Nole vs. Fed: In the Interview Room

Saturday, March 15, 2014 /by

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer may meet in the final here at the BNP Paribas Open, but there’s no question they’ve been on their games in the interview room. The tournament has a more relaxed atmosphere than any of the other majors and most of the other Masters, and that can translate into more thoughtful ruminations from the pros in their pressers—provided they’re winning, of course. Federer and Djokovic have been winning, and talking, for the last week. Here’s a look at a few of the highlights from their interviews. At times, the progressive Djokovic and the traditionalist Federer seem to offer competing visions for the sport.

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Djokovic on the idea of a “Fifth Grand Slam”: “Everything in life is evolving, progressing. There has to be times when people start thinking ahead. What can we change? Indian Wells is one of the ATP events that shows that ATP events deserve to be in the same league. Why not?... I mean, we have Grand Slams and we have ATP tournaments, but there is no rule that is saying that the Grand Slams have to be eternally the biggest events in the world in our sport.”

...and on what scheduling changes he might like to see: “There are some things. I mean, in an ideal world, Australian Open can start three, four weeks later, you know.”

If Djokovic were a U.S. Supreme Court judge, he would obviously not be an originalist. And if Federer is this generation’s Sampras, Djokovic is something like its Agassi—Novak and Andre are seekers at heart. In fact, I wonder if Djokovic was seeking a little too much when he hired Boris Becker as his coach; part of his reasoning was that he simply had to do something. Federer has spent a fair amount of time in his career doing the opposite: Sticking with what wasn’t working for him.

I like Djokovic’s attitude when it comes to a fifth Slam. Why not consider it? If something is as successful as the majors, why not try to create another? Djokovic, unlike Federer, is also in favor of moving the ATP World Tour Finals out of London and on to a new city. As great as London has been, it's a good idea.

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Federer on on-court coaching coming to the men’s game: “I really hope it doesn’t. If it does happen, its hopefully after I’m done playing. I really don’t think it’s necessary, because not everybody can afford a coach. We’ll see girlfriends walking out, we’ll see parents walking out. It will look amateur-like in my opinion.”

Tell us how you really feel, Roger. I’m not exactly sure what he means by girlfriends and parents coming on court, but Federer has always been a big believer in doing the work yourself on court. He has likened playing a match to taking a test; practice is the equivalent of homework, and getting help from a coach is the same as cheating.

I disagree with Federer that “not everybody can afford a coach” is a good reason to keep them off the court. It’s already true that not everyone can hire the best coaches, but nobody stops rich players from doing it and traveling all over the world with them. Even without on-court coaching, the wealthiest pros can get top-dollar advice the other 22 hours a day if they want it. 

But I do agree that I wouldn’t want to see a girlfriend come out and have a changeover canoodling session with their player.

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Djokovic on whether lower-ranked players have been inspired by Stan Wawrinka’s Aussie Open win: “I think the players, not just the top players but the ones between 10 and 20, are as good as the top players game-wise. On a good day they can win. It’s just a matter of self-belief and, you know, a few points can decide a winner. You’ve got new faces and new players, and this is good for the sport....It makes us all work harder.”

As with his own game, and with the structure of the sport, Djokovic sees change as inevitable. Notice, though, that he doesn’t necessarily believe there will be any big changes at the top. Instead, he says that more competition will inspire the best guys to work harder to keep the others at bay.

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Federer on whether lower-ranked have been inspired by Stan Wawrinka’s Aussie Open win: “Well, they have to prove it. I mean, one tournament doesn’t do it all for me yet. I I mean, it’s nice they believe more in it, and it’s nice that they take Stan as an inspiration. That’s great. That’s what it’s supposed to be. I think they should believe more in beating the top guys than just one-offs once in a while...Novak and myself are still in the draw, so we will see who’s going to end up winning the tournament in the end.”

Federer has a reputation with the general public, inspired by a million Rolex ads, as a suave gentleman. But in reality he can be the game’s bluntest truth-teller. When it comes to new faces, he doesn’t go in for “good for the game” stuff the way Novak does, or admit that change is inevitable. Yet Federer is right about everything he says here, and he’s not bragging when he says he's still one of the people to beat.

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Federer on his favorite time as a player, when he was 17 to 21 years old: “For me, it was amazing times back then playing on the tour, because those were the guys I knew from TV. Those are the guys I wanted to play against one day, but it’s such a far off dream you don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Next thing you know you’re right in the mix of it. I must say that’s very, very special, and I will always look back at that as some of the best days of my playing days.”

Isn’t it interesting that Federer's favorite time on tour came before he had won any of his 17 Grand Slam titles? (He won his first when he was nearly 22.) For successful people, it’s often those wanna-be days they pine for, when they were striving to make it, before the comfort of success came. Federer has always been a tennis fan as much as a player, and those were the years when he got to be both.

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Djokovic on taking time to talk to kids at tournaments and sign autographs: “There are many kids around here who love the sport, and when I was a kid also I was looking up to all these great tennis players and I was watching a few of the tournaments live. For me, that was an amazing experience. I know how important it was and how much it made my day when I saw an important tennis player I was looking up to.”

Like Fed, the fan experience has also been a powerful one for Novak. That’s what we’re all looking for in sports, right? That feeling of overwhelming importance we got from it when we were kids. Djokovic and Federer have known it, and never forgotten it.

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Djokovic invading a press conference with Grigor Dimitrov:

Djokovic: Can I ask you one question? What is your favorite Sugarpova candy?

Dimitrov: Flirty Sour

Dimitrov on Djokovic: He’s a great guy off the court. We have a great relationship. We can speak a little bit of the same language.

Here’s something else Djokovic and Federer seem to share: Familial relations with Dimitrov. The Bulgarian has been known as Baby Fed, but maybe now we should start calling him Brother Nole.

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