I was barely a month old when I suggested that Roger Federer would never win another Grand Slam title.
The then 17-time Grand Slam champion, just turned 32, lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round at Wimbledon (ending his 36th consecutive major quarter-final), and then to Tommy Robredo in the round of 16. US Open
Put it down, perhaps, to inexperience, as well as not owning a significant back problem, which Federer later detailed.
It’s not remotely controversial to suggest that nine years ago, a thirty-year-old tennis player’s best days might be behind him. It’s just that since then Federer and Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are now following themselves, subverting convention and expectation.
“I’m inspired in a big way by people like Usain Bolt or Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Valentino Rossi or Michael Schumacher: guys who did things at the highest level for a very long time,” he told me after winning an eighth. Wimbledon title, a month before turning 36, in 2017.
“When I was younger I would be amazed at what they did. I couldn’t understand how they would prepare for games day in and day out, train every day and give 100%. I struggled with that a lot when I was younger.”
Federer also struggled with his fitness and temper – racquet swings, tears and profanities were not uncommon during his teenage years. But two new relationships that emerged in 2000 made a big difference.
He began working with fitness trainer Pierre Paganini, whom he had met a few years earlier at the Swiss national training center. The partnership has lasted throughout Federer’s career.
And he also met Mirka, who would become his wife nine years later. They both represented Switzerland at the Sydney Olympics that year, and played mixed doubles together at the 2002 Hopman Cup. Mirka’s career was ended by a foot injury that year, but he quickly became the “rock” of his life.
Federer’s greatest golden season was between 2003 Wimbledon and the 2010 Australian Open. He won 16 of the 27 Grand Slam tournaments played during that time (and reached the finals of another six). But even the autumn years of his career had a golden hue.
The highlight of all was his 2017 Australian Open title, which he achieved by beating four top-10 players and winning three matches in five sets, despite being 35 and missing the previous six months due to knee surgery.
Federer was playing with a repaired knee, and from behind. A switch to a bigger racquet a couple of years ago was paying dividends now, offering him more power and spin, and more success in the final against Nadal.
An eighth Wimbledon title followed in the summer, a 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne next January, and had Djokovic not saved two tournament points in the 2019 Wimbledon final, he would have become the oldest player to beat Federer. A Grand Slam in the Open era.
So many memories. There is no one more special than winning the only French Open in 2009, becoming only the sixth man in history (at that stage) to complete the Grand Slam.
French crowds were desperate to win that Roland Garros final against Robin Soderling, and many looked conflicted when Switzerland faced France in the 2014 Davis Cup final. A world record tennis crowd of 27,448 gathered under Stade Pierre’s retractable roof. Mauroy to watch Federer win the prestigious team competition in Lille.
Interviewing Federer was always a pleasure, with perhaps one exception, a few days before that Davis Cup final. Last Saturday night, at the ATP Finals in London, Federer survived four match points to defeat his Swiss teammate Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals. But Wawrinka was very upset with Mirka’s shouting from the stands during the match, and the two exchanged more than a few words in the dressing room afterwards.
Two days later, I was the only English-speaking journalist at the first Swiss team press conference of the week in Lille. They started with questions in English. There was only one topic that an English-speaking audience wanted to hear. It certainly wasn’t the only topic Federer wanted to talk about. But, as always, he responded – even if his usual politeness was laced with a hint of irritation.
The debate about the greatest of all time is in the eye of the beholder. Federer has been surpassed statistically by Williams, Nadal and Djokovic, but he played the match with a balletic elegance that is beyond modern comparison. He had balance and coordination in his legs; the touch of velvet with an iron front; and Muhammad Ali’s footwork.
Federer says he used to cry after every match he lost until he was 15, so it was a surprise when he finally started crying after winning.
And that was a big part of its enduring appeal. The tennis he played may not have been relatable, but his warm and emotional nature was.