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At 35, Roger Fed­erer is as hot as ever. Si­mon Briggs on why he might still win Wim­ble­don

Many thought Roger Fed­erer’s ca­reer was on the slide, but a smash­ing start to the 2017 sea­son shows that, 20 years af­ter he be­came a pro, the Swiss tennis leg­end can still ace it. And might he win Wim­ble­don again? By Si­mon Briggs

When Roger Fed­erer is win­ning, the world is a bet­ter place. He is the clean-cut sher­iff of tennis, John Wayne in a ban­dana. And his ver­sion of sport feels like some­thing pri­mal: the pur­suit of an ideal, rather than a cheque or tro­phy. It trig­gers some­thing equally pri­mal in us: the joy of be­ing alive.

Take the mo­ment in Mi­ami six weeks ago when Fed­erer con­founded To­mas Berdych – a mus­cle-bound 6ft 5in Czech – with a vi­ciously sliced drop shot that dipped like a doo­dle­bug. The fans gasped, and then erupted into child­like laugh­ter – the same sort of in­vol­un­tary re­ac­tion that Usain Bolt evokes when he de­stroys his ri­vals on the track.

Af­ter that match – which Fed­erer won, main­tain­ing his best start to a sea­son since 2006 – he changed into a black velour track­suit and we strode to­gether through the maze of tun­nels un­derneath the sta­dium court. He was still grin­ning about the drop shot.

‘It was like one I hit against Si­mone Bolelli a cou­ple of years ago,’ Fed­erer told me. ‘Only this was even higher – I thought for a mo­ment it was go­ing to bounce and spin back over the net. Play­ing cre­ative is gold: play­ers are stuck in their ways, their pat­terns, and some­times you just have to break it.’

We turned left and into a long, low-roofed lounge filled with scat­ter cush­ions. Fed­erer threw him­self full-length on to a sofa and arched his back lux­u­ri­ously, a black pan­ther in his lair. ‘I was in this room just be­fore with Ivan [ [Lju­biči�] and Sev­erin [Lüthi, his two coaches]. We talked about how it’s quar­ter-fi­nal day: I am sup­posed to win but, ac­tu­ally, I would have been happy just to be here in the quar­ters a year ago. So just chill out, re­lax, play free. Af­ter win­ning in Aus­tralia, this sea­son is pure joy.’ He raises an eye­brow. ‘It wasn’t al­ways like this.’

Of course it wasn’t. But t hen Fed­erer ’s ca reer con­tains epochs. It sep­a­rates into a min­i­mum of four dis­tinct phases: the petu­lant teenager (1997-2001), the su­per-smooth cham­pion (2002-2007), the se­nior, fad­ing, pro (2008-2016) and the im­pos­si­ble re­birth (right now).

As Fed­erer re­sumes his for­mer dom­i­nance, it’s worth reem­pha­sis­ing one ba­sic statis­tic: he is 35 years old. Yes, 35. This sum­mer rep­re­sents the 20th an­niver­sar y of his depar ture from school, in favour of a pro­fes­sional spor ting ca­reer. In other words, he came in with Tony Blair and New Labour. For a sport weary of Pete Sam­pras’s per­pet­u­ally creased fore­head, things could only get bet­ter.

Back in the Mi­ami recre­ation room, I asked Fed­erer what he re­mem­bered of those first skir­mishes with adult op­po­nents .‘ I was very con­vinced school was slow­ing me down,’ he said, ‘though I promised my dad I would go back if tennis didn’t work­out. I won my first rank­ings point against a Rus­sian guy; Igor Tchely­chev was his name. And my friend got me so good. He had all th­ese peo­ple call­ing me, pre­tend­ing to be in­ter­view­ers, want­ing to know how I feel. They all had my num­ber and they were so ex­cited. I said, “Oh my God, so many guys are call­ing me,” and he said, “You’re not believ­ing what’s hap­pen­ing, right?”’

The un­formed Fed­erer was a tem­pes­tu­ous teen, who once ea r ned him­self a week of toi­let-clean­ing by rip­ping the court­side cur­tain in Biel – home of Switzer­land’s na­tional tennis cen­tre – with a thrown racket. Yet he had charm too. His first real in­ter­view was with René Stauf­fer, a re­porter from the Swiss news­pa­per Tages-anzeiger, who wrote that Fed­erer was any­thing but the ‘re­served and tac­i­turn’ char­ac­ter he had ex­pected. ‘He spoke flow­ingly and con­fi­dently with a mis­chievous smile.’

