“HOW WILLING ARE YOU TO WORK HARD?”
ROGER FEDERER on Roger Federer.
Mr. Federer, in his bestselling book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell says that three elements are present in the lives of nearly all successful people: talent, hard work and luck. Do you agree?
That’s probably right.
Let’s start with talent: When did you first become aware that you were better than other people at playing tennis?
The first thing I noticed was that I enjoyed sports in general. Then it became clear that I was good at ball games: tennis and football, but also table tennis, basketball and squash, which I played with my father. I quickly lost interest in everything else. I see the same thing with my sons – they’re crazy about anything involving a ball. My daughters, on the other hand, would rather go swimming, skiing or horseback riding. But what you enjoy the most isn’t necessarily what you’re best at.
So how did your talent show?
I noticed that I learned things very quickly in tennis. Others had to work hard to learn to accelerate the ball, but to me it came easily.
What was it like to realize that having the world’s best drop shot wasn’t enough – that you also had to work hard?
It was difficult. We creative players sometimes worry that monotony will destroy our creativity. We have to force ourselves to practice the same stroke for four hours; it gets
boring. I see that on the tour, too, especially with players who are technically talented. The crucial question is this: How willing are they to work really hard?
Why is it so difficult?
Every ball can be played differently. Short or fast, high or low, with topspin, and so on. It was hard at first to choose the right response for each situation. I would try to dazzle spectators on Court 15, forgetting that my primary goal was to make it to Center Court. If you want to improve, you have to play a simpler game. And simple is boring.
What did you begin to accept the need to work hard if you wanted to have a successful career?
When I was 14, I enrolled in a boarding school for young tennis players in Ecublens, Switzerland, where the training was really intense. Every time I had to do a drill, I would ask “Why? What for?” It finally began to click, not least because my coach told me, “Your talent is enough to get you into the Top 100 for a week. But if you want to go farther and have a long career, hard work is absolutely essential.”
When you were young, were there many players better than you?
Oh, yes. I didn’t become successful as early as Martina Hingis or Tiger Woods did. At international tournaments, I was usually eliminated in the first or second round.
In Ecublens, too, there was one player who was better than I was at first. But my game took off when I was 15. There have been many forks in the road in the course of my career, and others have taken a different path, deciding that they would rather hang out with their friends than subject themselves to the rigors of professional tennis.
Didn’t you ever feel that you were missing out? That you were sacrificing your youth?
No, I was incredibly ambitious. I wanted to be the best – not only in the suburbs of Basel, but in the world. I definitely envisioned a great career – I had the vision “to think big.”
From the very beginning?
Yes. When I was very young, I already dreamed of winning Wimbledon, although I was sure that would never happen. Deep down, however, I think I believed that it might actually be possible. And then things progressed quite naturally. Of course, I was very homesick in Ecublens, I was often sad while on the tour, and I was bored. I wondered what I was doing. But I always knew the answer. I was doing precisely what I wanted to do, no one was forcing me. That’s the most important thing of all – to be able to choose freely.
What role has luck played in your career?
I think tennis is less dependent on luck than a sport like football, for example, where the referee decides whether or not to award a penalty. The luckiest thing for me was that I made it from 14 to 20 in good health, despite not living a very professional lifestyle and not taking proper care of my body.
What else is needed for a successful career in tennis?
You need a team – which might include friends, parents, coaches or fellow players. You need people you can confide in, people who will help you figure out what you really want.
I hope to be able to offer that to my children. I want to open up opportunities for them. But ultimately, they’re the ones who will have to walk through the door – that was the case for me as well.
Optimism is crucial. If you convince yourself you’re not feeling well, the match will often go wrong and you’ll lose – simply because of your attitude. It’s difficult to overcome a negative mindset, but you have to find a way. Finally, passion is very important. I sometimes wonder whether certain players are playing for the right reasons or just to make money.
What mistakes have you made over the course of your career?
One of my daughters is cautious and meticulous, while the other takes a learning by doing approach to life. I was like that, too. I would test the limits until it inevitably ended badly. I was kicked out of training. I behaved badly on the court – sometimes for no real reason, I just did. I would travel halfway around the world and have no energy when I got to the court. I had no idea where it had gone. For a long time I went through life like a small child, always running up against a wall. I would take five steps forward and then three back. It took a long time for that to change. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that I didn’t realize it sooner. But maybe I’m just someone who needed more time to grow up.
What helped you move forward?
Several things did. The death of my coach, Peter Carter, for one, was a wake-up call. [Editor’s note: Carter died in an automobile accident when Federer was 21.] Another one was my wife Mirka’s experience – she struggled with a foot injury and eventually had to quit tennis. Both of these experiences made me remind myself, “Be happy, don’t complain so much.” Since I’ve had children of my own, I have also
“I have to be constantly challenging myself. It can't be that everything is already perfect".
become increasingly aware of all the things my parents did for me. These were key factors in my career.
