Interview with Roger Federer: Mental Strength
Daniel Huber, Head Publications
In an exclusive interview, Roger Federer describes his mental preparation for those crucial points on the tennis court and how he went through a difficult period in 2008 when he was only ranked number 2 in the world.
In February 2010, Credit Suisse was given the opportunity to accompany Roger Federer on a visit to a school project in Ethiopia that was supported by his foundation. The following interview took place on the following day in the lobby of the high-rise apartment building in Dubai Marina, where Roger, as he introduced himself the day before, has a second home. As the interview lasted around one-and-a-half hours, we have divided it into three sections.
Daniel Huber: I somehow imagined that you would have a villa on one of the elevated palm islands here in Dubai, like Michael Schumacher.
Roger Federer: In terms of maintenance, apartments are much more practical, especially when, like us, you're hardly ever home. We live in an apartment in Switzerland too.
So where do you go to train in the middle of all these high-rises?
Just around the corner in a hotel with a tennis court and fitness center. The training conditions there are ideal.
How freely can you move around here in Dubai?
We actually lead quite a normal life here, going for walks on the beach, shopping in the malls and eating out in the restaurants. Sure people recognize us and every now and then someone will ask for an autograph. But I can still pretty much do everything I want to.
After hundreds of interviews, is there one question that you would prefer not to hear again and certainly never want to answer?
Not really. I am still quite well motivated when it comes to interviews and I am always happy to meet new interviewers.
With around ten hours of tennis lessons under my belt, I never got beyond beginner level. But one thing I do know is that I probably wouldn't be able to return a single one of your shots.
Tennis is a difficult sport, and coordination is particularly challenging. In any case, it is not the kind of sport where you would be able to play a little after taking a two-day course. It would take much more than that. The later you start, the lower the level you will be able to reach.
So when is the ideal time to start learning to play tennis?
At the age of ten at the latest; earlier would be better. At that age, learning the basic coordination skills and how to move with the ball is still very easy.
I know a publican in St. Gallen who was considered a major tennis talent in his younger years and actually has a positive record against you. Apparently, when he was 18 years old he beat a 14-year-old Roger Federer. At what age did you run out of opponents in Switzerland?
I suppose I made my greatest progress, both physically and technically, between the ages of 14 and 16 when I went to the Swiss National Tennis Center in Ecublens. At 16 I was already in the Swiss top 10 and at that time there were few who could beat me. In that respect, 14 was still a good age for people to beat me as a relatively unknown player.
Yet nobody in Switzerland was beating Martina Hingis by the time she was 14.
No, definitely not, but then girls physically mature earlier than boys. My serve didn't become sufficiently powerful until I was 15 or 16.
Where do you get the mental strength to win those all-important points in the decisive moments of a tennis match?
You just have to keep things as simple as possible in your head. You say to yourself, I'm going to give 100 percent for every point, and just try to play well at that moment. At very important times, you then try to consciously use your strengths to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent. Of course, this isn't always that easy to do in practice, especially as your opponent is trying to do the same, but you have to have a clear goal for yourself in your mind's eye and make every effort not to let your opponent control your play. Of course, in tennis you constantly have to adapt your game. At the end of the day, it is a reaction sport. There is only one shot that you have complete control over, and that is the serve. All other shots require you to react, but there should ideally be a plan behind the reaction.
Aside from the speed aspect, on a mental level, tennis seems to have a lot in common with chess. But in chess, the player plans a number of moves in advance. How does this work in tennis?
In tennis, you can plan perhaps one-and-a-half shots in advance. I serve the ball to a particular point, a point where I know the ball will generally be returned in a particular way, and then I have a number of options. If you plan too far in advance, you inevitably start to get surprised, and that's a bad thing.
How closely do you observe your opponent on the court during the match?
Hardly at all. Now and then people say to me after a game: Did you see what the other guy did? I'm not aware of that sort of thing at all. I immediately turn away after each point. I'm just not interested in what my opponent is doing or how he might be feeling. I prefer to concentrate on myself. Of course, if I see that my opponent is injured during a match, I'll check it out once or twice. But something like that shouldn't change your game, because if it then turns out to be nothing at all, you will be surprised again.
What if the opponent shows signs of weakness? Do you specifically exploit that?
What about the gentlemen's agreement that in tennis you never serve straight at the other player?
I used to do that quite often. I was practically forced to because the player was often very close to the net. I had virtually no other choice then and the gentlemen's agreement gets forgotten. Of course, I would never smash the ball at someone standing two meters in front of me, but serving at the body is a common practice. You're not going to hit the opponent at those distances.
