Federer takes on role as backroom power broker
Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY
- Roger Federer goes for his seventh ATP World Tour Finals title this week
- Off the court, Federer has been a leader on the players council
- Federer has worked hard to get players a larger piece of revenue from majors
7:59PM EST November 4. 2012 - LONDON -- In a career spanning three decades, Roger Federer has assumed an increasing number of roles -- husband, father, company spokesman, and of course, to many, greatest player of all time.
His latest is among the most unexpected, especially for a man raised in a country known for its benign neutrality: backroom power broker.
But after leading the ATP Tour Player Council as president the last three years, Federer has become a savvy student of the laws of political governance.
"It's been a great life-school," said the tri-lingual Swiss star Sunday as he prepared to defend his season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title. "Can you say that?"
Federer's main job remains winning tennis matches. On Tuesday, the 17-time Grand Slam champ from Switzerland opens his round-robin campaign in the elite eight-player field against Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.
With a record six year-end titles, Federer will be seeking to extend that record and add luster to an already sparkling season that included six titles, including a record-tying seventh Wimbledon; a return and healthy stay at No. 1; and an Olympic silver medal.
"It's been very solid," Federer said.
But perhaps not as enduring as his off-court endeavors.
Much of Federer's behind-the-scenes work this year has focused on persuading the four majors to share a larger piece of the revenue pie with players. He has also lobbied that a larger percentage of prize money go to earlier rounds to rectify a growing income distribution gap.
That work has increasingly fallen on his shoulders, as both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, once Player Council members, left their leadership positions.
Take his pre-tournament schedule last month at the Masters event in Shanghai.
Under added security because of death threats, Federer arrived on a Friday and discussed strategy with ATP player and board representatives till about 1 a.m. He practiced the next morning, spent about 7 hours in meetings with various representatives of the Grand Slams and still attended the player party Saturday night.
On Sunday evening, he hosted three hours of meetings in his hotel room with the Player Council, ATP executive staff, and U.S. Open executives -- all before he struck a match ball.
"Roger has so many demands on his schedule and the fact that he is investing so much time into the player council and these negotiations shows his character and how much he cares for the future of the sport," doubles specialist and council member Eric Butorac of the USA wrote in a recent email. "I believe it is very unprecedented to have a top player so involved."
It's not just Federer's time than matters. It's his clout.
"I think having someone like him on the council can be a big benefit, especially if you're going into important meetings with the Grand Slams," No. 3 Andy Murray said Saturday.
Reserved by nature, Federer has come a long way in understanding the needs and concerns of everyone from players ranked well outside the top 50 to doubles specialists.
"Managing and supporting all the players has been very challenging and very interesting," said Federer, who sat down with USA TODAY Sports on Sunday.
Federer did not slip into the role of leader without some angst.
As a young man, Federer says he shirked responsibility -- or in his words, "I used to run away from taking decisions."
"I never saw tennis this way -- doing that many different things," he said. "I thought it was a little bit of press, practicing and playing matches. That's it. Maybe I was a bit naďve."
But he says he's learned to handle the stress level of various constituents needing immediate answers because he wants to leave the game in a better place when he's gone.
"Today I actually enjoy doing it," he said. "I have some power and some leadership I guess. I like using that for the best for everyone involved."
It is, like his precise shotmaking and fluid movements, a delicate balancing act. Demands can stretch on and on. The mind can become weary. Focus can waver.
"I have to be careful I don't do too much because I am there to play well,"
he said. "I don't want to be exhausted once I get to the match court. I don't want to be tired at the end of the third set mentally because I've just done too much. It's always a bit of a balance, but with experience I think I've gotten the hang of it."
Federer has been called out by his peers, including his arch-rival Rafael Nadal, for perhaps hewing too closely to his cautious Swiss roots and not pushing hard enough for change.
But Federer was not shy in pointing out that in his extended absence due to knee problems, 26-year-old Nadal has been largely MIA from the players' push for a larger share of revenues from the majors.
"Players do look up to Rafa, so it would be nice to see him maybe a bit more engaged," Federer said.
Despite threats of a boycott and other hard-line tactics -- for tennis -- Federer and his fellow players and ATP executives have shepherded successes.
The French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open each contributed a larger percentage of prize money to earlier rounds this season.
The Australian Open will do the same in January, and in a pre-emptive strike already announced the biggest year-over-year prize money increase in its history.
More important, Federer said, is the "productive" dialogue taking place.
"I'm happy that we've gotten to the table with the Slams and been able to explain our case," he said.
At 31, Federer is brushing up against the usual threshold when age undermines skill, which means every minute and every decision he makes counts.
In that regard, time management might just be the Swiss' biggest asset. He seems to have found a formula that works.
Federer has never retired in a professional match and is four appearances short of tying Wayne Ferreira's mark of 56 consecutive Grand Slams played -- an astounding statistic considering how deep he routinely goes.
In a packed season that included the London Games, Federer has had to be extra cautious, which is why he withdrew from the indoor Paris Masters last week with a niggling leg injury.
"You can always play one more match, but I have to look at the big picture," he said.
Not known to chase numbers, Federer confessed that he had tweaked his schedule to play the Shanghai Masters and keep his No. 1 ranking alive a few more weeks, whereas in other times he might have taken a rest after a long summer.
That allowed him to become the first player to hold the top spot for more than 300 weeks and move well past Sampras' 286 weeks at No. 1 -- a record he had trailed by just one week.
"It would have been great to take a rest, but the 300 and Shanghai was that important to me," he said.
After 302 nonconsecutive weeks in that position, Federer will fall to No. 2 Monday behind Djokovic, who will finish the year No. 1 regardless of the results in London.
"The goal was to get back to No. 1, not finish the year end No. 1," Federer said. That's exactly how it all happened. I'm happy that I achieved my goals. It was an exciting season with many, many highlights. Again, I learned a lot. I'm busy. I have a lot on my plate."
Still, with four different majors winners in 2012 for the first time in nine years, a victory here by Federer, Australian Open titlist Djokovic or U.S. Open champ Murray could earn unofficial bragging rights for the mythical player-of–the-year honors.
"I really do believe the No. 1 is the guy ranked No. 1 at the end of the year," he said of Australian Open champion Djokovic. "I think that shouldn't be taken away from him."
Paul Annacone knows better than most that leadership and excellence, especially in individual sports, rarely go hand in hand.
"I think Roger has taken pride in being involved," says Annacone,
who coached Sampras for much of his career. "Pete was someone who wanted less distraction and more simple. While there are conflicts involved and issues to deal with he's enjoying his role in working with other players to do the right thing. Thankfully he wants to leave the game better than when he got there."
It doesn't always sit perfectly with Annacone, but he can't begrudge Federer's efforts.
"For me sometimes as a coach it's tricky because I want to make sure his mind is clear too and just play his tennis," he said.