Such is life. Or, at least, such is the life of the greatest tennis player of the modern era. When I meet Federer, on a stormy spring day, he has just arrived in Epernay, France, by helicopter and is sunk deep into a sofa in the high-ceilinged Directoire drawing room of Trianon House, at the headquarters of Moët & Chandon, for whom he works as a brand ambassador.
You can see why a fabled champagne spends money on Federer. He is 33 and handsome. He has enjoyed unrivaled success on the court, with 17 Grand Slam wins so far and innumerable associated records. His wardrobe is sleek and classic, with a suggestion of rakishness; today’s outfit is Interview Casual: linen, with camel boots. Most important, he plays tennis with—only French words will do here—élan, jouissance, finesse.
When David Foster Wallace talked of the “beauty and genius” of Federer’s game, it was not hyperbole. Professional tennis requires extraordinary athleticism and fierce hitting, and there’s an infinitesimal margin between success and failure. Not only has Federer spent more than a decade at the mountaintop of his sport, he has done so with the apparent ease of a fish swimming downstream. Other champions of the current era—Nadal, Djokovic, Murray—want spectators to know how tough the sport is on their way to victory. They roar, they sweat, they invoke merci-less gods. Not so Federer. In his toughest matches he maintains a daunting equipoise and a thrilling expressiveness. Even now, in the autumn of his career, when he wins tournaments less often, there appears to be an overabundance of joy in each performance.
The mistake, Federer says, is to believe everything you see.
“I look like I’m so laid-back, I love everything, it all came so easily for me,” he says, the pan-European accent somehow reinforcing the leisurely impression. “But it wasn’t like that at all.”
Federer was once a hothead. That’s old news, but it’s still surprising. The son of regular, non-pressuring, middle-class parents (Robert and Lynette Federer met through their work at a Swiss pharmaceutical firm in South Africa and moved back to Robert’s native Switzerland in 1973), he was a teenage brat. He smashed rackets, he shouted at umpires, he sulked magnificently. There was no doubting Federer’s talent, but his tempestuous demeanor seemed to hurt him. Muttering darkly to himself after every point, he remembers being “such a perfectionist that I could not accept mistakes.”
Federer tells a story about how, in 2000, when he was 18 years old and in his first ATP World Tour final, in Marseille, he lost to friend and fellow Swiss Marc Rosset. At the end of the match Federer wept openly on the court—“like, out of control.” Rosset hugged him at the net and told him he shouldn’t worry. It was only one match, Rosset said, and Federer would win many more tournaments than Rosset ever had, or would. “And I was like, ‘It’s so easy to say! Maybe I’ll never win a tournament!’ ” (Federer giggles a little at the historic irony of Rosset’s assertion: He would go on to win more than any man in the history of the sport.)
Federer, a late bloomer in tennis terms, didn’t win his first Grand Slam tournament until 2003, when he beat Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon, one month before his 22nd birthday. His most talented contemporaries, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, and Marat Safin, all won their first Grand Slam titles at 20. Federer was capable of momentous individual victories—in 2001, at 19, he defeated the great Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in the fourth round—but it took him a few more years than his rivals to put a string of those performances together and win a big tournament. “I wasn’t Tiger Woods, or Rafa, or -Hingis—one of those genius superkids who you knew one day would be a champion,” he says.
What is less well examined is how Federer emerged from the pack of prospects and how he shook off the angst—in short, how he fully realized his talent. The answer, he says, is that he made an effort to become Roger Federer as we now understand him: happy, level, accomplished, nerveless. It was a conscious act of will.
In his early years on tour he spent a huge amount of time watching tapes of himself. What he wanted to know, from that bird’s-eye view, was whether he liked what he saw. And he didn’t—at least, not all of it. He knew, for one thing, that he needed to curb his temper. He also learned to see the game from a detached perspective, so he could plot three shots ahead. Most significantly of all, he decided, “I want to be happy when I play.”
