Roger Federer: The Road Ahead
by Robert Davis
Roger Federer, now 30, is convinced he can win his 17th major title.
At 30 years of age, Roger Federer's love for the sport has not dimmed. The great champion is convinced he can lift more major trophies.
At the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Roger Federer and Peter Lundgren are going at it in the hotel room. What is happening?
ďIt is about 12:30 and he is going on at 1 p.m.,Ē remembers Lundgren. ďI am telling him that we need to go and warm up for the match against Patrick Rafter and he says, ĎNo I donít want warm up.í And I said 'why not?' And he says, ĎBecause I donít want to.í And I am like, 'we need to warm up before the match, right?í And he says, ĎYes, but I want to warm up with you.í And then he jumps on top of me and we start wrestling. After three or four minutes he jumps off me and says, ĎSee, now I am ready.'Ē
That was 10 years ago, and today Roger Federer is wrestling something a little different - a legacy that is steeped with such high expectations that nothing short of winning every match he plays will satisfy the critics.
That Federer likes a challenge is a good thing, because there is plenty of that to go around these days. As Novak Djokovic tightens his grip on the top spot in tennis, those that know Federer best believe that the Swiss thrives on challenges.
ďOne of the great things about Roger is his big-picture perspective,Ē claims Federerís coach Paul Annacone. ďPeople may not realise just how competitive that the great ones tend to be. Rogerís competitive fire is still at the highest possible level. His steadfast ability to compete over such a long period of time is pretty impressive. Pete (Sampras) was like that.Ē
Federerís career could be set to a Shakespearean drama. His rise to prominence on the worldís stage did not come all at once, but rather in acts.
ďWe could see the potential, but his body was not ready yet,Ē remembers Lundgren of Federerís transition from juniors to professional. ďHis movement and endurance had to be improved. And during the point he had so many tools in the box, so many ways to win. It was like too many choices. He would make it complicated because he could do so many things. Then he beat Sampras (2003 Wimbledon) and it was like a new opening. Still it was a long way to winning a Slam.Ē
Actually, it was not too long. Two years to be exact.
ďWinning Wimbledon changed everything,Ē says Lundgren.
From 2004 until 2007, Roger Federer started climbing high into thin air. Here are his numbers; 74-6, 81-4, 92-5, and 76-9. Three hundred and twenty three wins out of 347 matches. An incredible 93 per cent win to loss percentage.
ďWhen he had this streak of making every single final, or 20 consecutive Grand Slam championship semi-finals it was shocking,Ē says former Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington. ďNo one in the history of tennis has done that. Agassi, Sampras, they had great runs and great years, but to reach the semi-finals of 20 consecutive majors is one of those records that will probably never be broken.Ē (Federer reached 23 successive major semi-finals).
Despite what it may seem at times, Federer is only human after all.
ďYou know, I think it is always the same for those guys at the very top,Ē says Annacone. ďThe expectations are so high, basically, they are pretty unrealistic. I mean to stay in Ďforeverí. That is sort of how the media works. It makes for provocative conversation and debate as careers change and other players come on the horizon. That is sort of nature of the beast kind of thing. I think Pete (Sampras) knew how to handle it, he just got tired of it. Everybody gets tired of speculative, negatively connotated questions. This is only human nature. However, Rogerís level of enthusiasm for playing tennis is not that of a normal 30 year old. He loves playing the game. I think his emotional freshness is way different.Ē
ďWhen you are a player at the top there is so much tension and expectation,Ē says Washington. ďYou want to perform well for your family, friends, fans and sponsors and there is just a lot going on around you at every tournament. And each player has to figure out how to perform with that. Roger and Pete have done that as about as well as anyone I have ever seen.Ē
This must seem a little like Groundhog Day for Federer. It was only a couple of years back that Rafael Nadal yanked the No. 1 South African Airways ATP Ranking from the Swiss starís grasp and his demise was widely reported. We all know how Federer responded to that challenge. Will Federer ever dominate tennis again the way he did from 2004 to 2007? Most likely no. What is it inside of us that likes to build up and then tear down our sporting idols?
Federer does not grunt and he rarely groans. His sportsmanship and class are what people will remember most. Then there are the little things he does that mean so much to other people around the world.
In the champions' locker room at Wimbledon in June 2010, Federer has just finished a post-match press conference following his semi-final round loss to Tomas Berdych. Obviously, he is gutted. Upon entering the locker room he is handed an express mail letter. The letter reads:
ďDear Mr. Federer,
On behalf of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia, we would like to express our most heartfelt appreciation for the autographed shirt that you sent to us in support of Our Killing Fields To Tennis Courts program. Due to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge thirty-five years ago, life as we knew it in Cambodia stopped. Tennis was no exception. Our determination to be part of other tennis nations and have our kids enjoying the sport is our main objective. Just knowing that you thought of us gives our kids inspiration for the future.
With Great Respect and Appreciation,
Rithivet Tep, Secretary General, Tennis Federation of Cambodia."
