fourth consecutive victory at Roland Garros was respectful and brief. “He could have rolled around for ten minutes if he’d wanted to, I would not have had a problem with that, seriously,”
Federer said. “It was his moment. The problem of a win like that is that he had seen it coming for half an hour, 45 minutes before, and he probably felt he could not beat Roger Federer by this score, so it was an awkward situation for him. He almost didn’t dare to celebrate too much.”
The response to the scale of Federer’s defeat was eerie. Former champions who had sung his praises before the final fell silent. The wordsmiths were damning. Federer preferred a healthy dose of perspective. “The thing I have never felt comfortable with this year has been the glandular fever and how I reacted to it,”
he said. “What was the best time to say I had not been well in Australia [in January, when he lost in the semi-finals to Novak Djovovic]? I wasn’t sure if I should say anything at all. Should I say something in Dubai [the tournament after Australia], perhaps after I had won a title; what was the best time? For me, it wasn’t fun to be hiding something, people asking me in Dubai, ‘How are you feeling?’ and me answering, ‘Fine.’
Eventually, after he had lost to Andy Murray in the first round in Dubai, Federer decided to go public. “Perhaps people did not believe me, but why should I lie?”
he said. “Some might say I lost to Novak in Melbourne because of that, but it was not the reason at all. He outplayed me in the semi-final and I have no problems accepting that. There were those who said it was a little excuse and others said, ‘Oh, now it all makes sense.’ When I lost in the semi-finals of Indian Wells and the quarters of Miami, everyone said I was going downhill, but no account was taken of what I had gone through. I suppose I had not given anyone a chance to criticise me for four years and they would want to take that chance.
“That is past, this is the most important time. The period after the French, with Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and the US Open, that is when this season will be decided for me. If I haven’t won any of those titles, then I will agree that this year has not been up to my standards. But let’s wait and see what happens. Sometimes you would like to think people would not want to shoot me quite so quickly, but what can I do?
“I will never be blasé about being No 1. For me, every tournament victory is important. When is it going to end? That is when you have to appreciate them all [55 career titles as we speak] because sometimes, in this career, you can get lost. I am amazed that I have done what I have done, but I want to continue doing it for much, much longer.”