Roger – The Art, the Tears and the Triumphs
The Federer Interview – Part 3
In the third and final part of our interview with Roger Federer, he speaks about his art, his emotions, his decision-making and what makes him special.
You love the artistry of tennis.
Yes, very much so. Not that I try to play nice – it’s just how I play. The good thing is that it’s good on my body. It’s become a great technique to conserve energy, so when I do win a match 6-3, 6-3, I didn’t waste energy. That’s part of my longevity.
Some people who watch your matches just look at your footwork. It’s so light, so fast and has a staccato quality. Talk about how your footwork is key to your backhand. And do you ever look at dancers like Baryshnikov or Fred Astaire ?
Not so much. But my wife saw this movie about a Ukrainian ballet dancer [“Dancer,” about Sergei Polunin] and said, “You have to see it – this guy is incredible, the beauty of his dance and his elevation.” So I watched it on the plane and it was just so interesting. I do appreciate great movement – that’s how I move. That’s how I learned tennis. I can’t move any differently, so I’m sorry in a way.
I sometimes wish I were more brutal in my movement. But I need to get behind the ball. My acceleration comes from the starting point to when I get to the ball, and then I need to be calm. If you can’t get your body behind the ball, you can’t generate power and pace. So in my game the flow of fast and slow is really important. That’s when I can hit my best shots.
Go back with me to when you were a young kid at a tennis academy in Biel. They had just brought in some great new tarps. But you got pissed off –
That was when I was 16, yeah –
Right, and you “helicoptered” your racket right into the tarp – rip! Then they punish you by forcing you to clean toilets for a week early in the morning. Your coach Peter Lundgren said you were a “ball of stress” early on. You’d curse and throw rackets. And there was the time late one night when you were watching coverage of a match of yours on Italian TV when you and Safin were both having colossal meltdowns.
Now you have this extraordinary patience. You emanate a deep calm.
This calm demeanor, yes.
How the heck did you make that change?
It was a long process. In 2001 I lost to Franco Squillari on Court One in Hamburg. On match point, he passed me from way back. I volleyed and couldn’t see where the ball went. I looked down and I’d clogged the ball between the racket and the court. It was game, set and match, Squillari. So I took my racquet and just smashed it. It was like bang, bang, bang. I had a bad attitude. I was crying about playing so bad and how things were not great.
That’s when I told myself, “I can’t take this attitude. If I keep playing like this for the next 10 years I’m going to go absolutely mental – I won’t be able to cope.”
That’s when I decided I was going to be quiet and calm and concentrated. Then I made the quarters at the French – lost to [Alex] Corretja – and then made the quarters at Wimbledon. Then things got easy.
But then what happened was that I realized I was too calm, too quiet. I hated myself for that. I would hit a tweener winner and be like, “Yeah, that’s normal.” Then I would play the perfect point, the smash would come like one meter behind the net and I would miss it one meter into the fence and I’d be like, “That’s ok, normal.”
I realized what I needed to create was fire and ice. Excitement for matches, for points – ice and calm in the right moments. That took me – I’m not kidding – a year and a half [to figure out].
That’s why the Wimbledon win in ’03 came at the right time for me. Before that – mentally or physically – I wasn’t ready. In 2002 I won Hamburg, made the top 10, and was one of the favorites for the French. I was No. 6 in the world, but then I lost in the first round. At Wimbledon, I lost first round after beating Pete [Sampras] the year before. I came back to the French the year after saying, “Okay, I’ve got to figure it out now,” and lost first round. Then went to Wimbledon and finally won. I did it the hard way, which I guess was good for me. I remember how it feels losing in the first round at Slams.
One of my favorite stories is from your childhood. It was when you and Marco Chiudinelli were each crying in a junior match and the two of you took turns comforting each other while competing against each other.
I ended up winning 9-7. We were playing for tickets. The winner would get two qualifying tickets for the Saturday before the tournament. We were both very emotional kids. That’s how it was back then.
One thing people love about you is that you show your emotions. You gained so much popularity when you showed your vulnerability and wept after your loss to Rafa at the ’09 Australian Open. Talk about your willingness to show your emotions.
It’s not like I want to. I have felt embarrassed at times to show too many emotions. The first time, you might remember, was when I played the 2001 Davis Cup against America. We played in my hometown of Basel and [over the weekend] I won in singles, doubles and singles and I beat Justin Gimelstob, Jan-Michael Gambill and Todd Martin.
I won – and cried for the first time because of the sheer pressure I felt as a 20-year-old leading the team against the Americans in my hometown. I broke down crying. I couldn’t believe the emotions I had after winning. I had cried hundreds of times after losing, but I’d never cried after winning – that was the first time.
