He’s considered the greatest tennis player of all time, and he’s not done yet. So how does the Swiss ace stay up there with the best at 34? Self-belief, passion and a great work ethic
“GIVE YOUR BEST. NO IFS, NO BUTS”
Roger Federer knows the question will come up sooner or later; it happens every interview. “Everyone wants to know how I can still keep playing in my mid-30s – friends, fans, the media,” says Federer with a laugh. “Obviously I’m the only person not wondering. I’m healthy and motivated, and I’m just working as if the end isn’t in sight.”
It’s a sunny spring morning and Federer is sitting on the terrace of the legendary Hôtel Hermitage in Monte Carlo. He looks down at the harbour, the Prince’s Palace and the shimmering Mediterranean, enjoying the perfect day.
He’s also enjoying life on court right now; despite being a father of four, Federer can still keep up with younger competitors after almost two decades on the tour. Indeed, he remains the tennis player with most Grand Slam wins to his name.
“I go into every match thinking I can win it,” he says. “Without that feeling, you can’t perform at your best. If you don’t have that self-confidence, there’s no point stepping onto court.”
Federer is a phenomenon, probably even more so now than in the era when the Swiss star was dominant in men’s tennis, conquering anyone and everyone he came up against; more so even than in the subsequent period when he and Spaniard Rafael Nadal were locked in a fascinating duel for the title of world number one.
What makes Federer the real deal in his mid-30s is his ability to adapt, combined with a natural curiosity and never-ending passion.
He loves his sport, the competition and the success as much as he did on day one. “Am I ever satisfied? No. Never,” says Federer. “Once you’ve won one title, you want another. You just want to experience those moments over and over again. The thrill of a big win never goes away.”
His main inspiration is Andre Agassi when he was at the same stage. “I saw the focused and methodical way that Andre worked on himself, how he continued to adapt his game right up until the end of his career,” he says. “It was pretty incredible.”
Federer has consistently reinvented himself. In 2013, you could read obituaries for a stumbling maestro in a season of bitter defeats and painful periods of injury.
But Federer staged an amazing comeback under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg, thanks to a stunning adjustment to his style of play; he became brasher, forceful and more aggressive on court, which took his opponents by surprise.
“I caught them off-guard,” he says, smiling at the memory. “It’s always important to keep your head up, never give in to doubt, and to remain open to new things.”
For example, back then Federer tried out new tactics on a games console before using them in a match.
Federer didn’t see Edberg as a coach; he viewed the Swedish former champion more as a consultant and mentor.
“Often, we just spoke for hours at a time,” he says. “We’d talk about anything and everything. Sometimes we even spoke about all the seagulls swarming around in Monte Carlo. He would give me clear and precise tips for my tennis, too, of course. Sometimes I’d sit there and think, ‘Can it be true that I’m here with Stefan and that my childhood idol is now part of my team?’”
The older Federer has adopted many of the traits of the young. He’s unpredictable, unconventional, fond of discovery. He’s someone who conquers routine, and not just in the way he plays. New tournaments are now part of his standard timetable, which includes exhibition matches in distant, exotic lands.
Federer visited Turkey for the first time last year to play a tournament in Istanbul, where he was treated like a visiting dignitary, with several TV stations screening a live broadcast of his arrival at the airport.
“It’s nice when you go somewhere and everything’s laid on for you,” he says. “But what’s even nicer now is travelling to new countries and getting to know the people there. I take the time to do things that I thought about doing in the past, but never got around to. That’s how it will be for as long as I’m playing.”
Plus, the Swiss star now occasionally enjoys a day off “where I don’t know what’s going to happen. Otherwise, life is always so strictly planned”.
Federer has evolved over the course of his long career. As a teenager, he was a fearsome hothead who picked fights with opponents and umpires, and smashed up rackets, to the point where he came close to blowing his career. “Then the time came when I thought to myself, ‘Either you stop all that, or you give up the game,’” he says. “That was the turning point.”
The self-discipline that Federer employed to keep his outbursts of anger under control changed him; he became calmer, more relaxed. He had no choice – giving up was never an option. “There has never been a single day when I wasn’t in the mood for tennis,” says Federer.
He quickly rose from being criticised as an under-performer to dominating the tennis world. “Being number one was inspiring,” he says, “because you also realised that the pack chasing you respected you, too.” Federer never let down his guard, never became complacent or hubristic. He thoroughly analysed every opponent, every rising youngster.
“Nobody knows the professional tour and every player on it better than Roger,” says Federer’s countryman and fellow professional Stan Wawrinka. Federer liked to invite up-and-coming talent to train in Switzerland, or at his second home in Dubai, so that he could take a closer look at them. He enjoyed the training drills, but he enjoyed chatting to the novices even more.
“One of them recently came up to me and said, ‘You can’t get nervous in matches any more,’” says Federer. “I just smiled and said, ‘I wish.’
“You need a bit of nervous tension before a match, even now, to produce big. You just have to turn that stage fright into positive energy.”
But he’s also constantly tapping new sources of inspiration and motivation; he observes artists, fashion designers and musicians in the hope of learning how they develop ideas and use them creatively.
“I used to be much more focused on myself,” says Federer. “But now I’m excited about what a Hollywood star, say, might have to tell me.”
Recently, while recovering from a knee operation, he even found watching TV exciting. “It was thrilling to see all the strength and beauty that went into the figure-skating world championships,” he says. “It really is important to continue to take an interest in new things. That keeps my mind in order.”
Federer’s work ethic also helps. He sees the relentless, determined struggle to perform at his best as his bounden duty, not least because of the countless million Federer fans around the world.
“The way people fête me, the way they appreciate what I do and the way I do it, inspires me every day,” he says. “I don’t just turn up at a tournament and play tennis any old how. I always give it my best, no matter what. No ifs or buts.”
His chief sporting goal for this season is to capture singles gold in Rio at the Olympics, probably the only big title which still eludes him. At the London Games in 2012, he lost the final to Andy Murray. In 2008, he won doubles gold with his friend Wawrinka in Beijing.
“The thrill and the appeal of the Olympics is that you are all too aware you’ll only get another chance in four years’ time,” says Federer. “That’s what’s utterly exceptional for us as tennis players.”
He’s not the favourite to take Olympic gold: that’s Novak Djokovic, the new absolute ruler in the world of tennis. But Boris Becker, the Serb’s coach, is particularly wary of Federer. “Roger was the player who pushed Novak hardest last season,” says Becker. “He reached two Grand Slam finals against him. It’s amazing what he’s still achieving at 34.”
What will happen after this unique career? What will become of Roger Federer, the man who became bigger than his sport?
He takes a sip from his glass of water, shrugs his shoulders in the warm Monte Carlo sun, and says, “To be honest, I haven’t really given it any serious thought yet. That would upset my work.”
Federer knows what he doesn’t want, though: to go straight back into the travelling circus as a coach, manager or TV pundit. “I see how gruelling the job is that all the people around me do. It’s pretty much a 24-hour-a-day job, and often seven days a week,” he says. “When I travel the world in future, it will be with my wife and children. That will be a great joy.”