Oth­ers re­mem­ber Fed­erer’s un­feigned fas­ci­na­tion for the world around him, his love of heavy rock band AC/DC and his ex­traor­di­nar­ily speedy tex­ting on his en­try-level Nokia. There was even a girl­friend at this stage, though he is un­der­stand­ably coy now about re­vis­it­ing the sub­ject (he was soon to fall in love with a Swiss tennis pro, Mirka Vavrinec, whom he met in 2000; they mar­ried in 2009). ‘I was so young, at that time. It was way be­fore ev­ery­thing hap­pened.’

Fed­erer pos­sessed such prodi­gious gifts – he had al­ready ‘mastered every stroke’, in Stauf­fer’s words, when they met in 1996 – that he was bound to climb quickly. But no one knew how quickly un­til he de­throned Sam­pras at Wim­ble­don in five sets in 2001. Fed­erer didn’t lift the ti­tle – that didn’t come un­til 2003 – but he ad­mit­ted re­cently that the whole oc­ca­sion gave him a

huge rush. ‘All of a sud­den it started to make sense. Why you’re do­ing weights. Why you’re run­ning. Why you try to sleep well at night.’

The essential parts of the puz­zle were be­gin­ning to mesh. Peter Lund­gren had taken over as coach, with Pier re Pa­ganini as f it ness t rainer. And Vavrinec had been on the scene since an ex­ploratory kiss at the Syd­ney Olympics. The daugh­ter of Slo­vakian émi­grés, she had grown up on the shores of Lake Con­stance, where she pre­ferred bal­let to ball games – un­til a chance meet­ing with Martina Navratilova shifted her sights. With a peak rank­ing of num­ber 76, she might have made a sub­stan­tial player in her own right, but for the foot in­jur y t hat forced her ret ire­ment at t he age of 24. So she di­rected her en­er­gies into Fed­erer’s ca­reer in­stead. ‘He gave my tennis life back to me,’ she has said. ‘When he wins, it’s as if I win as well.’

And there was a whole lot of win­ning go­ing on. Be­tween 2003 and 2005, Fed­erer main­tained a 100 per cent record in fi­nals: 24 tro­phies from 24 at­tempts. ‘It was like be­ing on a speed train,’ he re­called. ‘I was learn­ing so much: how to deal with TV shows, red car­pets, pres­sure, press, travel. This is where my fitness coach, Pierre, and Mirka, my wife, have been un­be­liev­able. They were the rocks be­hind the whole or­gan­i­sa­tion.’

Ad­mit­tedly, the train be­gan to de­cel­er­ate to­wards the end of the decade, thanks partly to the emer­gence of Rafael Nadal, and partly to glan­du­lar fever. (‘It made a big dent in my ca­reer; in 2008 I felt a step slower.’) But Fed­erer was about to en­ter a new phase of his life.

‘The beau­ti­ful times came in 2009,’ he said, ‘where I fi­nally won the French, Mirka got preg­nant, we had the kids, I won Wim­ble­don and broke the record [Sam­pras’s 14 g rand slam t it les]. That was t he dream sum­mer wit h ever y t hing. We were tr ying to keep it un­der wraps that she was preg nant. That was fun in it­self be­cause we didn’t want peo­ple to find out be­cause we wanted this to be pri­vate, and we achieved that, which was great.’

Is it pos­si­ble father­hood might have length­ened his ca­reer, rather than short­ened it as so many pun­dits had pre­dicted? ‘Yeah,’ he an­swered. ‘Even though, when we found out it was twins in Aus­tralia in 2009, Mirka was very wor­ried that the lo­gis­tics weren’t go­ing to work. That she would have to be at home and I would be play­ing and we would be sep­a­rated, and it made her very sad, in that mo­ment. And I told her, “Not for a sec­ond do you have to worry; we will make it work some­how.” Ac­tu­ally the first year when they are that small it’s quite easy, the travel. It gets tough be­tween one and a half and four, when they want to walk a marathon on the plane. That’s why, for me, 2010 and 2011 are a blur. My mem­o­ries are much more with the kids than they are with tennis.’

