In the latest edition of the Fan Club, I talk with Joella, an attorney from New Jersey, about the appeal of the all-time Grand Slam champ and new world No. 1, Roger Federer. This is Part I of our discussion, which will continue today and tomorrow.
When we met at the U.S. Open a couple of years ago, I knew you were a true Federer fan because I caught you worrying your way through—“frazzling” in the local vernacular—a match between your man and Jürgen Melzer. I remember thinking, “What does she think could happen? That Federer might lose?” But that’s the way it is with fans. We’re always worried, always fearing the worst, always warning, no matter who the opponent is, “I don't know, this guy could be dangerous.” That’s how our favorite player has to think before each match, of course, and occasionally, the opponent really is dangerous. And it's true, Melzer did take one set to a tiebreaker. That qualifies as dangerous in these days of top-player dominance.
This seems like an appropriate time to talk with a Federer fan—I hope, before you start frazzling over the Olympics, that you’ve taken some time to savor this particular moment in his career. He’s No. 1 again, he's the Wimbledon champ again, and he's avenged a couple of recent Slam losses to Novak Djokovic. Plus, he's the favorite for the event that might mean the most to him. Since making a surprise run to the semis and meeting his future wife at the Sydney Games in 2000, Federer has made no secret of his love for the Olympics, and his desire for a singles gold. He was even inspired enough to come through in doubles in Beijing. I’m sure he’ll be extremely motivated not to finish his career without any singles medals—that would be strange, wouldn’t it?
Of course you know all that, and lot more about the life and career of Roger Federer. I'll start by asking if you remember when you first saw him play, or if there was a moment when you knew you were a fan, and what it was about him that appealed to you.
I met Federer before I ever saw him play, in Key Biscayne in 1999, when he was 18. I was there to do an interview with him for Tennis Magazine for our "On the Rise" section, about up-and-coming hot shots. These were Fed's teenage yellow hair days, and he was relaxed and obliging when we asked him to stand between two palm trees on the beach for a photo. He seemed like a friendly, straightforward guy.
The next time I interviewed him was also at Key Biscayne, in 2006, for an article about his budding rivalry with Nadal. This was Federer at his peak, and he was, not surprisingly, more outgoing, more confident, and more willing to wax sarcastic when his buddies were around. Federer is not without an edge, but from what I can tell he has matured and mellowed in his married years.
Even in ’06, though, Federer didn't put on a star's attitude. Like all athletes, he can bristle in press conferences, but one thing I've always liked about him is that he'll talk to you naturally, person to person. For example. After his U.S. Open semifinal loss to Djokovic last year, Federer had been emotional—stunned, really—to start his press conference. At the end, when he was done with the questions, he saw a familiar face walk past him. I expected him to stay silent and get out of there ASAP, but instead he cracked a quick smile and said, “Hey, how are you?”
I remember that Melzer match well; a bunch of us Tennisworld t’wibers without evening tickets sat around watching it on the big screen. Pete Bodo was to one side of me, in earnest conversation about the nature of internet journalism. I kept giving these squeaks and yelps of excitement and each time Pete would jump and quickly turn his head towards the screen, worried he’d missed some significant incident. He never had, of course.
When did I first know I was a Federer fan? Probably during the 2004 Australian Open final. It had been a great tournament for me, as I cheered on Federer and Marat Safin to get through their respective halves of the draw and I looked forward to an exciting and tightly contested final, with a sympathetic winner whoever emerged on top. Of course, it didn’t turn to be a great match, as Safin was tired and Federer was supreme. But to my surprise, I found myself not particularly disappointed, nor was I rooting for the underdog Safin to make a comeback once he’d fallen behind—I was just happy to see Federer win and continue his amazing run. True fans usually don’t root for exciting matches; they want their favorite to win as quickly and painlessly as possible. And apparently I now was one.
It happened pretty fast. While I’d first heard Federer’s name when he took out Sampras at Wimbledon, I’d missed the match. Given his subsequent dismal Slam results (I was a Slam-only tennis watcher at the time), it was not until Wimbledon 2003 that I saw him play—first in his classic semifinal against Roddick, and then of course the Wimby final. I loved his grace and brilliant shotmaking, in contrast to the more brutal power of his opponents. I’d always enjoyed stylish players—former favorites included Hana Mandlikova, Edberg, Rafter, and Graf—so no surprise that Federer’s strokes suited my taste. Later that year, at somewhat loose ends in a new apartment in a small town, I made a channel-surfing discovery—it was possible to watch tennis on TV outside of the Slams! So I got to see more of Fed, including matches in Montreal and the Masters Cup, and the more I saw of his shotmaking the more I enjoyed it.
I was intrigued by what I saw of his personality as well. The first time I’d ever heard him speak was during the Sue Barker interview at the Wimby trophy ceremony, which is worth a re-watch:(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2M8kgLSlPg). Beyond the tears and delight, there is the trademark innocent narcissism: “I love my game, watching myself . . .”, and the unquenchable enthusiasm. When asked how he felt experiencing what the great Pete Sampras had so many times, the young Fed replied, “I don’t think he ever got bored.” Years later, many have wondered that Federer is not yet bored, given all his success and mileage. But we could have known he was unlikely to be, if we’d listened carefully from the start.
People sometimes laugh at Fed for being self-enamored, but I very much liked that Fed himself was a Fed fan. His tennis game is his form of self-expression, and what artist with a true love of his craft does not take pleasure in the product? His enthusiasm for the sport and pleasure in his own game to me brings him closer to, not farther from, the spectator.
Still, it was not until the summer of 2004, when I discovered the Federer official website, that I first read about Fed’s family background and childhood, and that's when he became even more special to me. I learned that we had had some surprising things in common: We are both products of marriages between parents from very different countries (Switzerland and South Africa in his case, USA and Israel in mine), and we both grew up in our father’s country, to which our mother had immigrated at around age 21.
Moreover, our mothers had handled the situation similarly, taking us for frequent summer visits to the family and country she’d come from, as well as ensuring that we grew up able to communicate with our maternal relatives: my first words as a baby, like Roger’s, were in my mother’s language rather than my father’s. There were similarities in the parenting styles described as well, which he once summarized as “discipline from my father; looseness from my mother”; an experience which mirrored my own. I learned of his struggles, despite his talent, with focus and discipline. It was all very, very familiar.
I was quite fascinated. I had certainly not expected to “identify” in such ways with a top tennis pro, not to mention the player who was already my favorite.
So I began to follow Federer’s career on a daily basis and became more emotionally invested in his matches and progress. Since I’ve always been interested in what makes people successful, I began to see what I could learn—how was this guy, like me in many ways, able to reach the top of the world? And how would he continue to navigate that rarified air? The anecdote you tell of Fed’s ability, after an unpleasant press conference and devastating loss, to not let his bad mood and bad fortune overwhelm him, is typical of many I’ve heard and points to his ability to compartmentalize. I suspect it’s a great asset, and one of the keys to his resilience and buoyancy over the years.
I think it’s quite a story: How a kid many considered lazy and destined to become an underachiever, became one of the most successful athletes of his generation. So hopefully we can explore that journey a bit more as we continue our chat.