Roger, More: Why Federer won’t quit yet
The world’s greatest tennis player on why he won’t be hanging his racket up anytime soon
By Helena Frith Powell
Much has been made of Roger Federer’s grace on court. He has been admired for his elegance since he burst on the tennis scene in 2003 by winning his first Wimbledon title.
He’s gone on to pick up a record tally of 16 Grand Slams (a Grand Slam is one of the four major tennis tournaments played around the world every year; the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open), won 70 singles titles and held the No. 1 ranking longer than any other player since rankings began, a total of 285 weeks.
But his grace off court is pretty impressive, too. I first met him when I was interviewing Rafael Nadal at the Mubadala Tennis Championship around this time last year. Rafa and I were chatting when suddenly there was a kerfuffle and a group of men walked past us. In the middle of this group was Federer, standing taller than them all, and almost gliding across the room, like a swan on water. It takes a lot to distract a girl from Rafael Nadal, but it was impossible not to gaze at Federer as he headed out to the practice courts.
Fast-forward a day and my husband was on court with him at one of the clinics Mubadala arranges. When the time came to pick up the tennis balls, Federer joined the group and mucked in. Graceful and charming in nature, as well as in looks.
Nicknamed tennis’s Mr Nice Guy, it is easy to wonder if the man is too good to be true. Even in the worst possible circumstances, he never has a bad word to say about anyone, and his idea of losing his temper is to flick his fringe in a rather irritated manner. But he does seem utterly serene, almost all of the time.
The only question that ever riles him is the one of retirement. He turned 30 this year so inevitably people are wondering how much longer he will go on.
Federer has consistently said that 30 is “just a number” and that he will not be dictated to by a number. And although he is no longer ranked No. 1 in the world, 2011 has been a successful year for him.
He reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open, the final of the French (having beaten the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, to get there), the semis of the US Open and the quarter-finals of Wimbledon. And he won the ATP Tour Finals in London in November in utterly spectacular form, crushing his arch rival Nadal, in straight sets, along the way.
But it is a fair question. The man does not need to prove anything else. Even if he stops tomorrow he will probably be the greatest tennis player who ever lived. He has won everything there is to win, several times, and has plenty of money. To stay at the level he is at, a player needs to train several hours a day. Wouldn’t he just rather hang out with his wife and twin daughters and go to the beach? What is it that keeps him motivated?
“I get asked this a lot,” he says. “And the answer is very simple. I love this game.”
Federer has been with his Slovakian-born wife, Mirka, since they met at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. They were both playing tennis for Switzerland; Mirka’s parents moved there when she was two years old. In July 2009, Mirka gave birth to their twin daughters. The family has a home in Dubai, and Mirka is often to be spotted at the Armani/Dubai Caffé in Dubai Mall with her double pram and nanny in tow.
“We really like Dubai,” says Federer. “It is always sunny, making it the ideal location for holidays as well as practice. I like to go shopping, and eating out in the great restaurants and hotels. Dubai is a true melting pot of nationalities, so it’s a very interesting place in terms of the people you meet. It is also very easy to get to the major cities around the world as it has become a hub for the airline industry, which makes our travelling very convenient.”
Federer’s busy travelling schedule has not decreased since the twins’ arrival. Mirka seems to watch just about every match he plays, and if you consider that they now total around 1,200 (including doubles), she would have to have a certain affinity for the game. Will he and Mirka teach their girls to play tennis? “Mirka and I will certainly expose them to the game of tennis as it is very natural for us to do so,” he says. “But in the end we will leave it up to them if they want to play it seriously like we both did.”
Mirka and Roger are one of several famous tennis couples past and present, such as Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, and Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt. What is about tennis players, does he think, that makes them marry other tennis players?
“Probably because we are in this tennis world together and it is an easy place to meet people,” says Federer. “And also, there is an obvious understanding among tennis players as to what it takes to do it as a profession and this certainly helps.”
Federer grew up in Switzerland, near Basel, with his Swiss father and South African mother. He holds both passports. Although he played tennis from an early age, he also played badminton and basketball, as well as lots of other sports. “Basically I was more interested if there was a ball involved,” he says. He speaks Swiss-German with his family but is also fluent in German, French and English. Growing up, his tennis heroes were Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, but he tells that if he would pick one person to play from past or present, it would be the former Australian tennis star Rod Laver.
