All great players seem to have this period in their careers where they hate tennis, or struggle with being No. 1. You always seem happy. How is this?
For me, it was always exciting being around the top. It doesn’t matter if it was top 10, or five or three or one. For me, the fact never changed that I love being in that position.
For me, the hard part I guess is why I embrace No. 1 so much. It’s because I had a hard time in the beginning. I remember, I almost have to apologize for this: I won the Orange Bowl back in 1998, came to Miami and got the wild card into the Masters 1000, the Super 9 back then. I got on court and I was like, ‘I hate this sport, I cannot play.’ And I lost like 7-5, 7-6, and I was not even trying. And I would go through such fluctuations of emotions. I hated practice, couldn’t stand some matches: ‘Oh my god, look at this guy, he only rolls the ball into play, or he only goes for broke, I can’t stand this, today I’m not in the mood.’ So I think I went through all of that so much early on. That I think this is why I’m happy.
I was talented. People were going to say I was going to be world No. 1 and a Grand Slam champion or a future Sampras — fine. But having to deal with all of it and actually crumbling under the pressure was good for me. That’s why I’m so impressed by the Novaks and the Murrays and the Nadals. I don’t really remember any long letdowns. Maybe they had them when they were younger — I don’t remember them that much — but they were such great teenagers. I did [well] too, but either I was great, or I was awful. So for me, being No. 1 is like, how can you not enjoy this?
Was that just being young and immature?
Maybe I also had an ideal of, it’s always going to be center court, it’s always going to be 50,000 people and you’re always going to win.
So you expected things to come easily…
And they don’t at all. There’s a lot of hard work behind that.
You’ve had some tough losses in the last few years: two against Djokovic here with match points, another at Wimbledon against Tsonga when you were up two sets. You seem to put those behind you pretty easily. How?
For me, the last thing I want to happen is that it drains me. Today, someone asked me, ‘Do you have to win the U.S. Open to put the Olympic disappointment behind you?’ I was like, ‘Are you for real?’ The Olympic disappointment? I’m so happy I got the medal. I genuinely believe it was the best result I could have done, Murray was better than me, that’s it, boom, I go on vacation, take a few days off, pack for another few months on tour and it’s behind me. And I look back with incredible pride having gotten the medal for Switzerland and an amazing summer.
Let’s not kid ourselves: I’m doing just fine. I’m doing great right now. Let’s not go into the whole negative part. I’m a very positive thinker, and I think that is what helps me the most in those difficult moments.
Is that something you’ve had to learn to do, or have you always been that way?
I think it comes naturally, but it’s important also to be realistic at times — not just say everything is great. Not everything is great always, I’m aware of that. And that’s why I have to question myself at the best of times. I question myself when things are not going so great. I question myself: ‘How could we do better planning, practice, vacationing, organization? What can be improved?’ Without being nuts about it, but there’s always little things you can improve. In some ways, you have to be almost a perfectionist a little bit, and I try to be that, but in a natural way and not a crazy, thought-through way.
Your health has been incredible over the years. You hear some players say it’s a gift, just how you are, graceful and all. How much is that and how much is hard work?
That’s just not true. No doubt about it, maybe a little luck in the beginning of a career. I saw a girl today, her foot buckled, and just like that you might have to have reconstruction and who knows how your career’s going to end up then. I think you need a little bit of luck when you’re an amateur and still unprofessional, really, or just trying to do it, because maybe that can lead to more injuries later on in your life. But I think 80% of the guys don’t have that happening to them.
And then it’s about dealing with how much energy do you have, how do you practice, who do you surround yourself with — all these things come into play. How much you listen to your body, can you say no to certain money offers that are going to carry you throughout the world to make you go I-don’t-know-where to play, which you shouldn’t be doing. I’ve never had a problem saying no. I’ve left so much stuff on the table, it’s mind boggling. But I just said, ‘I am looking at the long term.’ If you look at the short term, you will make mistakes. I said, ‘I have to have short-term goals, but I’m looking at the long-term plan, and that has served me really well over the years.’
How did you come to manage playing and doing what it takes to be you while having twin daughters?
