An In-Depth Interview With the Great Star, Who Talks About His Australian Triumph, the Beauty of Sports, His New Perspective and His Future
Some claim that the run of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal to the Aussie Open final was the best feel-good story in the history of men’s tennis history – hmmm? In any case, for the first time since his inspiring Melbourne run, Roger shared with the American media his thoughts on his triumph, the beauty of sport, his new perspective and his future.
So what’s it like to be playing like Roger again?
It’s nice to be playing tennis again. I missed playing here last year, so it’s good to be back. I’m still on the comeback [trail], so it’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying practice more than ever. For sure, I can’t wait for the matches to roll around.
Roger, there have been a lot of incredible moments in tennis. The 1981 Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final, Jimmy Connors’ run to the 1991 US Open semis, your final with Rafa in the dusk at the 2008 Wimbledon. But your triumph in Australia this year was truly extraordinary. During a rough time it brought so much joy to so many millions. Do you realize the impact it had? And what kind of feedback have you gotten about it?
The loss I had at Wimbledon with Rafa when I lost in the finals resonated big. I got a lot of cheering-up messages saying, “That match was incredible; sorry you lost” – especially since I came straight to America.
This has been different. I don’t want to say I went silent, but I was in Switzerland. Things were quiet. I was with my friends and family. I did hear that in Switzerland things were…crazy on finals day and throughout the tournament, because it was so unexpected for me to play so well…On social media [there was] a lot happening. There were a lot of reactions. [Here’s the] best backhands, best forehands, match points, [best] reactions. I was sent everything and [ended up] watching everything the first couple of weeks after it was all said and done, which was a lot of fun.
But…what happened in the rest of the world was hard for me to judge. So I see that there are a lot of people here [in Indian Wells] and it seems to still be a topic – which is great. Still I feel it was just like yesterday and I still feel I am on cloud nine. Things are terrific. I’m happy. I made a lot of people happy, because I’m not just playing for myself these days. There is so much more to it and that’s why…this victory felt as good as it did for me. This year [I’ll be able to] play with relaxation.
Talk about how sports can uplift people’s spirits. The impact of your win was so vast.
That’s nice, yeah. That’s nice. That’s why a lot of people follow sports – because sports make them happy. Your guy or your team doesn’t always win, but that’s okay, because better times usually come. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride in a career, or for a team. I was particularly happy that it resonated so big and so many people were so genuinely happy.
Talk about “the group of death.” What were you thoughts when you saw yourself, Rafa and Djokovic, all stacked in one quarter of the draw?
Most of the guys you won’t even see, because they will eliminate each other. The first message I got was that I will face Tommy Robredo or Dudi Sela. And I was like, ‘Okay, fine.’ Then I heard Rafa was in my section, [and I said] ‘Okay.’ And then they said Novak is in your section, [and I was like] “Okay, fine.” It doesn’t matter. I have gone through so many draws. I came here to play against those guys. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the semis, the finals or…in the fourth round. I know it matters for you guys. The only problem is that some [top] guys have to lose super-early. That opens the draw for others and that’s an opportunity for guys to rise in the rankings…I have had a lot of tough draws. In 2004 after winning over Marat Safin in the Australian Open final, I had to play him in the first round in Dubai. That was…probably tougher than Tommy Robredo or Dudi Sela.
Did you feel you were maybe more fortunate because you had a healthy career and didn’t have to go through what you had to in the last year? Do you now appreciate the game in a different way?
Yeah, possibly. You’re right. I don’t think I needed kids or an injury for perspective. I do understand now when people are injured what it means. Going into surgery, how do people feel, how do they come out? That it’s an opportunity as well as it’s hard to go through. It’s okay to be angry, [it’s] okay to be disappointed [or to think] that maybe you did something wrong, although in my case I didn’t.
Yeah, definitely it was a lot of new things I learned. For me, because it is a new situation I want to live it, I want to live it big and try to make the most of it and come out of it with something. And I came back rejuvenated and maybe with a slightly different mindset, maybe more fortunate…
In terms of changes in your perspective, talk about the impact of the passing of your great early coach Australian Peter Carter [who died in an auto accident].
For me, Peter Carter was incredibly important. He was one of the coaches who taught me technique early on and that’s what sticks with you for a lifetime. He was like an older brother to me, like [Swede] Peter Lundgren was. I learned from him. [He was] like a father figure, to a certain extent. At the beginning a coach is really, really important. I was extremely fortunate to have such great coaches from the beginning of my career until today. So it was definitely…a wake up call for me. I was not going to waste any talent and even if getting to world No. 1 or winning Grand Slams or big tournaments, maybe [I sensed] I can achieve more, have more power and be more happy. Maybe those extra steps come through due to the loss of Peter, I’m not sure.