By degrees Federer taught himself to love the experience of tennis. He started to appreciate the crowds, to realize the privilege that comes with appearing on a sold-out center court. He took pleasure in individual shots and rallies. When he started winning Grand Slam titles, he embraced the attention. Where once he hated talking to the press, believing it was there to “break me,” he started to see reporters as a bridge to the fans. Whereas the thought of wearing a suit had been “a horror,” he began to enjoy good clothes and attending red carpet events. He made friends with pop stars and princesses. Younger athletes (including golfer Rory McIlroy, who has called Federer a mentor) took note of his ability to radiate confidence without arrogance and followed suit.
Federer also taught himself to lose with equanimity. “Nobody is a better loser,” says Tony Godsick, his longtime agent. “He doesn’t dwell. One day, two days, it’s over.” He learned to draw his motivation not from fear of defeat but from joy in victory. “That feeling of match point, winning match point… That’s where the circle closes,” Federer says. “A beautiful feeling.”
That approach may sound simple, but clearly not everybody in tennis has drunk Federer’s elixir. Take Andre Agassi’s extraordinary book, Open, in which the former champion talks of the long periods in which he hated tennis, comparing the sport to “solitary confinement.” Federer says he couldn’t believe that what Agassi wrote was true. In Federer’s eyes it was just not possible for someone as gifted and competitive as Agassi to have hated his job so thoroughly. “For me it’s the only right thing to do: to be happy, feel happy, and also share that with the people,” he says. “It’s very important to me.”
Happiness is a theme to which Federer returns repeatedly. In 2003, for instance, the same year he won the first of his 17 Grand Slam tournaments, his girlfriend (and future wife), fellow Swiss tennis player Mirka Vavrinec, had recently retired from the professional circuit following a string of injuries. Professional tennis players are nomads, on the road as much as 42 weeks a year. The young couple decided to travel together, with Vavrinec helping Federer organize his press commitments. (It was a job she soon quit, when she realized she would be “saying no 95 percent of the time.”) Eleven years after they booked their first plane tickets together, and five years into their marriage, they have two sets of twins: five-year-old Myla Rose and Charlene Riva; and Lenny and Leo, born three weeks before our interview.
Federer, who is still wearing the dazed grin of a man at the head of a family that now runs to six people, remembers that the decision to travel with his girlfriend seemed like the only sensible one to make. “She was missing me on the road, and I was missing her when she was home… It was an interesting time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, 365 days of the year. And, yeah, we loved every moment of it and still do.”
The logistics, he admits, have become more complicated lately. When he, Mirka, the children—and the assortment of coaches, assistants, and other helpers they need to keep their professional and family lives in order—move from one city to another, it is, he says, like a circus. He used to enjoy trying out a different hotel every time he hit a new city. Now he prefers to return to the same ones, so the Federer brood can stay in familiar rooms. (He thinks his kids are having an “unbelievably cool” experience, but he is beginning to tire of the packing and unpacking. He says he sometimes packs suitcases for three months at a time.)
Many professional athletes would balk at this level of complication in their lives. One truism about sports is that you need utter focus and few distractions to survive at the highest levels. But Federer thinks otherwise. For long periods of his life, tennis was the first priority. Now, despite his continuing ambitions, there is competition for his attention. “Not being with my kids is like—well, what’s the point in having kids?” he says.
Federer’s swelling family is a reminder that he is no longer the longhaired teenager who first thrilled the tennis world. He is now in the fifth set of his career. Last year, when he was struggling to beat players he would have destroyed in past seasons, there were people who thought he should quit while the world retained its memories of his glory years. There is, they said, nothing sadder than a fading champion. What’s more, he had surpassed or equaled almost every record in tennis and—because of his longevity and commercial endorsements—become one of the richest sportsmen on the planet. (As of June 2014 he had earned $81million in career prize money. Forbes estimates that he is also paid in the region of $40million a year by his major sponsors: Rolex, Credit Suisse, Wilson, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, and Moët & Chandon.) So why was he still out there? Was he chasing one more Slam title?
“No, that’s more of a press thing,” he says. “They love numbers.” He is not, he insists, obsessed with Grand Slams. “I like playing tennis. I like everything about it.”
