Swiss stylist the all round big cheese
By Sue Mott
Daily Telegraph London
He chickened out. There had been much discussion on Sunday afternoon that Roger Federer, reigning Wimbledon champion, would wow the audience of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show by wearing a precious purple-and-green striped All England Club tie.
"Do you think I should?" he said, politely stricken, as the Wimbledon chairman hurried off to find him a spare for the occasion. We all agreed: yes, he should. But in the event, he adorned our screens that night in a stupendous suit, glossy long hairdo and black-and-white designer tie. What happened? "I'm sorry," he said contritely from Switzerland yesterday. "But it didn't go with my black suit."
The man has style. On court; off court. Federer may be a mere 22 years old, he may have collected more prize money than any other male tennis player this year, including $1.5 million (£860,000) and a Mercedes convertible for winning the Masters Cup, but he is imbued with delightful old-world courtesies, as befits a man who graciously received a cow called Juliette for winning the Wimbledon title.
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How is she? "Juliette is fine. England loves this cow story. I have seen her twice now. I haven't had any cheese yet but maybe a big load is coming for Christmas." We may not have a British Wimbledon champion, but at least we have a champion with a British sense of humour.
He was making a fleeting pilgrimage to Wimbledon where he held aloft the golden trophy in July and changed, forever, his sporting destiny. "It looks smaller," he said, casting a wistful eye over the deserted Centre Court, scene of his triumph in the final over Mark Philippoussis, of Australia.
"It's very nice to be Wimbledon champion. It's like Superman in his cape, I feel I've changed. I feel more confident walking on court. It was such a relief to win my first Grand Slam, especially Wimbledon.
"It was always my favourite tournament by far. That's why it's great for me to come back there and drink my cup of tea." He demonstrated the fact with a decorous slurp. "It's been a big change in my life. I'm much more famous now round the world. Not only as a tennis player, but also as a sports personality.
"It meant so much to me to win. The moment I got the trophy was the most impressive of my career. It was everything I have ever dreamed of. To hold that trophy and to lift it up. Looking back, five months later, it was the most special moment of my year."
He cried. An endearing sob escaped him in the middle of his acceptance speech on the court and the favour of the Wimbledon crowd beamed all the brighter. "First of all, I told myself over and over, 'Try not to cry'. But in such a moment it was just impossible. I have cried before, but this time I could not escape into the locker room. It was just too much for my emotions. It was tough and nice at the same time. I worked so hard for this one goal. It was such proof.
"I think every sportsman has their own feelings. Let it out!"
This is a relevant thought as England's glorious rugby team in general, and Jonny Wilkinson in particular, are busy repressing every urge to go bonkers. Federer has no such cultural dampeners working on his behaviour. In fact, he was a horror. A full-blown, racket-smashing McEnroe during his intemperate youth.
"I just couldn't control myself. It was really difficult for me to accept misses. I'm a perfectionist. If I lost one point, I was fine. Two, I'm not happy any more. Three, now I'm angry. That's how it went.
"When I was 12 years old, I was just horrible. My parents were ashamed to watch my matches. I would play on a court at the local club and they would watch from the balcony. They would scream, 'Be quiet' to me and I would scream back, 'Go and have a drink. Leave me alone.' Then we would drive home in a very quiet car. No one speaking to each other.
"Until one day I smashed a racket so hard on the ground in Hamburg, I thought, 'That's it, I'm not screaming any more'. That was 2001, when I beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, and then I had a problem with being too quiet. I couldn't get enough fire. No more emotions. So I had to find the fire again. I felt like I was walking on a string. I'm happy now the way I feel on the court. I just have to feel I tried my best. No excuses.
"I still do get upset and scream and throw my racket sometimes, but rarely. I feel it is not necessary now."
Federer, born in Basle, is the product of a Swiss-German and South African axis. His mother, the South African element, is a rugby follower but the game is one of the few ball sports to which her son did not warm. He liked his ears too much. He prefers his violence from a safe distance, as in armchair to television when professional American wrestling is on.
"I just started to love playing with this ball. I loved ping-pong, basketball, soccer, everything. You could say I was born with a ball. It was always fascinating to me, even from the age of two, three."
It was a useful fascination. Only the previous night Federer had been voted Swiss Sports Personality of the Year in a landslide victory and his childhood idol, Boris Becker, presented him with the award. (This accounted for both of them only having had two hours sleep when you saw them on Sunday night).
It may not mean that much to us in Britain that Federer beat Sergei Aschwanden, Thomas Frischknecht, Markus Fuchs and Michael von Grunigen to the title but then maybe the Swiss have never heard of Phil Vickery.
He copes very well with the acclaim. He doesn't cope badly with the money - career prize money of $7.8 million (£4.4 million) - either. "I don't play tennis to earn money. It's just nice to have. In the end, to play tennis is what I always wanted as a little boy. It's difficult to explain how it feels as a 22-year-old to have so much money but I really feel I am not getting too over-excited about it. But I like Hugo Boss quite much."
Federer is clearly special. His game does not rely solely on howitzer shots from the baseline. The world No 2 is a novelty, a man who can stroke and spin the ball as well as fire it from the mouth of a cannon. He can even, like Tim Henman, take a hand off the racket to strike a backhand. Both McEnroe and Becker openly worship his talent. He is an expressionist.
"It's very natural, easy. That's why I have a lot of older players behind me. Because I have the best one-handed backhand in the world" - he coughed in apologetic immodesty - "they really enjoy watching me. I try to vary the game as much as I can. I am not a guy who is going to rally 25 times the same ball."
He has won tournaments on every surface, he is friends with Lleyton Hewitt (not an easy thing), he is a serious challenge to the gut-busting world No 1, Andy Roddick, and, with the help of his girlfriend Mirka, he has launched his own range of after-shave (called, unambiguously, 'Roger Federer'). All in all, he is pretty multi-tasking for a man.
Now one more thing has been added to his 'To Do' list. Find a coach. Just before his visit to England, the news broke that he had split with his long-term coach, the Swede Peter Lundgren. "The reason is that we have been working together a long time and I feel I need something else. I don't think we had the same fire that we used to. It was growing more like a routine. Like any long relationship, it had just gone a little bit stale."
One suspects a rather large queue of contenders will forming at his alpine door. The opportunity to work with the most angelically-gifted tennis player in the world is one slight advantage. But more to the point, think of all that free cheese.