In his book "Winning Ugly," former tennis pro and coach Brad Gilbert describes what is essentially psychological warfare on the tennis court. Is that the way you see it too?
I always have to smile to myself a little when I see what people read into some of the things I've said. For example, in an interview after my win in Australia, John McEnroe said that I had used all my experience of psychological warfare by stating before the final that Murray was under a lot more pressure than me because I had already won everything. I then apparently also exploited Murray's injured foot to the maximum. Of course, that's absolute nonsense, especially as the supposed foot injury turned out to be no problem at all. I don't see that sort of thing as psychological warfare, I just say what I think. The fact that Murray, with no Grand Slam wins, would need the win in a final more than me and therefore be under more pressure is just the way it is.
So there aren't any little comments in passing during a match either?
Before my time, there apparently were occasional comments along the lines of "Ah, are you getting nervous now?" and such things. But in the over 800 matches I've played in my career, it's never happened to me once. Sure you get the odd little gesture: for example, when I lose a point and my opponent celebrates ostentatiously in order to provoke me or varies the intensity of play by taking more time with his service. Or an opponent might gripe all the time or give me a look of disbelief when I win a point, as if to say "You're so lucky." But that's just part of the game. What's more, given the comprehensive camera coverage on the big courts these days, any less-than-civilized comments or other antics just wouldn't be possible any more.
In terms of your mental state, is it an advantage or a disadvantage to come out onto the court as the number 1?
I've always said that I play better tennis as the number 1 than I did before. I like being in the lead and having the situation under control. I also like the expectation that I'm the one who should win. I found it more difficult becoming world number 1 than I do defending my position now. Somewhere along the line, you reach the point where you have to beat the number 4, and then numbers 3, 2, and ultimately the number 1 – and you have to do it more than once. Then you still have to win the next tournament too. That was hugely stressful. As number 1, things are much more settled. I know that when I play well I can beat anyone.
You could in fact go much easier on yourself by saying: A place in the top 10 is already much more than most will ever achieve.
My career has actually followed quite a traditional path. The first major step was going pro and then successfully holding my own there. Then I played my first match on a center court. Then came the top 100, top 50, top 10 and top 5. But it's when you make it into the top 10 for the first time that you suddenly realize: I now have a real chance of making number 1. From now on, you are a seeded player, only playing in major tournaments.
It's almost as if losing the number 1 spot and then getting it back has made you even stronger than you were before.
That period definitely had its benefits. Ultimately it's clear that, after seven years of dominance, you're also going to have to lose once in a while. After all, I didn't win every tournament before becoming number 1 either. Also, constant development has always been important to me – no matter how well or badly things might be going. I'm always on the lookout for new ways to progress and to bring variety and excitement to my life. For example, I tried out Dubai once as a training location, and suddenly I had this new base here. Besides, even 2008, when things weren't going as well and I went back to being only number 2 in the world, wasn't such a bad season at all. I reached the semi-finals – at least – in all the major tournaments. My problem was that I couldn't beat the top 5 players as easily as I had before. Although I could still do it now and again, I just wasn't able to dominate them in the same way I had in the past. However, I always felt that there were good reasons why I wasn't completely at my best during that time. On the one hand, I was suffering from mononucleosis, and on the other I had back problems, both of which interfered with my training regime. In hindsight, it might have been better to play fewer tournaments. But I would probably do it the same way again if I had my time over.
At that time, many sports reporters had already written you off. How closely do you follow media reports and commentary about yourself?
I hear the odd thing now and then of course, but for me, the press conferences were a bigger problem. The journalists were constantly asking me: What's wrong with you? Wouldn't you be better off with a new coach? What's wrong with your forehand? Having to respond to all these negative questions the whole time did affect me a little, and perhaps also generated a certain amount of self-doubt in myself. Then again, it is a bit weird to have to constantly explain yourself when you're ranked number 2 in the world.
How much of a threat does the risk of illness or injury pose?
The risk of injury is actually not that high in our sport, certainly not as high as for a skier, for example. Our problem is wear and tear. That is why it is so important for us to detect the first signs of a problem at an early stage and respond appropriately. That said, I play in pain 80 percent of the time. Something always hurts, but these pains often disappear again during the warm-up or can be massaged away by the physiotherapist. It is hugely important to know your body well and have a reliable early warning system. That's why the breaks in between tournaments are so important to me – not just physically but also mentally. The pressure of a tournament is as great off the court as it is on it. Everyone wants a piece of you: the fans, the sponsors, the journalists, and you are always under the microscope. Breaks like these are therefore hugely important to me. Then the desire to talk to people, give interviews and the like comes back too.