A few months later, after I beat Sampras at Wimbledon, the same thing happened. I didn’t know where it came from – I never knew I had that in me. I knew I was an emotional person, but not on the winning side.
That’s what struck me the most. It’s easy to understand why you might cry at an emotional movie or after losing a match, because you’re disappointed or sad. But that part for me in a way was beautiful because it makes me remember those moments strongly. Maybe I took people by surprise and took them on a ride and shared my emotions. I’m happy with the way I did that. Even though sometimes, in the moment, I wish I wouldn’t have.
The last thing I wanted to do was [to cry] with Rafa at the 2009 Australian Open final. Because…I don’t want to take the moment away from the guy who won. It’s wrong to feel so bad for the guy who lost in the finals. You should be genuinely happy for both guys for making a great tournament. Sometimes that overshadowed some things, which was unfortunate.
Of course, you were hilarious with the role-reversal at this year’s Indian Wells awards ceremony with Stan [when loser Wawrinka started crying and Roger good-naturedly started laughing].
That was a different kind, absolutely. It’s good, we’ve seen it all (laughs).
You’ve said tennis is all about split-second decision-making. We saw this at the Australian Open with your backhand coming on fire. But tennis is also about long-term decisions. On your own, at 14, you made the decision to go away to an academy.
It was 13, actually. Because I was there at 14, so at 13 the idea came about.
People can argue that you’re as good a decision-maker as we’ve seen. When it came to choosing a coach, instead of sticking with Peter Carter, who was like a father figure to you, you chose Peter Lundgren, who knew far more about the pro circuit. That had to be a tough, tough decision.
One of the most difficult in my career, yes.
Then there are scheduling decisions, choices about rackets and your recent decision to take time off. What’s been the importance of decision-making in your career?
It’s very important. Sometimes young players rely too much on their parents or coach. Yes, it’s important to listen to them, but at the end it’s you who carries the consequences. So at some stages you just have to do it yourself.
Thank god, early enough in my career, people – especially [my wife] Mirka – told me, “You have to take matters into your own hands, because whatever mistake is made, you’re going to pay the price. So why don’t you make those decisions, it’s going to be something you’ll actually feel better about later. You shouldn’t always have everybody else make them just because it’s easier.”
That was a great lesson. I really have had great people around me who still guide me to some extent, but at the end of the day the decision is always taken by me.
I have this great capacity for taking in all the information and understanding. I like to gather a lot of information. But I don’t feel the pressure of having to do what they tell me.
Now, my not playing this year’s clay season, that became easier than ever because of the injury I sustained last year. I made myself promise that I would stay healthy. No. 1 for playing tennis, or No. 1 for my own health. Looking forward hopefully to the next 50 years I could be around.
But also for this coming year because if you’re not healthy, you’re not going to enjoy it – there’s going to be no success.
You’ll play some good matches from time to time, but not on a regular basis. That’s why for me [it’s good] to skip certain tournaments or even seasons. It’s never going to be easier than right now. Even though it still feels hard and it hurts now not to go to Monaco, Rome, Madrid and all those tournaments.
But I just can’t do it all. I said that for years. But it was a wake-up call when I got the injury last year and then it was a great rejuvenating time for me to be away from the game. When I do come back I am fresh, I’m eager, I’m ready, and that’s how you want to see me, that’s how fans want to see me, that’s how my family wants to see me, that’s how I want to see me – not as a guy who just drags himself from tournament to tournament. So I think I got that right.
I’m lucky enough to watch our greatest matches from the great seats in the press section and from there I see your focus. But I often wonder, despite being so focused, do you ever step back on Wimbledon’s Centre Court or at a night match on Ashe and say to yourself, “Hey, this isn’t too bad. Millions are watching.”? Are there any flashes, any moments when you think how incredible it is what you’ve achieved?
Yeah, you take the bird’s-eye view, for sure. Even while you’re playing, sometimes you’re like, “Wow, look what I’m living right now.” You’re playing in front of 20,000 people and making decisions left, right and center. That’s why in many ways a tennis player is quite unique.
I feel a lot of the players who are ranked lower could very well give this interview and talk about decision-making and how great they are. It’s just that they’re not regarded as such champions and winners like I am, which I find quite unfortunate. They deserve way more credit and we should do a way better job of educating fans that a guy ranked No. 200 is still a great, great, player and if he walks away from tennis, this guy also learned a lot. Maybe they make more mistakes, maybe they’re not as consistent, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.
I know how it feels in the biggest moments, and maybe that’s what separates me from the rest of the bunch. We have a lot of decision-making to make in the moment in a match, but sometimes I do take a step back.