Federer on Tennis and Everything Else
By Tom Perrotta
Roger Federer, the worldís No. 1 tennis player, spoke with The Wall Street Journal on Saturday before the start of the U.S. Open.
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 doesnít 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. Itís 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, ĎI hate this sport, I cannot play.í 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, couldnít stand some matches: ĎOh my god, look at this guy, he only rolls the ball into play, or he only goes for broke, I canít stand this, today Iím not in the mood.í So I think I went through all of that so much early on. That I think this is why Iím 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 ó fine. But having to deal with all of it and actually crumbling under the pressure was good for me. Thatís why Iím so impressed by the Novaks and the Murrays and the Nadals. I donít really remember any long letdowns. Maybe they had them when they were younger ó I donít remember them that much ó 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, itís always going to be center court, itís always going to be 50,000 people and youíre always going to win.
So you expected things to come easilyÖ
And they donít at all. Thereís a lot of hard work behind that.
Youíve 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, ĎDo you have to win the U.S. Open to put the Olympic disappointment behind you?í I was like, ĎAre you for real?í The Olympic disappointment? Iím so happy I got the medal. I genuinely believe it was the best result I could have done, Murray was better than me, thatís it, boom, I go on vacation, take a few days off, pack for another few months on tour and itís behind me. And I look back with incredible pride having gotten the medal for Switzerland and an amazing summer.
Letís not kid ourselves: Iím doing just fine. Iím doing great right now. Letís not go into the whole negative part. Iím a very positive thinker, and I think that is what helps me the most in those difficult moments.
Is that something youíve had to learn to do, or have you always been that way?
I think it comes naturally, but itís important also to be realistic at times ó not just say everything is great. Not everything is great always, Iím aware of that. And thatís why I have to question myself at the best of times. I question myself when things are not going so great. I question myself: ĎHow could we do better planning, practice, vacationing, organization? What can be improved?í Without being nuts about it, but thereís 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 itís a gift, just how you are, graceful and all. How much is that and how much is hard work?
Thatís 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 careerís going to end up then. I think you need a little bit of luck when youíre 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 donít have that happening to them.
And then itís about dealing with how much energy do you have, how do you practice, who do you surround yourself with ó 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-donít-know-where to play, which you shouldnít be doing. Iíve never had a problem saying no. Iíve left so much stuff on the table, itís mind boggling. But I just said, ĎI am looking at the long term.í If you look at the short term, you will make mistakes. I said, ĎI have to have short-term goals, but Iím looking at the long-term plan, and that has served me really well over the years.í
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 ó 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 donít feel well, you think youíve done something awfully wrong, but itís normal for kids to get sick. But we blame it maybe on other things: ĎHow could that happen? We tried everything to not make it happen.í But itís just normal, and of course you panic, of course you try to manage it.
Of course itís 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 Iím still playing great. Iím playing much better than I thought I would ó other guys are in their prime right now, and Iím world No. 1, so I guess I did some things right.
Now here I am. I have two wonderful kids, an incredible wife and itís just great. I feel very fortunate that Iím going through this part of my life now, that I can enjoy it so much more. Itís 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 couldnít believe it that it was twins. I guess it was a shock, but it was a positive one. I was like, ĎWow, I donít know much about twins, honestly,í so youíre like, what does that mean? How are they going to be? And now I see how they play together, itís just the best. So now weíll 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 itís 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 thatíd be great. Itís a great lifestyle ó a good learning process.
How much does Mirka sacrifice to make all this happen?
Itís all me for her. I admire her every day that she is willing to do this. I tell her, ĎI 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.í But she says, ĎLook, Iím not happy when youíre not around.í And thatís as good as it gets for me, and Iím obviously also not the same person when she and the kids are not around. So we try to manage it. Itís 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 thatís the case. And of course that we have the means to make it work with the girls, so Iím happy and feel fortunate.
What goals are left for you?
In tennis thereís many things you want to do again and achieve, and play for as long as you can. Maybe do something youíve never done before. I donít know what that could be right now, but maybe thereís things like that.
And then as excited as I am about whatís to come in the next five years, say, of tennis, Iím just as excited about whatís to come afterward. I think the mix is really a good one for me right now. Iím not worried to stop, but I donít want to stop. I really want to push forward and play more, keep on playing, not play more than the 21 tournaments that Iím already doing, just maintaining it and enjoying it, doing the utmost I can. Itís a really good time in my life right now.
And it feels like also the media room has calmed down a little bit where itís not like, ĎWhen are you going to leave? Youíve achieved everything, get out,í 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 youíre done, youíre done.
I think itís nice that we have a senior tour in place, not that I want to play that, but I think itís 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 ó thatís nice.
But Iíve always been interested in some sort of a business. I signed many long-term deals as well with my great partners I have, so thatís going to continue. Iíll 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 itís nice also to settle a little bit eventually. So Iím 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, youíre going to have your ups and downs, like I explained. Learn from those. Number three, love what youíre doing, feel fortunate that you actually do have the opportunity to do what youíre doing, because many other players, people, kids would like to be in your situation. Donít forget how fortunate you really are. And then just really enjoy, go out there and have fun. Have a blast.