"Nothing Beats Winning"
Two days after his first-ever victory at Paris Bercy, Credit Suisse caught up with a satisfied Roger Federer on November 15, 2011, in Zurich for an informal chat about his children, his foundation, the mystery of motivation, the Olympic Games in London and what life might bring after tennis.
Daniel Huber: Congratulations on your victory in Paris! Though you apparently managed to catch a cold from your children. Any improvement there?
Roger Federer: Yes. On Sunday and Monday I had a rather sore throat and congestion. But I'm OK now.
What do you take when you come down with something like that?
I only reach to the medicine cabinet in extreme situations. If things get really bad, I might take a flu remedy and occasionally something for the nose. But generally speaking, I'm extremely cautious about taking medication. You have to be so careful given the long list of banned substances.
But that doesn't leave you with much time to get completely fit for the ATP Finals in London.
That's true. Having played the final in France on Sunday, it was only yesterday and today that I've been able to relax a bit, and tomorrow I'm off to London, where I have a few more commercial commitments as well as training sessions. But actually I have no great concerns about not being fit in time for the tournament. Apart from anything else, my body is still benefiting from the six-week break I took before the tournament in Basel.
And the twins are now better, too?
They had rather bad ear infections and one of them even had to be prescribed antibiotics. But they've now bounced back.
Your family spends almost the whole year living out of a suitcase. Are you always prepared for these things and armed with the standard medications and household remedies?
Mirka is amazingly well-organized in that respect. We carry all the important meds from Switzerland around with us for the children, for ourselves and indeed the entire team.
You've booked into a Zurich hotel for three nights between the tournament in Paris and the one in London. But haven't you got your own apartment just a few kilometers away from here?
It's just not worth our while returning home for such a brief period. It's much more relaxing to be in a hotel with all the services they provide. We did the same last year and it was the right thing to do.
And for your home tournament in Basel, were you with your parents?
No, we were in a hotel there, too. Somehow it works better for me to be in a hotel during a tournament. When I stay at home, it feels a bit too much like I'm on vacation. And I lose that edge of positive tension. And then I start doing this and that – things that I wouldn't otherwise do. By contrast, it's much easier to focus on tennis when I'm in a hotel, and I play better. Even in Dubai I book into a hotel during the tournament, although it's virtually next door.
Is there anywhere that you can really call home? Where do you feel home truly lies?
For me, it's Basel, no question about that. After all, I speak "Baseldütsch," (the local Basel dialect) I was born there, and grew up there. I know my way around by heart – by bus, car, bike or on foot. I've also lived elsewhere in Switzerland and always felt very comfortable and at home there, too. But nothing could ever quite replace Basel.
And yet you spend almost more time in your second home in Dubai than you do in Switzerland
Dubai is ideal for me simply from a training perspective. It's pleasantly warm there throughout the winter. Admittedly, it's something of an artificial world and has the slight feel of a large holiday resort, but our life there is extremely simple and uncomplicated. It's also perfectly positioned geographically, being halfway to Asia and Australia. That makes it an ideal training base for me. You can't build up a training regime in December in Switzerland before going out to play in 40 degrees of heat in Australia in January. That just won't work.
But to return to the theme of being at home: Where do you keep personal stuff like photos, souvenirs and books?
They're all in Wollerau.
And how does that work for the children? What about their favorite toys?
It's true that moving constantly between different hotel rooms is not as easy when you have small children. So we do end up traveling around the world with a great deal of personal stuff. We like to create a bit of a feeling of home even when we're far away. Of course, we also have to be a bit more aware now – perhaps there's a nice vase that we need to watch out for, or something potentially dangerous sticking out that the girls could hurt themselves on. But that's just part of life. The first year was certainly very difficult. Now they're a little bigger, which makes things easier. We can increasingly do more things together, which is terrific fun. But basically we're already trying to spend a bit more time in Switzerland so that they can get a feel for the seasons. And of course, this is where a lot of our friends and relatives live, particularly the grandparents.
But the feeling of a typical Sunday afternoon with Mom and Dad must be something of an unknown to them.
It's pretty rare. Except when I'm knocked out of a tournament at a relatively early stage and am given a few free days. And then when I take a long break like I did this fall, I suddenly have a great deal of time for them. For sure, it's not as straightforward as it might be for fathers with a more steady job, but all in all I spend a great deal of time with them.
What will you do when the girls get to school age?
That's actually not something we have given serious thought to just yet. For some reason, I feel it might unsettle me unnecessarily right now. Because there are so many different options to con-sider. When we're on tour, we occasionally hand them over into playgroups so that they can have contact with other children. And of course they always have each other, which is very nice. But you're right, things like this will soon have to be addressed.
Children's education is also the theme at the heart of your foundation. And a lot has happened with that in the past year.
