When Inside Tennis went to Seattle in late April to interview Roger Federer prior to his Match for Africa 4 fundraiser for his charity, we showed him a framed collage of the IT covers he’s been on. Clearly there was a delighted sparkle in the man’s eyes. “Is that the record?” he asked. “Well,” I hesitated. “We’ve had Serena, Sharapova and Andre [Agassi] on the cover a bunch of times.” But actually, Roger has lit up our covers far more often than any other player. With this month’s cover it will be 18 times in 36 years, which is just like Roger, who has 18 Slams and turns 36 in August. Below is the first of our three part in-depth interview with the greatest tennis player of all time. Enjoy!
Okay, Roger, last year you were injured and took six months off. Then, when you came back, you said to yourself, “Well, it would be good to make it to the Australian Open quarters.” Then, zoom – you had your dream run.
I’ve said that at last winning the French Open and winning my first Wimbledon were very special. They were unique and special in so many ways, but the Australian Open was the most surprising to me – besides maybe the 2003 Wimbledon.
Back then I was hoping to win Wimbledon at some point. A month earlier at the French Open I’d lost in the first round, and the year before at Wimbledon I’d lost in the first round. So it was a big surprise to win my first Wimbledon.
This year I genuinely thought I wasn’t going to win the Australian. It was just going to be a stepping stone to maybe winning another Slam. It wasn’t going to be the one where I was going to explode. But I did. In the pictures and videos, you see what it meant to me.
Is there a certain lightness that’s come with that 18th slam? You seem so relaxed.
That’s not because of 18…[Still] it was a beautiful thing that happened in Australia. I should play very relaxed this year…I really hope I can play with this lightness, this freshness throughout [the year], because I worked so hard to get to 18 the last five years. It’s not always been easy, especially with injuries.
[Since winning Wimbledon in 2010] I lost some tough matches, but I did have good moments, too…I won a lot of tournaments, beat a lot of the top guys, basically all of them…[and Switzerland] won the Davis Cup, which was big…So it wasn’t all bad. People make it sound like there was this huge lull or bad stretch. It wasn’t…
I [just] couldn’t get a slam mostly because of Novak. So I’m happy I finally got it.
Sure, [I] show up with more motivation and excitement [now]. That’s why I’m out there…pushing myself on, [with a] shot-for-shot, point-for-point mentality. It’s so important to…not look too far ahead and think things are going to come easy…[The] margins are small. If you’re not up to your best you might lose. It happens so quickly. That’s why I’m really pushing to have good energy on the court.
Even before this dream run, you were such an international figure – beloved by millions. A survey came out that said you were more respected than the Pope, the Queen and Obama.
It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know that.
Yeah, yeah, sure – but do you sense that there’s a responsibility with all of that?
Yeah, it depends on how much you want to accept that role. For me it’s always important to fulfill the role of role model for the kids. Especially since I had the year I had last year, if I can be a motivator for others, it’s a great way to connect to many more people. It’s more difficult to relate to a player who is dominating or always winning than it is to relate to somebody who’s had their ups and downs.
I had my downs last year, and I had my doubts. Everybody has doubts. I have doubts on a regular basis. But I try not to talk about them too often or show weakness to my opponents. Last year there was no denying that I had issues, with my knee, with struggling to get things right and understanding what was wrong. That happens to many people. So when I won I felt that so many people knew what I was going through, and they felt the pain that I’d gone through the year before. People were so happy for me.
Right now I’m at an all-time high. People felt like, “This Federer, maybe that guy deserves one more title.” That’s my take-away from Australia – how many people were genuinely happy for me. That was the surprise for me. I thought my fans were going to be like, ‘See, I told you this Federer guy was not done yet,’ but there was more to it. People were just on a cloud – it was special.
I’ve been in this racket for 37 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Talk about how sports can uplift people’s spirits. The impact of your [Australian Open] win was so vast.
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.
Tennis has been fortunate over the years to have had a lot of graceful champions – Hoad, Laver, Edberg, Borg, Rafter, Kuerten.
But you not only get incredible results, you do it with such an athletic grace. There’s a lightness to your movement and a beauty to your movement which at times seems to defy gravity. Early in your career you said, “Hey, I gotta cool it with all the spectacular shots. I have to be more than an artist out there, just trying to please the crowd.” Talk about your art and how you blended your love of beauty and shot-making with the ability to win.
I definitely was fortunate that I was taught the techniques I have now, and that I understood what it meant to work hard away from the court, which allowed me to get to shots that I didn’t know I could reach – or pull off hard shots while I’m making it look easy. That was difficult for me sometimes, because when I’d lose, people wouldn’t understand. They’d ask, “Why isn’t he trying hard or fighting hard?” But just because I’m not huffing and puffing and sweating and grunting, that doesn’t mean I’m not trying hard.