“I would really enjoy playing Rod Laver on grass at Wimbledon. He is a legend, was such an amazing athlete and his love for the sport was so obvious.”
Who would he pick to win? “I am not sure who would win but if I had to put my house on it, I would go for Mr Laver!”
This is the third year Federer is playing at in Abu Dhabi, a tournament he describes as “the ideal way to get a jump on the season”. He adds that “the event has really grown into a wonderful annual tradition that is enjoyed by the players and the fans.” In fact, so taken with the tournament is he that when I ask what he would like to be doing in 10 years’ time, he replies, “Getting ready to go play the Mubadala World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi.”
Is this the most charming man alive? Probably. The best tennis player ever to grace the earth? Definitely.
The Federer file
BORN August 8, 1981 in Basel, Switzerland
FAMILY Wife Miroslava “Mirka” Vavrinec and twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva
HOME Bottmingen, near Basel
HOBBIES Sports (golf, football, skiing), friends, PlayStation, music, playing cards
NICKNAMES Mr Nice Guy of Tennis, Fed Express and the Swiss Maestro
TENNIS IDOLS Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg
LAST BOOK READ “I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, such as National Geographic.”
VIEW OF SELF “Open-minded, honest, positive, ambitious, friendly, happy”.
TURNED PRO 1998
NUMBER OF GRAND SLAM TITLES 16, beating Pete Sampras’s record of 14 comfortably. Sampras won 14 titles in 49 majors (1990 US Open – 2002 US Open) and Federer won 16 in a span of 27 majors (2003 Wimbledon – 2010 Australian Open). And he’s still going strong.
WIMBLEDON Federer won five consecutive men’s titles at Wimbledon from 2003-07, matching a feat achieved by only the Swedish player Björn Borg.
WORLD RANKING Federer is the first man to be ranked World No. 1 for at least four consecutive years (February 2, 2004 – August 17, 2008). He is also the first player, male or female, to be ranked No. 1 for more than 200 consecutive weeks. He is currently ranked No. 3.
WINNING STREAK From 2003-2008, Federer won a record-breaking 65 consecutive matches on grass courts before losing to the Spanish player Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final, a match that is widely recognised as one of the best of all time and is also the longest final in Grand Slam history, Nadal defeated Federer in 4 hours 48 minutes.
CAREER PRIZE MONEY TO DATE Around $67 million (Dh247 million)
WINS VERSUS LOSSES 807 to 186, a total of 70 career titles, the last of which was his recent win at the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals where he crushed Nadal in the round robin stages.
AWARDS Too many to list here, but include Laureus Sports Award, World Sportsman of the Year four times and ITF Player of the Year five times.
GREATEST MATCH The 2009 Wimbledon final, in which he triumphed over the USA’s Andy Roddick in a titanic battle. He fought off a point that would have given Roddick a two-set lead, and finally won 16-14 in the final set. The match, watched by many former champions in the Royal Box, saw Federer break Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles.
What they say about him…
“The best way to beat him would be to hit him over the head with a racket.” Rod Laver, tennis legend
“For me, Roger is the greatest player who ever played the game of tennis.” Björn Borg, winner of 11 Grand Slam titles
“I think Roger is dominating the game much more than I ever did. I think he’s going to go on and pass 14 and win 16, 17, 18 majors. I think he’s going to break all records.” Pete Sampras, who held the record for 14 Grand Slam wins before Federer broke it
“If he is playing very good, I have to play unbelievable. If not, it’s impossible, especially if he’s playing with good confidence. When he’s 100 per cent, he’s playing in another league. It’s impossible to stop him. I fight. I fight. I fight. Nothing to say. Just congratulate him.” Rafael Nadal, ranked World No. 2
“In the modern game, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer.” Jimmy Connors, winner of eight Grand Slams
“I’d like to be in his shoes for one day to know what it feels like to play that way.” Mats Wilander, winner of seven Grand Slams
“Maybe Roger Federer will rescue tennis. He plays like we did in the past.” Ilie Nastase, first ever World No. 1 when rankings were introduced in 1973
“I never played anyone playing that fast. He doesn’t have any weaknesses at all. He really deserves to be called the best player of all time.” Robin Söderling, ranked World No. 13
The Mubadala World Tennis Championship runs from December 29-31 at the tennis complex at Zayed Sports City. For information and tickets, go to www.mubadalawtc.com
To support the Roger Federer Foundation for children, go to www.rogerfedererfoundation.org
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019