Exclusive: Roger Federer: my tears of delight at joining legends
Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent
From The Times (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/spo...cle6069789.ece
June 20, 2009
When the morning skies grow red
And o’er us their radiance shed,
Thou, O Lord, appearest in their light.
When the Alps glow bright with splendour,
Pray to God, to Him surrender,
For you feel and understand,
That He dwelleth in this land.
To the Swiss, Roger Federer is a living god. The evocative music and lyrics of his country’s national anthem — the Swiss Psalm — rang around Federer’s head when, only 13 days ago, he stood on a podium in Paris, a single tear running down each cheek, at one moment alone in his own world and yet knowing that he was in the whole world’s embrace.
That sense of abiding warmth has not left him in the intervening days, even when he has been alone at home with his thoughts, family and friends for occasional succour before he prepared to set out again, the conquest not nearly done, another Alp to scale, eager for the next challenge at the place where this sport — his sport — takes on an entirely new definition.
But, for a few moments, though the setting is a glorious afternoon at the All England Club, Federer’s mind instinctively goes back to Roland Garros and the presentation ceremony for his fourteenth grand-slam singles title, equalling Pete Sampras’s record, which many believed would stand for all time, until this phenomenal man from Basle came along. “It is the heaviest trophy,” he says. “And a few times during the tournament I had been thinking, ‘I wonder how it will feel.’ It’s quite a thought because you don’t want to get carried away, but you want to start dreaming a bit because dreaming, well, it’s inspirational. It can help by getting even more from you than you think it is possible to give.
“There were three defining moments that day. The first was when I walked out, the second when I started the third set [against Robin Soderling], having won the first two, and then when I collected the balls to serve for the match. I was thinking, ‘What an unbelievable feeling it would be to win this tournament.’ I was so close. I hoped I wasn’t going to mess it up.
“The elation was amazing. Then I walked up to the podium and Andre [Agassi] was standing there smiling, the last man to win all four [grand-slam tournaments]. That was a very strong moment for me. Then I was lifting the cup, letting it all out, I was the happiest person in the world, I was totally free, happy and proud all at the same time and I was sharing it with all the people in the stadium because they were so happy for me as well.”
Then the Swiss Psalm began. Federer looked down, into the base of the cup, he tried to look up but the resonance of the music made him look down again. One tear slid down each of his cheeks. I told him that I get choked up at anthems. “It’s hard, isn’t it?” he says. “I love music in general, but I especially like the classics, opera and musicals.
“Actually I like lots of different stuff when the mood takes me. But the anthem, few tennis players ever get to hear theirs. They play them in Monte Carlo and in Paris and, of course, in the Davis Cup before the Saturday doubles and at the Olympics.
“When Stan [Stanislas Wawrinka] and I won the gold medal in doubles for Switzerland in Beijing, it was played. But we aren’t footballers who hear it perhaps 50 times a year. For us it has a very special meaning.
“You know when you hear it that a great thing is either about to happen or has just happened. It was very emotional sharing it not only with the Swiss people, but so many around the world who knew how much winning this tournament meant to me.”
There was a seminal moment at the All England Club this week when Federer walked down the hill from the Aorangi Park practice courts as if there was a foot of air between his feet and the pavement. Going in the opposite direction, uphill, eyes firmly set, jaw jutting and feet killing him was Rafael Nadal. Three weeks ago, the conjecture was whether Nadal could complete the first calendar grand slam in 40 years; the next thing you knew, he had become a physical wreck and people were beginning to debate Federer’s prospects of collecting 20 grand-slam titles before he turns 30.
“This is a quick-living sport,” Federer said. “We went into Paris with Rafa as the overwhelming favourite; nobody could beat him, he was No 1 in the world, possibly for life and the next thing, he doesn’t defend Paris and he cannot defend Wimbledon, the No 1 ranking is in the air. It’s funny how it can change.” Though with Nadal’s melancholy withdrawal last night, amusement was in short supply.
We had talked at the club at the same stage last year, when Federer arrived at Wimbledon bruised from the French Open final, when he won only four games against Nadal and was out of France before you could say NetJets (the firm from whom he hires his private planes). He still wonders why there was “such a big fuss” over that defeat.
“It made no difference to me whether it was in five sets or three, but I arrived here and everyone was saying, ‘Oh my God, you got crushed, are you ever going to recover?’ ” he says. “They seemed to think it was the end for me and I was thinking, ‘What?’ But OK, it doesn’t matter now, that was fine.”
