Federer's South America Diary: An Exotic Twelve Days
Marco Falbo, Journalist
Temperatures above 35°C, a police escort with flashing lights and sirens, and matches with legendary tennis players in their 70s: Roger Federer's pre-Christmas trip to São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Colombia brought a multitude of new impressions and unforgettable encounters – with fans, media and business representatives, sports figures, and the wild and lush nature of South America.
Tuesday, December 4: Finally in Brazil
After a 15-hour Emirates flight from Dubai, Roger Federer arrives at São Paulo's Guarulhos Airport at 7:30 p.m., accompanied by physical therapist Stéphane Vivier. "My heart was racing. I had no idea what to expect as I walked into the arrival hall," he says later. A large group of fans is already waiting, greeting him with shouts of "Roger, Roger!" A helicopter takes him into São Paulo, a city of 20 million. The Renaissance is the official tournament hotel, but Federer, along with Vivier, his manager Tony Godsick, and his father Robbie, is staying at the Tivoli Mofarrej in the city's garden district, a hotel that boasts South America's largest presidential suite.
Wednesday, December 5: A Busy Schedule
Federer trains at the 55-year-old Ginásio do Ibirapuera, which seats 10,000. He meets with organizers, sponsors, journalists, and fans, and plays tennis with underprivileged children. After the official Gillette Federer Tour gala evening, there is still time for a late-night dinner with fellow tennis players.
Thursday, December 6: Flashbulbs, Followed by Struggles with the Heat
Pandemonium at the press conference on the 20th floor of the Cidade Jardim Corporate Center: Twenty camera teams are waiting – including one all the way from Chile – and nearly all of the 168 seats are taken. Organizer Luis Felipe Tavares calls this the "greatest tennis event in Brazil's history." When Federer walks up to the podium at 12:34 p.m., an hour later than scheduled, he is greeted with thunderous applause. "The time has finally come," he says, admitting that he is excited. He's the star of the event, outshining even Maria Sharapova. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga joins him in a shaving competition.
In the afternoon Federer visits the Mercadão, the city's famous market, where he samples some of the exotic local fruit for the first time and enjoys a traditional mortadella sandwich. At 9:40 p.m. he walks into the sold-out and overheated Ibirapuera Stadium to a torrent of flashbulbs and the roar of the crowd. His first professional appearance in South America, however, ends in a loss to Tomaz Bellucci, Brazil's best player: 5-7, 6-3, 4-6. Federer is feeling the time difference and the heat; he changes his shirt three times. Exhausted, he falls into bed at 2:30 a.m.
Friday, December 7: Football with Kids from the Favelas and Tennis with Legendary Players
After a few hours of sleep, he visits a favela, one of Brazil's shanty towns, where he watches disadvantaged children play football and attempts a penalty kick. In the afternoon he plays tennis with Brazil's greatest tennis legends: Gustavo Kuerten and Maria Ester Bueno. The 73-year-old Bueno, a 19-time Grand Slam winner, has been so excited about this event that she had all of her rackets restrung. Next is a visit to the Philanthropic Forum at the headquarters of Credit Suisse Hedging-Griffo. In the evening, Federer honors Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Scharapowa at "his" exhibition tournament; after all, he is the tournament host.
Saturday, December 8: An Unforgettable Day with Pelé
A day to remember begins with a casual match against Serena Williams at the MASP, the city's modern art museum. A highlight is Federer's visit to the home of 72-year-old football legend Pelé. The two sports icons exchange autographed shirts. "It's a dream come true to meet him in his home country," says Federer, who is surprised by how much former sports minister Pelé knows about tennis. In the evening he beats Tsonga 7-6, 6-3 in his second match, in what turns out to be the most spectacular match of the tour. "This was one of the most unbelievable days of my life," he says long after midnight, as hundreds of fans are still waiting for him outside of the stadium.
Sunday, December 9: After Five Days, a Chance to Sleep In
Finally Federer can sleep in; the first item on his agenda, an interview, is not until noon. Some 100 fans are waiting outside of his hotel as he heads to the stadium. His third match, against Tommy Haas, begins at 6:00 p.m., and fun is had by all. Federer, who wins 6-4, 6-4, exchanges his tennis jersey for the uniform of Brazil's national football team, the Seleção Brasileira, and demonstrates that he also has some talent when it comes to footwork and larger balls. "It was a special night and a fabulous atmosphere, and I'm sad to be leaving Brazil," he says.
Monday, December 10: Incredible Nature
Federer's father, Robbie, had suggested making a detour on the way to Buenos Aires to visit the famous waterfalls on the Iguaçu River, which proves to be an excellent idea. The natural features where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay intersect leave an impression on Federer that will last a lifetime. He views the massive waterfalls first from a helicopter, then from a speedboat; luckily the water level is perfect for a trip under the falls and through the canyon. Federer is thrilled: "It doesn't get any better than this. Anyone who visits South America absolutely has to come here."
Tuesday, December 11: VIP Escort – with Flashing Lights and Sirens through Buenos Aires
He meets the Argentine media for the first time at a major press conference, held with Juan Martin Del Potro, Argentina's top tennis player. "I've wanted to come to this country for a long time," Federer says. Rather than taking a helicopter, as in São Paulo, he is driven through the Argentine capital in a limousine escorted by motorcycle police, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Everywhere he goes, the traffic yields to his motorcade. Here, too, the fans find him irresistible.
Wednesday, December 12: Federer Meets Kirchner
Accompanied by his father, manager, and physical therapist, Federer is received by the Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, at the presidential residence. They both have an enjoyable conversation, and Federer presents a signed tennis racket to the president. At an open-air stadium built especially for this event, located in the Buenos Aires suburb of Tigre, the first exhibition match in Argentina begins an hour late. An incident required a section of the stands to be evacuated, but the 20,000 spectators take it in stride. And they are thrilled with the match, which Del Potro wins 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Thursday, December 13: Football, Tennis, and Football Tennis
At the Bombonera (candy box) stadium, the home of Boca Juniors, Federer plays football tennis, or "futnet," with Juan Martin Del Potro and football legends Gabriel Batistuta and Esteban Cambiasso. The game is played on a court with a net in the middle, and its rules are similar to those of tennis. Federer defeats Del Potro 6-4, 7-6 in the evening's exhibition tennis match, which features a series of spectacular rallies.
Friday, December 14: In Colombia for the First Time
The six-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Bogotá is about to take off. Federer poses for a photo with the sunset in the background and uploads it to Facebook before leaving for his first press conference in Colombia. Here, too, the fans and the media can't wait to see him.
Saturday, December 15: A Sombrero on the Tennis Court
In Bogotá, too, he meets a prominent football player, Colombian goalkeeper Farid Mondragon, and they exchange jerseys. In the sixth and final exhibition match of the tour, Federer scores his fourth win, a 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 victory against Tsonga in front of 13,000 fans. Afterwards he poses on the court with a traditional sombrero before leaving for the airport. His private plane takes off for Zurich at midnight. Federer will arrive just in time for the live broadcast of the Credit Suisse Sports Awards, where he is named Swiss Athlete of the Year for the fifth time.