Learn by doing, great wife, great set up — just trying to deal with it as well as you can, seeing if you can combine the two together. Is it better for Mirka to stay home or not? That was a big question for a long period of time. The moment they don’t feel well, you think you’ve done something awfully wrong, but it’s normal for kids to get sick. But we blame it maybe on other things: ‘How could that happen? We tried everything to not make it happen.’ But it’s just normal, and of course you panic, of course you try to manage it.
Of course it’s cost me a lot of sleep, and maybe because of those times, maybe I did lose the occasional match more. But who cares? Who cares? I tried, and I’m still playing great. I’m playing much better than I thought I would — other guys are in their prime right now, and I’m world No. 1, so I guess I did some things right.
Now here I am. I have two wonderful kids, an incredible wife and it’s just great. I feel very fortunate that I’m going through this part of my life now, that I can enjoy it so much more. It’s not just only about hitting forehands and backhands.
Would you and Mirka like to have more kids?
I was so happy when we had two right at once. I couldn’t believe it that it was twins. I guess it was a shock, but it was a positive one. I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know much about twins, honestly,’ so you’re like, what does that mean? How are they going to be? And now I see how they play together, it’s just the best. So now we’ll see how it goes. Probably talk about it again next year, see how things are. We wanted to get them out of the nappies. Now finally it’s calming down, it seems like.
Have they picked up rackets yet?
Yeah, but nothing significant. I just hope they get into sports eventually. I think that’d be great. It’s a great lifestyle — a good learning process.
How much does Mirka sacrifice to make all this happen?
It’s all me for her. I admire her every day that she is willing to do this. I tell her, ‘I think you should take a week here or a week there, take care of yourself a bit more, because you are putting in an incredible amount of work here.’ But she says, ‘Look, I’m not happy when you’re not around.’ And that’s as good as it gets for me, and I’m obviously also not the same person when she and the kids are not around. So we try to manage it. It’s good to have a balance. We try to make it work that we have time by ourselves, time with the family, time with our friends in this busy, busy life that we live.
How much have you been apart?
The last three years, maybe three weeks, maybe four? Really not much, so I consider myself so, so fortunate that that’s the case. And of course that we have the means to make it work with the girls, so I’m happy and feel fortunate.
What goals are left for you?
In tennis there’s many things you want to do again and achieve, and play for as long as you can. Maybe do something you’ve never done before. I don’t know what that could be right now, but maybe there’s things like that.
And then as excited as I am about what’s to come in the next five years, say, of tennis, I’m just as excited about what’s to come afterward. I think the mix is really a good one for me right now. I’m not worried to stop, but I don’t want to stop. I really want to push forward and play more, keep on playing, not play more than the 21 tournaments that I’m already doing, just maintaining it and enjoying it, doing the utmost I can. It’s a really good time in my life right now.
And it feels like also the media room has calmed down a little bit where it’s not like, ‘When are you going to leave? You’ve achieved everything, get out,’ that kind of thing. I feel like many people now want to see me. I always knew it would kind of come around, and I think actually maybe the next few years are going to be more enjoyable than the last couple.
What is the plan after this? Are you going to, say, play doubles until age 39?
No, no, no, no. I guess, when you’re done, you’re done.
I think it’s nice that we have a senior tour in place, not that I want to play that, but I think it’s nice for the afterlife to have a little slight option if you want to do that a little bit from time to time to see your old buddies that you saw on tour so often — that’s nice.
But I’ve always been interested in some sort of a business. I signed many long-term deals as well with my great partners I have, so that’s going to continue. I’ll have more time for my foundation, and the kids are going to go to school eventually. It depends on how flexible we are for the traveling part still. I can never sit still with my wife and my kids, but it’s nice also to settle a little bit eventually. So I’m definitely looking forward to that, growing up in Switzerland, having a really nice time over there.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to be you? A 15- or 16-year-old, coming up in tennis?
Hard work will be rewarded, number one. Number two, you’re going to have your ups and downs, like I explained. Learn from those. Number three, love what you’re doing, feel fortunate that you actually do have the opportunity to do what you’re doing, because many other players, people, kids would like to be in your situation. Don’t forget how fortunate you really are. And then just really enjoy, go out there and have fun. Have a blast.