Roger Federer's connection to New York City is unmistakable, both on and off the court. Throughout this week, TENNIS.com will take a closer look at this unique bond between person and place through the eyes of celebrities, Federer's closest confidants and fans from around the five boroughs.
You can view all of our special Roger Federer & New York City content here.
"I was in the second row, and I felt really fortunate to be there,” Rob Cooper says. “I felt like this was the best tennis I’d ever seen in my life. Then, in three shots, it all went to hell.”
Cooper had been a fan of Roger Federer's since the late-1990s, when he’d caught a glimpse of the Swiss teen’s elegant strokes, and occasional shanks, while watching a small tournament on TV.
“Everyone was slugging two-handed backhands then,” says Cooper, a three-times-a-week, 5.0 player who lives in Brooklyn, “and here’s this guy hitting these really pretty one-handed backhands. He missed a lot of them, too, but I thought, ‘If this guy ever gets it together...’ ”
Now it was the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open, and Federer seemed to have it all together as Cooper watched him from up close. It was a new perspective for him, one that revealed the physicality beneath Federer’s smooth veneer.
“You could really see how powerful his movement is,” Cooper says, “and how much wrist he uses in his shots.”
Even better, Federer was winning. He held two match points against the man who had beaten him in the same round the previous year, Novak Djokovic.
“I was happy he was getting his revenge,” Cooper says.
Then he heard a sound he didn’t like.
“When Djokovic hit that crazy return at 40–15, I was like, ‘What was that?’” says Cooper of the Serb’s now-famous cannon-return winner. “It was an ‘Oh God’ moment.”
Cooper was right to have a sinking feeling. Federer lost the last four games to Djokovic and left him shaking his head at what he’d just seen.
“But the thing that’s always amazed me,” Cooper says, “is how he shrugs off losses. That was one of the toughest, but by the next summer, he was winning Wimbledon.”
Caroline Potter was in Arthur Ashe Stadium when Federer won the 2007 U.S. Open final over Djokovic, and she was there again—“squirming in my seat”—two years later when he lost the final to Juan Martin del Potro. One of her most memorable experiences was watching him in the intimately unruly confines of Louis Armstrong Stadium, when Federer was exiled there after a rain delay in 2013.
“It was bedlam,” Potter says, “like one of those old matches you see at Forest Hills where people are sitting in the aisles, and it’s a total fire hazard.”
Sometimes when she’s watching Federer live, though, Potter secretly wishes she was somewhere else.
“When it’s close,” she says, “I kind of want to be at home, making myself a martini and pacing the floors.”
That’s how Potter, who works at Open Table in Manhattan and lives with her husband in Huntington Station, NY, remembers Federer’s glory years of the mid-2000s.
“Every Sunday,” she says, “there would be five or six of us pacing around one of our apartments getting really excited for a Federer final.”
Federer’s dominance came as a happy surprise to Potter, who had originally been drawn to what she saw as his dark-horse status and long-shot style of play.
“I liked to root for the underdog,” she says, “and I liked that he beat [Mark] Philippoussis at Wimbledon [in 2003]. I thought tennis was boring then, all about the serve. And then here’s a guy who’s making it artful again.”
She also liked the joy that Federer brought to the game.
“He’s all-business on the court,” Potter says, “but off the court he’s kind of a goofball, and really guileless. There’s so much joy in him.
“I’ll always remember the 2008 Olympic Games, when he won the doubles gold medal with Stan [Wawrinka], and how overjoyed they were.”
As the veteran Federer has gone back to being something of an underdog, Potter has been happy to discover another, steelier part of his personality.
“He fights now, when maybe he wouldn’t in the past,” she says. “Before this year, I wondered if he was going to hang it up. Now, anything seems possible again.”
Best of all, Potter didn’t have to pace the floor or down a martini during Federer’s Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal earlier this year.
“I looked at my phone and screamed when I saw that he won,” she says. “My husband thought someone was breaking into the house. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just Roger.’”
Rowland Stebbins likes to think that his daughter, Cameron, came into this world at an auspicious moment.
“She was born January 19, 2017,” says Stebbins, a New York musician, squash instructor and lifelong tennis player. “By the time she’d been alive for five days, she’d already seen three Roger Federer victories.”
For Stebbins, the Australian Open offered a chance for some very early quality time with Cameron.
“I volunteered for the 3:00 a.m. shift with her,” he jokes, “which just happened to be when Roger was starting all of his matches in Melbourne.”
It was a heady confluence of events for Stebbins, who has been a Federer fan since he first saw him dismantle Andre Agassi over a decade ago.
“I remember Agassi saying, ‘This guy doesn’t have a weakness,’” Stebbins says. “Coming from Andre, that really made me want to see more of him.”
He quickly found out that “doesn’t have a weakness” didn’t do justice to what Federer was all about.
“He hit shots where I said, ‘Oh, you really can do that,” Stebbins says. “He played the way I wanted the game to be played. You could look at him and say, ‘He’s doing it right.’”
Over the years, that initial impression has been confirmed and magnified.
“I saw him avenge a loss to [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga at the U.S. Open,” Stebbins says of Federer’s straight-sets victory in the 2011 quarterfinals, “and all the qualities that I liked about him on television were even more pronounced in person. You could really appreciate his precision from up close.”
Yet when it came time for him to take over the wee-hour shift before the Australian Open final, Stebbins knew that precision alone wouldn’t be enough against Nadal. He and his daughter had seen Federer win two five-setters, but when he went down a break to Nadal in the fifth set, it was hard to believe the 35-year-old had one more miracle in him.
“It was like, ‘here we go again’ with Nadal,” Stebbins says. “The fifth set was just too stressful. I finally had to pour myself a scotch to get through it. My wife walks in and sees me with my daughter, with the glass in my hand. She gives me a look, like, ‘Do we have a problem I should know about?’”
“No problem,” Stebbins said, feeling no pain. “Federer’s going to win.”
When Federer loses, Alana Fishberg knows what she’ll hear from her two teenage sons.
“They root against him because they know how much I like him,” she says with a laugh. “If he loses, they say, ‘What did you expect, Mom? I mean, he’s soooo old.”
That, according to Fishberg, is kind of the point.
“I always thought Federer was amazing for how he hit the ball,” she says. “You can’t stop your jaw from dropping at some of his shots. But now, when he’s 36, to see an athlete that age cover the whole court is just incredible.”
Fishberg, a longtime player and fan who teaches tennis to children in after-school programs in Brooklyn, wasn’t drawn to Federer because she could relate to the way he played.
“I have a two-handed backhand and forehand,” she says, “and I was a big Agassi fan. But Federer was such a surprise when he came along. I became a fan when he started winning the majors and became a dominant player.”
While Fishberg likes Federer’s easy game and attitude, as a player she knows he can’t always be the perfect gentleman.
“Sometimes I’ll hear an outburst from him, or hear him berate himself, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, that wasn’t very Fed-like,’ ” she says. “But it was, of course. I know he says the right things, but he has to be a beast, too. He has to be a killer.”
For Fishburg, competitiveness is part of Federer’s appeal.
“My kids like [Fabio] Fognini and [Gael] Monfils and [Nick] Kyrgios,” she says. “They think it’s hilarious when they tank or throw away a match. I think it shows no respect for the sport.
“I’ve seen Federer lose, and not play well, but he’s always out there trying. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him tank even a point. That’s part of what keeps his fans coming back, I think. You always know what you’re going to get with him. You’re going to get his best.”
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