The Match for Africa last year was a really important milestone. Thanks to our sponsors – particularly Credit Suisse, Rolex, Lindt and National Suisse – and other benefactors, as well as the spectators in the arena and those watching at home, we managed to raise a huge amount of money for the foundation. That was unbelievable and I was obviously delighted and found it very touching. After the event, all of us at the foundation sat down to discuss how we would deploy these substantial funds and what new projects we could commit to. In addition, thanks to our long-term partnership with Credit Suisse, we were able to launch our largest project so far in Malawi. This will run for 10 years and benefit more than 50,000 children. That's a huge number in itself. But some of the revenue from the Match for Africa also went to the foundation assets with a view to guaranteeing the sustainability of various projects. Purely from a general point of view, the options open to the foundation are now much greater, which opens up completely new perspectives. And that's very exciting.
But won't the foundation then demand more of your time?
No, I wouldn't say that. The foundation has now evolved into a highly professional organization with Janine Händel as managing director. But I'm delighted to be able to acquire a great deal of knowledge in this area even during my active tennis career. And people grant me a lot of goodwill and respect for the work that I do.
From a strategic point of view, the foundation is now looking to focus even more strongly on Southern Africa in the future. How did that come about?
There are so many countries and regions around the world that could benefit from our support. But it's not possible to be actively involved everywhere. And by focusing on a particular region, we make many things easier – for our managing director, our benefactors, and not least for me, too. For example, we can visit several projects as part of the same field trip. There are also a number of cultural similarities throughout this region that help us to gain a better understanding.
In an international survey conducted by the renowned Reputation Institute, you were rated as the personality with the second-highest reputation – behind Nelson Mandela but ahead of the likes of the Dalai Lama and Bill Gates. Doesn't being such a role model bring its own burden?
To a certain extent yes, but I'm happy to be a role model for young people. Particularly if I can be of help to parents too. For example, if they can say: "That's the kind of thing Roger would (or wouldn't) do." And of course I couldn't resist a smile at finding myself so high up on a list of so many great personalities. Particularly as meeting some of these people would be a kind of dream come true for me. At the same time, it shows me that I have credibility, and that people are happy to listen to me and watch me play. Of course, that's something I experience out on the tennis court too.
Which was something we saw in the final in Paris too, where your opponent Tsonga had home advantage and was able to play in front of his own crowd. Even so, the spectators cheered you very warmly at the end.
But that affection springs from something mutual. I'm very fond of French crowds, who always give me very warm support at the French Open. Which is wonderful, because the French have enough good players of their own and don't need to take a foreigner to their hearts.
In his biography "Open," Andre Agassi describes how he felt a great hole open up after reaching the number one spot. He had finally reached his goal, and he felt the motivation draining away. Over the course of your career so far, you've already achieved more than anyone else. Where do you keep finding the motivation to stay right at the top over such a long period of time, while not allowing the flame to occasionally burn lower?
Every career has its downs as well as its ups, so motivation is a massive factor. How many times do you want to win Wimbledon, how many times Basel? But wanting to do something and being able to do it are two different things. What's more, reaching a final but not winning it is also not that easy. Then suddenly the whole thing feels like a lost week. Of course, in one sense it's been great. You've had a good tournament, amassed important ranking points, earned decent money and all the rest of it – but ultimately a defeat in the final is a bitter blow that you have to get over. No one remembers the loser. So you have to pick yourself up and motivate yourself all over again.
How did it feel when you took over the number one ranking in February 2004 after winning the Australian Open?
That really was a crossroads in my career. I had to ask myself the question: Am I satisfied with having won Wimbledon, the Tennis Masters Cup in Houston, the Australian Open and being the top-ranked player, or do I want more? There was no question in my mind that I wanted to achieve more. But equally, I couldn't start accepting every good offer that came my way. Money was always secondary for me. I wanted to make the most of my momentum and plan my career intelligently so that it wouldn't be derailed by unnecessary injuries. I have always set myself both short-term and long-term targets. And that's enabled the fire to keep burning. But of course you also need some good luck and the right environment, and I've been lucky enough to have all of that.
But let's talk specifics: What motivating goal did you set yourself when you took your six-week break following the US Open and the Davis Cup?
Well, first of all I focused on replenishing my energy level. I was very drained, and needed to let a few minor injuries heal, take myself away from the hustle and bustle of the circuit, spend time with my little ones and with my wife Mirka; basically just take everything more calmly and step back from being the focus of attention. So that was what mattered to start with. Later on, in a second phase, I got back my desire to become quicker and stronger, or at least to find my way back to my full potential. And by the end I even felt I was playing better than before the break, which gives you a great sense of reassurance that you've done the right thing.
The final against Tsonga in Paris was actually a much closer thing than what the result shows on paper. Tsonga's break point, for example, in which he missed the line by a hair's breadth, could have been a turning point in the match.