Whether he wins or loses, Roger Federer is in demand. And all you need to do is sit through a few of his press conferences to observe how politely he answers each and every question.
ďIt is difficult to give you a number of requests per tournament, there are so many, but it is safe to say that Federer spends at least 30 minutes with the press after each match he plays, often close to one hour,Ē reports Nicola Arzani, ATP Senior Vice President, PR
& Marketing. ďI am sure there is no other sportsman in the world who is doing as much as him. Obviously the three languages keep him longer.Ē
ďIn so many ways, Roger Federer has honoured the game,Ē claims coach Chuck Kriese. ďAnd in return the game has honoured him.Ē
Roger knows that wherever he goes and whatever he does everyone is watching. Even the players and coaches on the ATP World Tour keep tabs on each of his matches. And the locker room talk is not about his 16 Grand Slams so much as what shot he hit in practice or which match was special.
If Federer were a painter his Mona Lisa would be the match he played in the Tennis Masters Cup final at Shanghai in 2007 versus David Ferrer. It was a near perfect match.
ďThat match was the one of the best if not the best I have ever seen,Ē says one long-time veteran coach who prefers to remain anonymous. ďThat match just might have changed the way players play the game in regards to court positioning."
ďI remember the match very well. It was one of the best matches I have ever played,Ē Federer tells DEUCE. ďIt was at the end of the season, and to crown it when I had already had a wonderful season was really nice. I was able to hit backhands down the line whenever I wanted and move almost like I was gliding around the court. It was one of the great matches.
ďI hope I played some part in inspiring this generation or the one coming up now,Ē continues Federer. ďPete kind of started hitting huge second serves, and people did not think it was possible to hit 110 or 120 miles per hour second serves. And then Goran [Ivanisevic], [Richard] Krajicek, [Marc] Rosset and [Mark] Philippoussis started doing it. I hope that I was able to create something else as well. What, I donít know. That is up to others to judge.Ē
Just last year at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris-Bercy, Federer went to the canvas once more, granting all those present a brief glimpse of greatness in his match versus Jurgen Melzer. In less than 19 minutes, Federer was up five games to love.
ďSometimes when he gets going he is on another level of tennis,Ē says Joakim Nystrom, Melzerís coach. ďBut that first set at Bercy, he was in another stratosphere.Ē
Federer tells DEUCE, ďYou are always trying to prove to yourself that you can be the best tennis player you can be. I learned a lot since I started the game more seriously at the age of 14. The last 15 years have been an eye opener in every way of life. It has been fun being a part of the dream that I created of becoming a tennis player.Ē
The parity in menís tennis has never been stronger, still, only a handful of tennis players have won Grand Slams in the past eight years. What does Federer think about that?
ďI have my doubts sometimes what guys outside the Top 50 do with their schedules,Ē says Federer. ďI feel like sometimes it is important to prepare their schedule in such a way that they peak at the right tournaments. If you look around at the top players they know when they want to peak. And it does not always have to be a Grand Slam, it can be something personal like their hometown tournament. I sometimes miss that in the lower-ranked players. I donít think that they take enough weeks off. Because they feel that next week is the breakthrough week. Something is going happen.
"I know it is tricky for some because you've got to play when you get in, and I know that, but I am a big believer that you need to take breaks for recuperation, going on vacation, going away and putting the racquet in the closet and just lying on the beach trying to get inspired for when you come back and practise extremely hard when you come back. Then you can really play. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the tour is from January to November, so you can either always play or you can take rest and you can still play again. I think that, in the big scheme of things, that might be a bit of a twisted situation for many coaches and players at that level.Ē
For Federer, he has repeatedly said that he continues to enjoy playing as much now as ever.
ďWhat I find most amazing is that at this stage of his career he loves the game so much,Ē says Annacone. ďAnd to me that is paramount and when you enjoy the game so much it makes it easier to play. Roger is very, very clear and robust in his approach to tennis. He is very fresh and energetic.Ē
ďIf you asked Roger if he feels like he can win majors he would say 'yes',Ē suggests Washington. ďHe was in the final of Roland Garros this year. Yes, he has gotten older, but I think he is every bit as good as he was a couple of years ago.Ē
Sow does Federer handle disappointments?
ďI think one of the great things for guys like Roger, or great athletes who maintain a high level for a long period of time, is that they generally maintain a healthy perspective and Pete was great like this,Ē says Annacone. ďThey are very secure in who they are as players and people and I donít want to say that it makes it easier to accept, but it does make it easier to comprehend.Ē
ďMy attitude has changed a lot towards the matches as the years have gone by,Ē says Federer. ďThe love for the game has always been there. I would not change it for the world and I would do it all over again; I am very happy where I am at right now. I do take losses a bit easier, but that does not mean I did not try my best. What is nice about tennis is that you can play qualifying and can have the opportunity of winning the tournament even though it is tough, you do have a chance to win a tournament. The dream always looms.Ē
For the fans of Federer, the fact that he continues to be a threat at the majors is also a dream. And one that could very well come true soon.