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Gavin Rossdale: On Federer, fatherhood, forehands

by: | June 12, 2009

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The global celebrity of British rocker Gavin Rossdale derives both from his success as a musician and from his marriage to American pop star Gwen Stefani, with whom he has two sons. What’s less known about the former Bush frontman, 43, is that he is also a lifelong tennis fanatic—and a superb player in his own right. A close friend of Roger Federer’s, Rossdale was among the captivated spectators at last summer’s epic Wimbledon final, which Federer lost to Rafael Nadal. Rossdale discussed that experience in an interview with in New York City, where he was promoting his debut solo album Wanderlust. Also part of the conversation: football, fatherly duties, and being fed forehands by the Scud.
Have you had to cut back on your tennis at all since the arrival of your second little one? (Rossdale’s son Zuma was born in August 2008.)
No way, I’ve got to stay good for him. Being a musician, unless you’re doing promo, your day really doesn’t start until 12 or 1 p.m. It may go on until 1 a.m., but you have the mornings. So most mornings, five or six days a week, I’m doing stuff.

Do you do a lot of physical training beyond your on-court time?
Twice a week. All that stuff that you need – core, and that’s why the Pilates is amazing. Not so much running, because I mean I do so much f---ing running [on the court]. But just more strength stuff and lunges and nasty stuff like that. I never used to do them and I used to think that just playing was enough. And then you realize that it’s really not – that everyone does it. So therefore I just was like, you know what? Make like a sheep and follow on.

Gavin Rossdale
Pilates much? Rossdale hones his game.
You have a good workout partner in your wife.
We don’t work out together. It’s like you’ve got to keep the romance alive. No one wants to be sweating like a pig – that would be me. She just glows, clearly.

Whom do you hit with on a daily basis?
There are a few guys in L.A. There’s Wade McGuire, ex-USTA. And then whoever’s coming through town, really. I have a lot of good people come and hit.

Are you really competitive when you’re out there on a random Tuesday morning?
It’s very Zen because I always play people that are usually professional tennis players. So it’s not like I’m really going to be able to beat them. My goal is to hang with them, and hit properly and train properly. So that’s what I do, and yeah – I’m competitive with myself, which is what tennis is. Just try and do it right. I don’t hit and giggle, hit and giggle, that stuff. I want to do it right. So I have fun being intense.

Are there parts of your game that are still improving?
Absolutely. I’m always working on stuff. I actually changed my forehand grip about a year ago. So that’s been really crazy. I used to be way too extreme. It was just really difficult with low balls. I saw myself on video, I was practicing with a friend of mine, and video is such a great way of seeing where you’re at, and I was like, “that forehand’s s---. You better do something about it.”

So it was really hard at first, the change. Changing grip is really tricky. God, the first few months, it was really embarrassing. Now I don’t think about it. So I’m having a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it and playing a lot.

Did someone in particular work with you on reconstructing that shot?
Mark Philippoussis. It was very difficult to be hitting with him and getting fed from a basket like you’ve never hit a ball, just because you’re learning a new grip.

Gavin Rossdale
                                          Anja Niedringhaus/AP Photo
Rossdale sat next to Federer's girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec (l) in the players' box during the 2008 Wimbledon final.
Tell me about Wimbledon this year, particularly the final.

Do we have to talk about that? Very emotional, very painful, but an incredible event. Just unfortunate that we were on the wrong side.

It was too dark at the end. I understand the drama, but it was way too dark. You couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t even see to the other end, let alone try to return a ball. The first match point that Rafa had, Roger hit a backhand crosscourt. And I think serving in that light is no problem because it’s so instinctive. But returning 120 miles an hour on grass was tough, and Roger actually hit a clear winner – it was a backhand winner he hit – and then it went the wrong way.

You get a small insight into that predicament from being around it and people in that. But like they say, in life the mark of a champion is how you recover from that. I mean there are lots of examples of players, not champions, who have had big matches against champions who have come really close and haven’t clinched it and haven’t been able to close it out, and then they disappear. It’s so traumatic going to that level that it’s the mark of a true champion that comes through it. And then obviously [Federer’s] win here in New York was fantastic.

Were you seeing Roger at night during the fortnight?
Yeah, of course, a few times. Though Wimbledon is not in London. It’s really far. Also I hadn’t been there for five months so I had a lot of people to see, so I didn’t really see much other tennis. It’s an eight-hour commitment.

Your wife, who was very pregnant at the time, was a trooper, sitting through some long matches.
I know. She doesn’t really have any desire to get to know any sports stuff. But then with Lindsay [Davenport] and with Roger, sort of knowing people and being friends with people, she always wants them to win and is always watching them.

While you were watching the Wimbledon final were you aware that you were watching something historic?
No, I mean obviously the first two sets I was worried that it was a repeat of the French, so I was more thinking about when the change was going to come. The best thing about tennis is the seesaw effect – just when you think you’re winning, you’re losing, when you think you’re losing, you’re winning. So that’s what’s so enticing for me about the game – that it really can swivel real quick. And I was thinking, “the swivel’s slow in coming today.” And the gargantuan task of taking back two sets and then the third set. And no one can normally survive being two sets up and then that momentum swing… So it just was great.