What advice would you give young players?
It’s important to enjoy the game and not to turn pro too early. Many parents start thinking about whether their eight-year-old child should become a professional tennis player. The decision doesn’t have to be made at that age! I knew when I was 12 that I wanted to play either football or tennis, and at 14 I had to choose between Basel (football) and Ecublens (tennis). That was early enough!
You often meet other famous people – do you feel a sense of connection?
Let me say, first, that I don’t like it when too much of a fuss is made about so-called stars. I try to approach everyone on an equal footing. That’s one of the things I appreciate so much about Switzerland. People say, “You’re famous? Good for you, but that doesn’t mean you can fly.” The bottom line is that we’re all human beings, and we all live in the same world.
But do you notice certain things that you have in common when you meet successful people?
I certainly notice that they are exceptionally talented, and I try to learn from them. When I have dinner with Bill Gates and he talks for an hour about the most diverse range of topics, I realize how little I know.
What do you share with him?
He wants to know all about tennis. Luckily, that’s something I know relatively well (laughs).
Are there individuals who have particularly influenced you?
At the beginning of my career, perhaps Michael Schumacher and Valentino Rossi. I had been at the top of the rankings for a year and was thinking about how incredibly difficult it is to stay there.
So you learned from a car racer and a motorcycle racer that it is possible to dominate a sport for a long time?
Yes. I thought if they could do it, maybe I could too. And I realized what it takes. I have to be constantly challenging myself, especially when things are going well. When I win at Wimbledon, the first thing I need to do is ask myself how I could improve. It can’t be that everything is already perfect.
You’ve repeatedly reinvented your game.
I need new stimuli, for myself as a person, too. If I had to play every match in the same way, it would be boring.
What about now – who tells you when it’s time to reinvent yourself again?
Sometimes the impetus comes from me, and sometimes from someone else or from a conversation. Rushing forward to take the return, for example, that was Seve’s idea. [Editor’s note: coach Severin Lüthi] He suggested it, and I said, “Really, so far up?” “Yes, exactly,” he responded. We called this the SABR. [Editor’s note: “Sneak Attack By Roger”]
Are the changes you make limited to the tennis court?
No – I’ll go out to different restaurants for dinner, for example. Or I’ll consider whether it’s better to stay in a house near the court rather than in a hotel in a city, so that I don’t have to spend so much time keeping myself busy in the car. Or I’ll plan things differently. The last time I won the US Open [Editor’s note: 2008], I trained for it in Dubai, with temperatures of up to 46 degrees Celsius. I haven’t done that again since our children were born.
Tennis has changed dramatically since you began your career. What’s the biggest difference between now and then?
New racquets and new ways of stringing them allow for more topspin, and it’s easier to follow through when you hit the ball. That gives you more control at the baseline. As a result, younger players almost always play from the baseline. Volley specialists, who tend to move up to the net, are a dying breed. So the quality of attacks at the net has declined.
But you’ve been taking that risk more often.
Over the past five years, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and I have been staying relatively close to the baseline; we play the ball as quickly as possible. That’s the way to get to the net. When a ball is short, you go on the attack!
What will world-class tennis look like in the future?
The four Grand Slam tournaments have established themselves over time. That’s not going to change anytime soon. It’s hard for other tournaments to grow. At Indian Wells, the tournament’s owner, Larry Ellison, couldn’t believe it: He wanted to increase the prize money, but was told he couldn’t because the tournament would then no longer be in the same category. There has been talk occasionally of players forming unions. Is it better for athletes to have more influence? They want a longer off-season, but when they get their wish, they end up playing in more exhibition tournaments, where no world ranking points are awarded. Probably we won’t know the answer unless we try it.
You’ve been directing the Roger Federer Foundation since 2003 and have invested over 36 million Swiss francs, mostly in southern Africa, but also in Switzerland. Your friend Bill Gates once said that his work with his foundation has been more exciting than his work at Microsoft. Would you say the same?
Well, I think you cannot really compare Microsoft with my life as a tennis pro. Definitely, the foundation is very dear to my heart, and I’m learning an enormous amount. Being its president is no easy task. Your work has to be impactful and transparent, and you have to make sure that the people involved all do their share in order to become sustainable. You also have to decide which projects to invest in. This is the most difficult part for me. I’ve never really liked to make decisions.
Yes. I would always say, “Mom, Dad, could you decide for me?” Later on, I could no longer avoid decisions. And now I feel that being able to make my own decisions is a privilege.
Doing good isn’t always easy. What are you doing to make sure that your foundation isn’t fostering dependency?
We’re not trying to change the world by ourselves. We want the people we are helping to recognize and identify their problems, and then to find solutions and put them into practice. We are there to support, inspire and complement their efforts. This is the only way to achieve sustainable, permanent change for children who have the same right to education as anyone else, even if they are living in poverty. The results I have seen so far make me very optimistic.
