As the BNP Paribas Open got underway, defending champion and world No. 1 Roger Federer sat down with the press for his first round of questions:
Q. You’ve talked about how someday there’s going to come a time in your life when tennis doesn’t dictate all the decisions. At this point you don’t have anything left to prove.
ROGER FEDERER: So, how many days away am I from retiring? [Laughter] I don’t know. You always have something left to prove. As much as I’d like to tell you it doesn’t matter how I play here, I didn’t come here to lose first round 2 and 2. When you have break point, you’re not going to tell yourself, “Oh, who cares, I’m just going to go for it.” it’s hard to think this way because you do care about he moments, about the fans and how they portray you, you care for the result, for so many things. As little pressure as there may seem, it’s always there for the top guys. You’re always the center of attention and the expectation is there. But I’m definitely in a good place. I also feel like I have less to prove today than in the past, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want it badly. I need to have that drive to be successful, to be quite honest.
Q. I’ve heard athletes from other sports use the cliché that it’s lonely at the top. But it seems like, from the outside, that cliché doesn’t apply to you. Am I right?
RF: When you’re at the top, maybe what they’re saying is that everybody is watching what you’re doing extra carefully. You may go into a shell because you don’t want people to know your magic formula, if there is any. That’s what I imagine. As you’re riding the wave and you’ve got momentum you want to maintain that as long as possible, so you sometimes do tend to go into sort of a bubble. I try to never really go there. Even though when you’re busy and you’re playing well, you have routines.
I don’t know how to compare the different sports, but I know how tennis is. I see what Rafa and Novak and everybody is doing only on the surface. Everyone has their different ways.
Q. How does it feel being No. 1 in comparison to when you first reached it [in 2004]?
RF: It feels very different [laughter].
Compared to World No. 1 way back when, just the feeling of getting back to World No. 1 is deeper, and deeply gratifying. Today, when you’re older, you know how much work you’ve put into it. In 2004, when I finally got to No. 1, it was such a relief because I had blown my chance in Montreal months earlier when I lost 7-6 in the third against Roddick. I thought, “Oh man, I hope I get to No. 1 one day.” When I finally got it, I felt I probably deserved it – won a lot, played a lot and won the World Tour Finals in Houston at the end of the year. It just kind of happens, and usually it’s connected to a Slam as well. This one was different because I went to chase it in Rotterdam. It was all about World No. 1 when I went there. Winning it there and going back home and celebrating, keeping the celebrations going and knowing what I had to do to get to No. 1, because it felt very different, yes. But waking up in the morning I still feel the same as World No. 2 or World No. 17 a few years ago.
Q. You’ve said a big change during your career has been the athleticism in tennis. Could you take a moment and go into that a little bit more in terms of speed, shotmaking –
RF: We’ve had to become across-the-board better movers from the baseline. Maybe back in the day we had better movers back and forth, serving and volleying, because that’s also footwork. It’s not easy to serve and volley for five hours. it takes a lot out of you. That’s what everybody used to do back in the day. Now we’re better athletes side to side, because as you’ve mentioned, with racquet technology, with string technology we’re able to find crazier angles at faster speeds, so you have to cover a bigger [proportion of the] court. You have to adjust. Tournament directors have a say about how the game is played in terms of court speed. The tour decides how the ranking gets structured. If you have a ranking that’s based on only a certain number of tournaments, like back in the day, you start avoiding your weakest surface, and you start having more slow court specialists and fast court specialists. I believe the best movers were always part of the best players in the game, but even more so today – the best players in the game have become the best movers. Movement has become a major key to success in our game today.
Q. Can you feel the arrival of the Next Gen on the ATP tour? What do you foresee?
RF: I don’t feel it per se now. We’re just going through a bit of an unfortunate period where are a lot of players are injured. The players are just touching 30 and they’re having niggling injuries, or more than that they have to wait it out a bit. But it gives other guys an opportunity to win bigger tournaments, like what we saw with Grigor in Cincinnati and the World Tour Finals. I remember in the beginning when I was coming up, there was definitely a sense of the changing of the guard and the transition with Agassi and Pete still around, and Moya and Henman, that generation, and the young guys being very strong – Lleyton, Safin, Roddick, myself, Ferrero, even Tommy the tournament director here, Kiefer – a lot of guys. Because there was such a big wave back then, maybe now with the Next Gen we feel that there’s a big wave coming through. But it’s not quite accurate. It’s just because the other guys like Stan and Novak and Rafa are mostly injured.
It is important to think ahead, with leadership, about what’s best for the game in five years. Usually the decisions we make in the ATP only come into effect a couple of years later. In my mind, the World Tour Finals should always be in a place that’s relevant and relevant in tennis history. London is a great venue, at the 02, but if we had to move away from there, it has to be in another great tennis place, even if we give up some money, to be honest. Tennis is doing pretty good. But you should ask Chris Kermode what he thinks and where tennis should be going. We’re seeing some changes in Davis Cup, with Laver Cup coming in, so it’d be great if everybody could just get along really well and think [about] the best [thing] for the game. I know it’s difficult.
Q. One thing that sets you apart is what you do away from tennis, how you prioritize your family and your foundation. Could you summarize what you do with your foundation and why it’s important to you?
RF: I’m very passionate about the foundation because it’s been 15 years running now. I was inspired by other great athletes who had run their own foundations. Having UNICEF as an ATP partner was inspiring to me as well. Also becoming Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF but letting that go and really focusing only on my own foundation.
I thought it was very important to give back and have an impact in people’s lives. Our foundation believes in empowerment, and early childhood education, and school readiness. Having my own children, having seen how they go through education, I feel that education can break the circle of poverty, and there’s so many things that education can do. You never forget. You can make an entire family break out of a cycle, which is difficult.
My mom growing up in South Africa and me going there on vacation, I [knew] a lot about poverty first-hand. Also the values that I was taught by my parents [were important]. The question was how did I want to support other people and other children?
First it was children because I loved doing kids’ clinics and kids’ days when I was younger. That’s what I was used for. Now I have to do the press conferences and the promo, but the kids’ clinics were my favorite thing to do. I always wanted to be doing something with children. I also had my battle with school, going there every day even though I would rather go play tennis or basketball or soccer with my friends. We’re very privileged in Switzerland that everybody has an education and basically can or has to go to school. You look to other continents and other places and they don’t have that. I felt education would be a very good way for me to be involved and passionate and I’m very happy I chose that route.
It’s very successful now. This is our fifth Match for Africa, in San Jose. Over those five Matches for Africa we’ve raised over 10 million [dollars] now and we’re spending seven million this year, so things are going very well. Interestingly enough, I still feel we’re only at the beginning. I’ll spend more and more time going forward, and hopefully one day also get my children [involved]. We’ll see about that.