I mean, obviously, I’d clearly love Roger to win everything, forever, for all time. That goes without saying. But I think that objectively it’s been fantastic for tennis to have this rivalry. You know, you had it throughout the history of tennis and so I think it’s really great for the game. Because you’d see people talking about tennis that don’t normally concentrate on it. Though I’d love to see more coverage of it here in America.

It’s surprising that Federer isn’t more of a superstar here in the States.
Yeah, I think that the way they do the programming is very strange. Like in England, I don’t know what it is technically, but when you watch Wimbledon on the BBC, you switch on and you get six boxes. You have a choice of six courts. Here you kind of get the one match. [Usually] the Americans, which is great to watch, but it’s a shame it doesn’t open out more. America has been traditionally such a great force, I mean McEnroe – we’re in the home of Johnny Mac. And then you think about New York, the number of places where kids can go and play. It’s not like there’s great help for kids to go and play.

Did you come here for U.S. Open as well?
No, I was home on family business. There was a new baby. I was trying to negotiate coming in for the last weekend but I lost the negotiation. I tried. I did my best.

Gavin Rpssdale
Gavin Rossdale
                                                 Getty Images
Rossdale is a regular presence at high-profile tournaments (top, at Indian Wells, with wife Gwen Stefani in 2006; bottom, at the 2006 U.S. Open).
Do you think Roger’s the greatest of all time? Is it too soon to say?
It was such a fairytale year. To have come back from illness and to have a “disastrous” year of one semifinal lost, two major finals lost and one major won. That’s the kind of year other people would give their entire careers for. That in itself – that kind of disastrous year with illness shows that he’s definitely in a small group. So we’ll see, you know. It’s exciting. The main thing is you just see the hunger from him. The hunger from all those tennis players is extreme but Roger, you know, it’s inspiring.

It seems like a contradiction that someone who’s a rock star and all that that implies would be big into Wimbledon, where it’s all about protocol and decorum and tradition. What is it about Wimbledon that appeals to you?
It was much more going to watch Roger. I mean, that is where it loses out for a lot of English kids. Where I grew up, no one played tennis. Everyone played football. So tennis is sort of quite fancy in England and I think it’s much better to break it up and for it not to be just for the royal family. And you get that from understanding about it and from seeing the degree of athleticism. You know, the top 50 guys are phenomenal athletes. Phenomenal. They could play any sport. Intense artistry, commitment – it’s so passionate. I happened to be in England so I wanted to go and see Wimbledon. But tennis to me is sweating and balance. It’s not about the fancier side of it.

What do you think of Andy Murray’s recent rise? Do you know him at all?
I don’t know him at all, no. It’s just fantastic, it’s great. You know what I like about him? He reminds me a bit of McEnroe. He’s got such great hands. His returns –everything is just swept up. He’s a really incredibly gifted tennis player. And I’m half Scottish so therefore of course I’m really happy for him. I like his attitude as well. He’s quite sort of pissy. Now he’s really good for the image of [the sport] because he’s much more real than sort of blazers and Wimbledon.

Do you think you’ll see a British guy win Wimbledon in your lifetime?
There’s quite a few places I play in England, and one of the places is a public place, Westwick. It’s just a local facility, you know – it costs like five dollars to go in, that kind of stuff. It’s quite cool, quite progressive, and these are all working-class kids and they all hit the ball really well.

So there’s every chance, but I don’t really know. I have to say I hold out hope. It’d be great and there’s no reason why not. I’ll tell you what: Andy Murray’s done more to make that possible than anyone else. Because that’s what happens. Kids get inspired from seeing someone that can do it, especially someone like him who comes from sort of a regular background. He’s not overly fancy or anything like that. I wonder now how many people in Scotland are now playing tennis. A lot more than when he began. So absolutely.

I thought Tim [Henman] was a fantastic player. What a great… I mean he got to the semis at Wimbledon. And he’s a really, really, really good tennis player. So it was pretty close. But after that… The other kid, Alex Bogdanovic, is great. I like him, and I’m hoping he’s going to come through.

How did you get into the sport?
I don’t really know. Just growing up and just watching the tennis and then seeing Johnny Mac and Borg. I liked, basically, Bruce Lee, Bob Marley, and Bjorn Borg. That was my powerhouse. And Johnny Mac.

Are you going to put a racquet in your boys’ hands when the time comes? I guess Kingston has already given tennis a try.
Yeah, of course. Of course. As they wish, you know. As they wish. But it’d be kind of fun. I suppose you always want your kids to do something that in some way you can help them with. And I definitely can help him with that. So that would be fun. I mean, it would be so sad if he took up ice hockey because I’d be useless. What would I do? Who doesn’t want to contribute? There are a few things that I could help him with. About four or five things, and outside of that he’s on his own.

What are some of those things?
Music, tennis, football – I could really help him with football. And good books, things like that. And good art. And good wine. And the right beer to drink. And good restaurants. Good bands, obviously. After that… theatre – I couldn’t help him that much.

And you know what? I’d learn ice hockey. I’d figure it out.
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