Indeed. Bad luck for him perhaps, and good luck for me. Had it crept in, we would probably have gone to a third set, and then who knows what might have happened? But at the top level of tennis, the line between victory and defeat can be an extremely fine one. There's a saying in English: "It's windy at the top." Momentum can change very quickly from one side to the other. Matches at this level are extremely tight, and the players have to push themselves to the limit. And part and parcel of that for me is the pressure you are exposed to from the public and the press – both before and after the game.
But of course you actually ended up winning that game.
Because at the decisive moment I was just a tiny bit more focused and 100 percent convinced of my ability to win. I was sure that I was doing the right thing. Ultimately, I also believe that with a great deal of hard work you can shift luck just that little bit in your favor.
Was the victory in Basel just as important for you?
It was simply a great feeling to finish a tournament as the winner once again. Ninety-nine percent of players get defeated, and only one player can be victorious. Tennis can be an enormously frustrating sport and can really play on your nerves. At the end of the day, nothing beats winning.
Didn't you also feel a certain sense of satisfaction? Because again you bounced back so strongly despite having been written off in many quarters.
Perhaps a little. But basically I'm much more relaxed about that kind of thing than I used to be. I've reached the point in my career where I can focus on what really matters: playing tennis, having fun on court, and enjoying being in Basel. Of course, it's nice to read complimentary reports about my performance rather than peevish remarks to the effect that I would do better to retire. But if I can still be up there in two or three years, then hopefully most people will see things rather differently and be pleased for me. That was also the case with Agassi, of course.
But tell us in all honesty: At your age, can you really set yourself the target of reaching the number one spot again?
I wouldn't perhaps articulate that goal formally as such, but the fire for this kind of achievement simply has to keep burning inside. Otherwise it's really tough. Rankings in tennis can change with remarkable speed. You can amass a large number of points in a very short space of time, only to lose them all again just as quickly the following year. The fact that I was able to hold on to the number one spot for so long between 2004 and 2008 was a remarkable thing in itself. But if I succeed again in playing at the top of my game for a prolonged period, anything is possible.
One of the things that fascinates me about major tennis tournaments is the extreme loneliness of the players on the court, surrounded by thousands of spectators. Indeed, you're not even allowed to talk to anyone for the entire match. How do you deal with that?
It's a very special thing. There's no helmet in which we can hide away. We're exposed for all to see, wholly reliant on ourselves. At the same time, even the smallest emotion or expression is mercilessly captured by TV cameras in close-up. You're aware of that, of course. So when you go out on court it's like going into a kind of virtual world – but one that is at the same time also very real, as you get to do exactly what you do best. And then you get to experience the applause of the public – or the lack of it – very directly.
Do you ever seek eye contact with those close to you?
Occasionally, particularly in Basel. But rarely with someone from my team. I wouldn't like to be too heavily dependent on my team members for support. Ultimately, I need to be able to perform on court without them. Of course, it's important to feel that they support me and analyze my game, but at the same time I think everyone should have enough self-confidence to be able to walk through the fire without any help at key moments.
Let's now look ahead to London 2012. This Olympic tournament seems to be particularly important to you.
Yes and no. I can't prepare specially for this tournament, because my schedule is already laid out beforehand. First the tournament in Halle, then Wimbledon, and then the Olympics three weeks later back in Wimbledon. So there's even a little bit of time off in between. But that preparation format is actually ideal, and luckily it doesn't involve a great deal of travel. Normally I would be in top shape after that, injury aside. If I were to get injured, say, before the French Open, that would be disastrous. I would suddenly miss out on three big highlights. So I need to be extremely focused on things next year and to do everything the right way. But everyone else is in the same situation. So my fourth Olympics are the most straightforward from the preparation side, but at the same time the most special.
Because it's at Wimbledon, which occupies such a special place in tennis. But I've always found the Olympic Games a very special experience. At my first games in Sydney I met Mirka, and also came fourth, which no one expected. And then I had the honor of leading out the Swiss team in Athens and in Beijing, where I also won gold in the doubles.
Is there a chance that you might team up with Martina Hingis at the Olympics for the mixed doubles?
I haven't spoken to her personally about it, and will have to give it some serious thought in the near future. For her it would certainly be a bigger effort than for me, because it would mean a brief return to competitive tennis. And whether she still wants that at the age of 31, I don't know. But if it doesn't come about, neither of us would see it as a disaster.
You're now 30 years old yourself. It's quite clear that you still enjoy tennis and compete at the very highest level, but surely you are gradually starting to reflect on what life will bring after tennis?
Well, I naturally view life through slightly different eyes than I did five years ago, when tennis took up 100 percent of my daily routine. Certainly, I'm thinking more about life after tennis now. But a number of fascinating challenges are already starting to emerge – not least work with my foundation and my sponsorship partners.