To explain, he goes back to the beginning: “I didn’t expect to become a professional tennis player. Everything after top 100 and even top 10 for me was, like, way beyond. Yeah, I was joking about winning Wimbledon when I was younger, but did I ever really, really believe that it was going to happen? Probably not. But let’s just sort of dream big and give it a chance, you know? So everything, the whole last 10 years, has been more than I could ever ask for. And for that reason, I think, I have this pleasure and this fun, because I remember how it feels to play on Court 23. I remember how sad and angry I was when I was younger. I remember how much work I put into it. And that’s why I don’t want to give it away just like that.”
At Wimbledon, six weeks after we meet, it is evident how much pleasure Federer continues to derive from playing tennis in the grandest arenas. He has won his first six matches at the All England Club in style, and the final, against Novak Djokovic, is a classic. Just as it’s looking as if Federer might lose in the fourth set, he rediscovers his best tennis and muscles his way back to even the match at two sets all. Finally, in the fifth—despite delivering shots of almost unimaginable finesse and despite the roar of a crowd that is almost entirely rooting for him—he narrowly loses to his younger rival. Federer tries to console himself. Although a win would have given him an unequaled eight Wimbledon titles, he enjoyed a day few thought possible a year ago. He smiles ruefully, and cries a little. You can see why he’s not yet ready to forgo such experiences. And why, according to reports, he will not retire before the 2016 Olympics.
When he does quit, he says, he’d like to live in Switzerland, “retreat a little bit” and be “happy not to be recognized so much.” He can imagine finding another job in tennis, “helping kids, juniors, that kind of stuff.”
He’ll also spend more time making trips for the 11-year-old Roger Federer Foundation, a charity that helps children gain access to education, primarily in southern Africa. His mother Lynette grew up in South Africa, and he believed that if he ever did charity work it should be in a region that he knew well. He also wanted to have an impact on a discrete area: education.
“I said, ‘I just want to focus on one thing and do that a hundred percent,’ ” says Federer, whose charity currently assists 86,400 children, with the goal of 1 million by 2018. “It’s important for the people who give you the money to see clearly what you’re trying to stand for. If somebody gives you one dollar, they know what’s going to happen with that dollar. For me it’s been a privilege being able to do that and having the trust of people.”
Federer may also indulge more epicurean pleasures than life as an athlete has allowed. The chalet he built in the Swiss Alps—designed by Arndt Geiger Herrmann—contains a large wine cellar, and he has said he is eager to become an oenophile. Meanwhile, in the evening following our interview, dressed in a suit and dress shirt, he gives Moët & Chandon full value for its money as he glad-hands company executives, journalists, chefs, and friends at a dinner cooked by Yannick Alléno, the three-Michelin-starred French chef, with champagne pairings by Moët’s chef de cave, Benoît Gouez. When it comes time to give a little speech, Federer toasts the crowd with the latest Moët vintage, from 2006. That year, he says with a broad grin on his face, was “a pretty nice one for me.” Yes, pretty nice: He won the Australian, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open titles.
The French have a good word that the English language has borrowed and corrupted: amateur. In its purest sense it describes Roger Federer. It means lover. Clearly, he is an accomplished professional who trains hard and has amassed a mountain of cash. Just as clearly, he is no longer in it for the money, if he ever was. He is an amateur. His love of the game oozes from him, and it has endeared him to the public as much as any other quality he may possess.
That ardor makes itself known at unlikely moments. In the 2008 Wimbledon finals Federer played what many experienced observers believe to have been the greatest match the world has ever seen, against Rafael Nadal. On an increasingly gloomy Centre Court, Nadal won in five sets, ending Federer’s run of five consecutive Wimbledon titles—but not before the pair had contested some of the most gorgeous points you could ever wish to see.
Federer recalls that, in the immediate aftermath of the match, “it was sort of tragic” and that he returned to his hotel to eat pizza, despondent. But when he headed to America for his next tournament, everyone wanted to talk about his battle with Nadal. He soon began to understand that millions of people had watched the final and thought “it was amazing.” He started to see past the loss and accept that the world had fallen in love with him as an athlete at a moment of professional disappointment. Fans, he says, “relate to you sometimes more when you lose. And then I think I got unbelievable support from 2008 onward. They wanted to see me win again.”