What will your foundation look like in the future?
Right now the greatest contribution I can make is to do well on the tennis court and bring in money, so that’s my priority. When my tennis career is over, I want to be more involved and also do more fundraising. I believe that the foundation is only in its beginning stages. We want to grow in the future. Right now, with an annual budget of 7.5 million Swiss francs we are a smaller boutique operation. We are proud to point out, however, that more than 92 percent of our resources actually go to projects, and only 7.8 percent to administration. We try hard to be very cost-effective.
And now let me toss you a few quick questions. Which would you choose: Another win at Wimbledon, or having your favorite football team, FC Basel, win the Champions League?
Obviously another Wimbledon title would be fantastic.
But FCB winning the Champions League – nothing could beat that!
Do your competitors have some strokes that you’d like to have in your repertoire?
Yes, quite a few! The incredible serves of Isner and Karlovic. Nadal’s forehand, or the backhand of Zverev or Goffin. I also wish I had Djokovic’s legwork on a hard court, and Nadal’s on clay.
You lost five times in a row to Rafael Nadal, and then you won five times. What lessons can you learn from that?
That there are different kinds of planning: short-, mediumand long-term. You can’t let yourself get rattled by what happens in the short term. This is particularly important for young players. They shouldn’t focus on winning or losing. It’s not until you’re grown, and your body is fully mature, that your game needs to be good. Of course, it’s no fun to lose – I used to cry every time I lost, and sometimes I would play it safe so that I would win. But it’s better to let your game grow. Motivation is also important; you can’t let negative experiences interfere with it.
But isn’t it difficult when you keep losing to the same opponent?
It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s about taking it on the chin, like a boxer who gets hit over and over again but doesn’t quit. I sometimes overdo it – which really upsets my father. When I serve to my opponent’s forehand and he fires back to win the point, my response is to repeat the same serve, thinking, “Show me that again.” I’ll keep going until he misses three times in a row. Then I’ll think, “See, it’s not quite that easy.” I don’t want to admit that he can really master the stroke. You have to have a certain amount of stubbornness.
Do you still look forward to playing against Nadal?
You have to look forward to matches like that, even when
“It’s better to let your game grow.”
you’re in the middle of a losing streak – otherwise, how would you break a bad streak? There was a time when I felt exhausted by the big matches and all the commotion that comes with them – and things would immediately go wrong. Everything you’re doing in the off-season, all the practice – it’s all in preparation for the big matches. If you’re no longer excited, you really have a problem.
Are tennis matches won in the head?
Absolutely. Sometimes you need the right coach at the right time, someone who gives you a wake-up call when you need it. He’ll ask you: “Is everything okay? Is everything really okay?” Until at some point you are.
How much of your success is due to your support staff?
One percent? Eighty percent? I can’t give you an exact figure, but I’ve always had great luck with my staff, including my fitness coach, Pierre Paganini. I need them – otherwise I wouldn’t have the necessary motivation.
You seem to be a very social person. Is that true?
Yes, I don’t like to be alone. Now that I have children, I might perhaps spend half an hour alone with them – but I never carry a hotel key with me, for example, because I know that someone will always be with me.
It’s too bad that you play an individual sport.
I agree! You win a match and want to high-five someone – but there’s no one there. At the Laver Cup, where we play in teams, Nadal will high-five when you win, and you think, “That’s so cool!” I guess that’s the way it is every time a football player scores a goal.
Despite your extraordinary talent, your career isn’t going to last for another ten years. What then?
I’m really looking forward to enjoying some peace and quiet with my family in Switzerland. As you know, I travel a great deal, and the longer I do this, the more I realize that there’s no place like Switzerland. And I want our children to go to school there.
You spend a lot of time living in the mountains. Why?
We love it there. It’s so quiet and peaceful after spending so much time in big cities. You arrive, and the first thing you do is to take a deep breath. I love the mountains and the scenery.
When did you last go skiing?
In 2008, after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open. I was visiting friends in the mountains, but while on the slopes I became violently ill and had to be admitted to the hospital in Chur. I was diagnosed with mononucleosis. That was enough skiing for me. I was already 27 years old and didn’t want my career to end with a skiing injury. Now I’m the family chauffeur; this year I’m in charge of the boys. The girls are already skiing on the Rothorn. I’m looking forward to getting back on my skis – although to be honest I’ve always enjoyed the ski lodges and fondue more than the skiing.
Roger Federer, aged 36, has won 97 singles tournaments in the course of his career, including 20 Grand Slams. He has won 1,144 matches and lost 250. He was number one in the ATP world rankings for 304 weeks and has earned 116 million dollars in prize money. Roger Federer also holds the record for being named World Sportsman of the Year; he has won the Laureus World Sports Award five times. (Statistics as of: March 5, 2018). Born in Basel, Federer is married to the former tennis player Mirka Federer-vavrinec. They have two sets of twins: eight-year-old girls and three-year old boys.