Roger Federer had already won the match, he just didn’t know it – and neither did his opponent, Rafael Nadal, nor the 14,820 spectators in the Rod Laver Arena. Leading with a 5:3 advantage on the match point in the fifth set, his forehand shot was so close to the sideline that the Hawk-Eye computer had to decide whether the felt ball had brushed it or not. And so, after three hours and 38 minutes, the unsuspecting winner stood for a few seconds on the brightly lit Centre Court under the Australian night sky, his head humbly lowered, left with no alternative but to wait.
It was a magical moment in tennis, a drawn-out victory, a drama momentarily suspended due to one final complication, until Federer looked up to the scoreboard: no doubt about it, the ball had touched the line, just by one or two centimetres, but that was enough – game, set and match to Roger Federer!
What happens next suggests that, in this moment, Federer has just won more than a tennis match, even more than an important tournament: he throws his arms up in the air like a big kid, grinning from ear to ear, lost in the moment, jumping up and down. He walks to the net to congratulate his opponent and returns to the court with tears in his eyes. He then takes a knee. Not in a kitschy way, but rather gallantly. Like a nobleman being knighted.
Following a knee operation and a half-year break, plus five years without a single Grand Slam win to his name, the biggest tennis player in history was back at the age of 35. When constantly being asked in interviews whether he’d thought about quitting, about leaving well alone, and about what else he had to prove after winning all important tournaments two, sometimes even three times, Federer always answered: “I play because I enjoy it.” And then to experience such an incredible triumph at the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.
He’d previously said: “I’ll be happy if I reach the quarter finals.” This was by all means a realistic estimation coming from someone who had just spent the last few weeks hobbling around on crutches. While expectations may have been lower than usual, the uncertainty remained high, the pressure huge. But Federer stood firm and surprised everyone, not least himself. It is stories like this that move sports fans all over the world: when someone just wants to have another shot, even if it means failing, just to bring home what could be the last great win of a career.
Five months later, Roger Federer glides across the carpet of a hotel lobby in Stuttgart. He is wearing a dark blue polo T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and trainers – and donning a shorter-than-usual haircut. There are just 24 hours to go until his opening match at the MercedesCup in Stuttgart-Weissenhof, where he will face off against Tommy Haas. Wimbledon, the most venerable of all tournaments, will begin two weeks later.
The author David Foster Wallace once described Roger Federer and his style of tennis playing as a “religious experience”. He said that Federer is more than human, rather a “genius, mutant or avatar”. He never seems hurried or off-balance, instead being at one with himself. This may seem dramatic at first, but it becomes clear on meeting this man for the first time that Wallace may have been on to something. You can see this on the way he walks, talks, smiles and even lifts his coffee cup to his lips. Everything about this person appears effortless, casual and natural, his movements are fluid and precise, his voice is sonorous, his handshake neither hard nor soft, he somehow seems pure, almost youthful.
He was recently asked on court by a reporter after winning a final how he managed to look so youthful at almost 36. Federer’s reply had the spectators laughing: “A bit of exercise helps”, he said, grinning. He also believes in the importance of spending time out in nature and, above all, getting plenty of sleep – as he so often says. Federer sleeps eleven to twelve hours every night. He once told of how his ill daughter crawled into bed with him the night before a final feeling poorly and sick. Despite letting her cuddle into him, he still managed to win the next day.
“From the outside”, he says, “it may have seemed like everything in this fifth set against Nadal was going smoothly and my body, arms and legs could do no wrong, but that wasn’t the case.” Every shot and every step was executed carefully and well considered from a strategic perspective. “And at the end”, he says, “I was so tired, but at the same time felt so liberated and good; so happy that I had the opportunity to experience it again and that people were really celebrating with me.” This sentence is so typically Federer: never just making it about himself, always thinking of others, the team, the fans, the spectators.
Fourteen years have now passed since Roger Federer first won Wimbledon. Prior to that, he was a talented tennis player from Switzerland, a hothead with long hair, who would throw his racket across the court. He even went to a mental coach to help him get to grips with his nerves. But this first big win gave him so much self-confidence that he’s still feeding off it today. “I haven’t needed any mental support since”, he says, “I don’t meditate or do any yoga, I know what needs to be done and feel I have the power to do it.”
It was the start of an unbelievable career: Federer not only became the most successful tennis pro ever, but also the most elegant, versatile, best-paid and – as most fans would agree – likeable. He became an international star and a true tennis icon. He held the number one spot in the world rankings for 302 weeks, has won well over a thousand matches, earned more than 100 million euros in prize money – and that’s just three of the 45 records he holds. Some of these sound virtually beyond human capabilities: between 2003 and 2005, he was the victor in 24 finals in a row, and between 2003 and 2008 he won 65 consecutive matches on grass. Yet all these numbers can only ever show, but fail to truly illustrate – and certainly don’t make people appreciate – why this athlete is so fascinating.
His charisma is only partly due to his wins; it is also in no small part due to his personality, his sincerity and fairness, the way he behaves on and off court. The best ball rallies from Federer’s career can be watched to the heart’s content on YouTube. And when accompanied by music – especially classical, nothing heavy or solemn – they become even more stunning, even more like the work of a true artist. A dance by Mozart will certainly do the trick: complex yet light and airy. How he uses small steps to position himself on the court, how he jumps, lunges, advances towards the net – in these movements he is as elegant as a ballet dancer. Nothing unrefined, everything smooth and fluid.
Rumours about this man have been circulating the tennis world for years: Some say that he has developed a breathing technique to prevent him from perspiring. Others say that his perception of events is much slower than that of ordinary people, which would certainly come in handy when it comes to his opponents’ serves. These are all just attempts at trying to explain an inexplicable phenomenon.
The young and wild Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem are the romantics of tennis: impetuous, dazzling, aggressive; Roger Federer is a classic, celebrating tennis with grace and dignity and bridging the gap between the early days – when men still wore long trousers with creases as they walked across the court – and today. He is a synthesis of the past and future of tennis, which has become much more dynamic with each passing decade.
No longer pushy and charging around the court, his strength and experience appear to have given him confidence and control; he seems to have found a way to balance his emotions. When playing, he is in his element, creating a sense of elegance and silent grandeur. This doesn’t just apply to the court, but also to everyday life: as a husband and father of four, he always seems to know where he needs to be and what needs to be done. He enjoys rather than experiments, lets rather than makes things happen – and generally travels the world with a huge entourage: his wife Mirka, their two sets of twins, two nannies, his trainers, his manager, a physiotherapist, and a sparring partner – when the Federer clan are in town, half a hotel floor has to be rented.
His days of being just an athlete – of being a sports star even – are long past. Roger Federer plays an important role in society, with fans and best friends including Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and Hollywood actor Bradley Cooper. Star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter reportedly once said that she would even set her alarm to go off during the night while on tour if a Federer match was on TV, she simply couldn’t get enough of him. What’s interesting is that he seems neither awkward nor out of place when, like last year, having to walk the red carpet at Paris Fashion Week. It’s almost as if instead of having to adapt to the different situations he finds himself in, everything around him changes to suit him. He just has to be Roger Federer – and is doing a good job of it.
“I think I play better tennis now than I’ve ever played in my life”, he says. Yes, ten years ago, his forehand was phenomenal and he was oozing self-confidence, but now he plays a much riskier, more intelligent and diversified game. He looks for a quicker solution, his game is unpredictable, he avoids long rallies. “Many think it’s to do with my age, that I want to take it easy, but it’s not”, he says, “I play that way simply because I enjoy it.”