For me that fine line was actually quite difficult in the beginning. Once you start winning, people are always going to say, “You’re doing great, everything you do is wonderful.” But I always was very humble in the sense that I knew that this could evaporate very quickly. You don’t know how long you’re going to be at the top. When I was at a crossroads in 2004 and became world No. 1 for the first time, I thought, “Ok, do I want to stay there, or just enjoy the ride and see how long it lasts before it fizzles out?” I decided I would love to squeeze more of these moments and play the right way with the right mindset and the right flair, but also with fair play and also to represent the game well, which is very important to me.
Like you said, I do look back often, I’m very thankful to those who paved the way, the Lavers and all the others, and I know many people have put in unbelievable work to get the game where it is today.
I’m a modern version of those players, and I think very much about the future and where the game should be going. Because I’ve been around for so long I’m a bridge to what’s to come. A lot of people, especially from the older generation, relate to me easily because of my one-handed backhand. Fortunately I’ve gotten a lot of compliments over the years, but it’s also normal to be criticized, and I’ve also had that over a long period of time as well. I felt like I navigated quite well through both sides.
Your former coach Peter Lundgren said when he started with you, when you were a young pro, you had all the shots. Did the technique come from your earlier coach Peter Carter or from the Swiss academies?
You would think it came mostly through Peter Carter who I knew from eight years old. Also Sepp Kacowski, Cristophe Freyss and Alexis Bernhard at the tennis academy and then Lundgren and Carter took over again after that when I was 16. That’s when my technique was formed.
Speaking of Carter, talk about the impact of his passing [in an auto accident in 2002 in South Africa] and how it affected your perspective.
For me, Peter was incredibly important. He was one of the coaches who taught me technique early on and that sticks with you for a lifetime. He was like an older brother, like Peter Lundgren was…[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 his death was definitely…a wake-up call for me. [After that] I wasn’t going to waste any talent, even if I got to be world No. 1 or won Grand Slams…Maybe [I sensed] I could 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.
You just flew in here to Seattle from Dubai. You have a South African mom. Your wife Mirka is Slovakian. Your agent Tony and your Wilson and Nike suppliers are American. You’ve had many coaches from all over – Aussies, a Swede, an American and a Croatian lad now. You’re Swiss, of course, but do you feel like you’re a world citizen?
Yes, definitely. In Switzerland I grew up in Basel but I lived in Lausanne, Biel, Zurich and now I live in the mountains. I’m moving all around. I have a flat in Dubai. I’m working with all these international people. I definitely feel like a world citizen, yet I know my roots, they come from Basel – I’m from Switzerland. I’m very proud to represent that country. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life and have my kids go to school.
I’m very thankful for that part, but the reception I get around the world and the fact that people have embraced me as a person and as a player [is an honor that] has been second to none. It’s nice to feel home away from home in all these other places. It feels very special.
You also have a unique connection with Africa. You have a South African passport, and I love the story about you seeing a leopard kill of a gazelle. You’ve come halfway around the world here to Seattle to do a fundraiser for your southern Africa foundation. What’s special about Africa, what speaks to you?
The continent is very unique in many ways. Every continent is, but Africa has a special meaning to me because my mom was born and grew up there and then came to Switzerland and we kept on going back to South Africa on vacation and traveled a lot through the country and always saw family. When you have family [there], naturally you feel local. When I was little, I had great vacations down in South Africa near Jo’burg and at the Cape. For me it’s great to have a foundation that is connected to that part of the world. Unfortunately, I can’t go there often because there are no tournaments there. It’s a pity. At the same time, when I do go, it feels very special. I’ve made a conscious effort to go as often as possible. Still, we’re very fortunate that we can do this fundraiser.
Our pal Yannick Noah always said he got a spiritual charge out of going to Africa.
That’s how I feel. When you’re there it fuels you with incredible power. That’s why it’s amazing to see the impact the foundation has on kids, on mothers, on teachers, on chiefs of villages, all these people, and what it gives back to me is amazing. It gives me motivation to raise more funds to give back, and it gives me energy to play tennis. It works both ways.
Can I ask you about Maria Sharapova and whether it’s right for her to get a wildcard?
What do you think?
I think she should get wildcards but it’s hard. She’s wonderful, I just wish she’d shown a little more remorse. I would have liked to see her express more feelings from the heart.
Thanks for coming up. I’ll see you in Paris?
Yes, for sure.
Look for parts two and three of our interview in our upcoming issues where Roger talks about his early years, his tears, his footwork, his decision-making and the one thing we don’t know about him.