Obviously you’ve done a masterful job with your scheduling, you’ve had so few injuries. Was your take-away from the Australian Open to take more rest? Did you come away re-thinking how you may schedule the last part of your career?
I had to take that time off. It wasn’t like I took off six months because I felt it was the right thing to do for the Australian Open. I had to actually take the time off. My knee wasn’t well the entire grass-court season. The clay-court season was bad too. I played one normal tournament last year. So I didn’t have a choice. But again, it is so important to train. Every day, there is something to be done.
[Players think] if I don’t play, somebody else will win the tournament. They feel it is hard to not play for six weeks. There will be other winners on tour and they say, “I could have been one of them.”
But, if you look at the big picture, sometimes you have to step away to come back strong. Throughout my career I always did that. Not six months, but I did it two or three times a year. I stepped away and it served me well. That’s why I think I’m still here today and still eager and excited to play.
Compared with earlier in your career, how difficult is it to balance things in your life? You’re older, you’ve had to deal with injuries, you’re involved in the Laver Cup and you have four kids.
It’s a whole new world now, but it is very well-run. We know what we have to do as a family to make it work. On the business side of things, I know how much I have to speak to [my agent] Tony Godsick, how much I can or can’t do. What is too much, what is not enough prior to a tournament. I always try to manage the energy there. If I do a photo shoot, what kind of a shoot is it? Is it for eight hours? Will I be playing or just standing around? All those things matter. I have a lot of experience with that. [Then there’s the question of] which tournaments do you prefer, which ones do you play better at? Only over time will you really find out. At the beginning, you don’t even know if you prefer clay over indoor hard or grass. So, you have to pick your moments.
At the beginning, everything was so new it was difficult – like who do you surround yourself with, what’s being professional, what’s being amateur-like? [You are] making all kinds of mistakes. Is it good to travel across different continents all the time or to play certain tournaments, or is it best to step away?
So all these things have fallen into place and it’s so much easier. [When you’re young] you waste so much energy on all that stuff. Sure the kids now keep us extremely busy. That’s the biggest part almost, then tennis obviously comes second.
How hard was it to be patient and disciplined during your comeback, when you were out?
It was fairly easy. In the beginning I couldn’t play. Only in the last three weeks of the season did I feel that maybe I could play a set with those guys. When the season was over I went into harder training, so it never crossed my mind that I could have come back earlier.
I didn’t want to do it, because I wanted extra time to get extra ready for the Australian Open. I hope it sends a message to players that it’s good to spend extra time after injuries or it is okay to take extra time to train to become a better player.
What were your expectations going into Australia?
I didn’t know what my expectations were. I thought maybe a fourth round would be great. The quarterfinals would be incredible. Even after I won the first round against [Jurgen] Melzer, I told the press I would have been happy even to have lost that day, because I was injury free and was playing and was at the Australian Open. Things were good. I had a great build-up in December…[If I lost in the first round] it would not have gone so well result-wise, but still I was happy to be back on the court. I am happy with extremely little, so that it is why the surprise was so huge for me that I went all the way.
The way you hit your backhand was one of the most striking things about your play in Australia. Was that one of the things you worked on [when you were off the circuit], and is that going to change how you play?
I didn’t necessarily work on the backhand. I had six weeks of tennis in a row from mid-November to the end of December. I had a lot of tennis and a lot of two-on-ones with two guys on one side and me alone. With that you can change direction much better. I had a good time, a good vibe. [That forces you to be] fast on your feet so you can actually get up to the ball, especially me since I play on the top of the baseline. You have to be explosive, you have to be fast, you have to anticipate things well. Then those type of [aggressive] backhands, I only hit towards the later stages of a tournament when you have really gotten used to the court conditions. [In Australia] everything just kind of clicked in the right moment. I did the right things. I wasn’t scared. I was willing to go for it. It felt great to hit so many backhand winners.
How has the Laver Cup evolved and how much of a challenge has it been to make it special?
I think it’s going to be wonderful. I was just in Prague when tickets went on sale and I’m glad tickets sold out in record time. Rocket [Rod Laver] seems extremely excited about it, which makes me happy. It should be a celebration of tennis, getting the legends of the game into the Laver Cup. Hopefully a new generation of players will be excited if they are picked as wild cards. We will have Captains Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Rafa and Berdych will be on the team. It’s going to be cool. I’m happy that tickets are sold out. The atmosphere is going to be epic…I’m really excited.
What do you think you’re going to do when you’re finished playing?
I can’t tell you exactly, not because I’m holding back, but when it is all said and done, I’m not quite sure what to expect. But a lot of things are going to happen once I’m retired, and I hope to involve a lot of my kids, my family and friends, because now we’re living in this kind of train that [goes] “whoosh” and we are [just] doing the most we can.
Once this is not happening we’re going to have much more flexibility…There are a lot of things I want to do and I hope I will be here and around to live and enjoy it.