Federer is sitting in a wicker chair on the players’ balcony in grey trousers and a white T-shirt with RF emblazoned on the front in light purple lettering. “I guess that after the win in Paris this time I was able to be normal for a while, sitting at home with Mirka [his wife of two months, who is pregnant with their first child, due very soon],” he says. “I’m not able to do normal very often. Now I am back here. It’s not showing off in any way, but it’s nice to be back at Wimbledon and you meet up with so many people telling you how happy they are for you, how much they were cheering for you.
“It has been an incredible time. Now I can meet up with the players again and find out how it was for them and how it is for me. It was so good because before Madrid [last month] I hadn’t won a tournament for a long time [since the previous October] and it is nice to be back in this routine.
“It’s extraordinary for me because you figure everybody would like someone else to win, but maybe it’s the way I react to winning, the way I am respectful to the others and how fair I am because the players have voted for me five times to win the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award. What I can say is, ‘Thank you very much, thank you for being happy for me.’ It does you good as a player to hear that once in a while.”
That is 59 once-in-a-whiles for Federer, 27. Each one has its magic, but the grand-slam tournaments, the barometers by which greatness is judged, are his raison d’être. Since the 2004 French Open, when he lost in the third round to Gustavo Kuerten, of Brazil, he has reached the semi-finals of 20 grand-slam events in succession. He has won four of the past six Masters Cups and has lost once in six years at Wimbledon.
He was supposed to arrive at SW19 as a basket case, unable to contend any more. The images the naysayers worshipped were of a weeping Federer in Australia in February after his five-set defeat by Nadal in the final, the racket-splintering Federer in Miami, Florida. Here was a man in meltdown.
“When I started out on my career, I had wanted to be a good role model,” he says. “But I didn’t want it to be forced. I couldn’t fake my way through ten or 15 years. My parents had always taught me, ‘Don’t throw your racket, don’t swear on the court, don’t scream, enjoy the game, play it fair, but tough.’ I said, ‘OK, right, let’s see how it goes.’ It took me many years, but I got it going.
“I received so many compliments on how I played and behaved and it gave me a good feeling because I knew how I was on the court, how I needed to be to be a success and also to be respected in the locker room. I was walking a tightrope for many years, because people who saw me winning thought I was the best in the world and when I was losing, they said I wasn’t trying, which was a big problem.
“Then it got to a stage when I was pretending I was fighting but I wasn’t really fighting, so I was pretending even harder, showing more so people wouldn’t write bad things about me. It was not a fun thing to go through.
“I suffered in Melbourne; nobody enjoys crying on the stage. In Miami I started well in the event, I had beaten Andy [Roddick] and I felt I would have the better of Novak [Djokovic] in the semi-finals, and it was going fine for a while when all of a sudden I was in a slump. I couldn’t hit the ball in the court any more. I had chances early in the second set, but my serve wasn’t clicking, my forehand and backhand went. It was a nightmare. Do you know what? I was just so sick and tired of playing so bad that when I missed that easy forehand I said, ‘It’s OK, just let it out.’ I was actually surprised how hard I crushed my racket.
“So, I cried in Melbourne and smashed the racket in Miami. They said, ‘Oh, he’s just got married and now he’s expecting a baby, so he’s going crazy because he must be really nervous about something.’ Or it’s, ‘Oh, he sees the end coming.’ I suppose I had shown so little in all the big matches I had won, so people started to believe they could read me, but they can’t. It’s good and it’s bad, but I know I can influence it in a big way, but I can’t always control the winning and the losing, especially the losing.”
There are not many who expect him to endure that sensation these next two weeks. He is about to become a father, which excites him immensely. No one — bar the couple and their closest family — knows when Mirka is due, but we understand that it is within the month. And so what if . . .
“We actually haven’t talked about it,” Federer says. “We have not announced the date, but let us just say . . . well, it’s Mirka’s decision. I know she would say, ‘You go and play and join me later.’ I want to be there, of course. We will juggle it as well as we can. At the moment she is doing just fine, I am there to support her. She’s doing great, we are very happy.
“People ask me what is next and it’s a fair question. Today, my love of the game is so strong that I’m not worried about motivation, I actually think having a child will motivate me more. I would like to play for many more years and that is Mirka’s wish as well. What has happened in this pregnancy has opened my mind, that is nice.
“I have come back again to Wimbledon to start from scratch. What happened last year is gone, it doesn’t matter. It was logical to lose one day and Rafa deserved it, absolutely. I am honoured, proud and excited to be back. I have come back to win. I need a good result to satisfy my needs.”