By now Fed­erer had a sec­ond home in Dubai, and a jet set of in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous friends that in­cluded rock star Gavin Ross­dale and Vogue edi­tor Anna Win­tour. (‘I am fi­nally go­ing to the Met Ball with Anna this year,’ he said, ‘be­cause she has in­vited me for years.’) But he still keeps up with the old gang from his em­bry­onic years in Switzer­land: fel­low Biel trainees Yves Al­le­gro, Michael Lam­mer and Marco Chi­udinelli, plus Vin­cent Christinet, the room-mate who be­came like a brother when Fed­erer lodged with the Christinet fam­ily in his late teens. Th­ese two old al­lies meet for cof­fee when­ever Fed­erer is in Geneva, and Vin­cent ‘writes me af­ter every match ba­si­cally’.

For Fed­erer’s most ar­dent fans – who tend to re­sent Nadal and his other ri­vals – this blend of do­mes­tic­ity and movie-star glam­our only adds to his ap­peal. When at his main home, in the small Swiss town of Val­bella, he eats fon­due at the lo­cal restau­rant and prac­tises at the pub­lic sports cen­tre.

‘You have to book the court.’ He smiled. ‘Let’s say you book from 4pm to 6pm, you have to go and wait in front of the door

un­til 3.59. You shyly open the door, you see they’re pack­ing up their stuff, you come in. ‘Oh! Can I take a pic­ture?’ No prob­lem. They walk off and then you play un­til the next guys walk on. I like it like this. It keeps me grounded; it keeps me in a nor­mal state. I even pay for the court there, and that’s cool.’

Court time was not a pri­or­ity for Fed­erer last sea­son. He en­joyed his six-month lay-off as an op­por­tu­nity to dine with friends, but de­scribed it as ‘bru­tal’ in tennis terms. The start­ing point was the knee in­jury he suf­fered in the most bizarre fash­ion in Jan­uary, while run­ning a bath for his seven-year-old twin daugh­ters (he also has twin sons, aged t hree). A torn menis­cus sent him to the op­er­at­ing ta­ble for the first time in his life – an ex­traor­di­nary statis­tic for a man with 1,355 tourlevel matches un­der his belt.

Fed­erer’s per­sonal time warp peaked four months ago, at the Aus­tralian Open. The tour­na­ment was a fes­ti­val for the over-30s, re­ported as ‘the flash­back slam’. Nadal sweated his way to fi­nals week­end, along with both Wil­liams sis­ters. But it was Fed­erer, im­pas­sive un­der his white head­band, who com­manded the stage. For a fort­night in Jan­uary – the same fort­night, in­ci­den­tally, dur­ing which Don­ald Trump was sworn into of­fice – his drive to an 18th ma­jor ti­tle felt like the sun­ni­est sto­ry­line in hu­man ex­is­tence.

‘This win, it came from so far left field,’ he said. ‘I am 100 per cent t r ut hf ul when I say t hat not for a sec­ond did I re­ally be­lieve I was go­ing to win. Sev­erin hinted to me in Dubai in De­cem­ber: “I tell you, if you play like this you could win this thing,” and I said, “Yeah I guess so,” but you never take that too se­ri­ous. But I was win­ning so many sets in prac­tice and I was play­ing so well that he just thought, “Jeez you never know.”’

Hav­ing re­ceived his replica of the Nor­man Brookes Chal­lenge Cup – his f if t h, in a ll – Fed­erer was pho­tog raphed em­brac­ing it in his lux­u­ri­ous Swiss chalet. He gig­gled when I men­tioned the pic­ture. ‘ Yeah, that’s what I do at home. I sit there every day with my tro­phy on my fur rug for 15 min­utes like a weirdo.’ For all Fed­erer’s sur­prise and de­light, though, he de­clined to class his Mel­bourne mir­a­cle as a fluke. He sees it as some­thing closer to a sci­en­tific break­through, earned through three years of tire­less ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the lab.

‘2014 is when I feel like a new ca­reer started, be­cause of the racket,’ he said. ‘I know you might think it’s a mar­ket­ing thing but it’s not; for me it’s so spe­cial. I just thought I have to move along with the times, so I de­signed the RF97 [so called be­cause the sur­face area is 97sq in, seven more than the old model] by my­self, I tested it, I did all that stuff.

‘I had to f ig ure out my­self what works bet­ter and what doesn’t with the new racket, and then as I al­ways said, I just need hours and hours of prac­tice. At 5-5, 30-30 in the third set, do you trust your­self to go for the back­hand down the line, on the line? That’s es­sen­tially when you know you can trust your racket. Win­ning now in Aus­tralia, you can imag­ine what it meant to me. And I am hav­ing fun play­ing this way.’

And so to the ques­tion that no Roger Fed­erer in­ter­view can ig­nore. How many more aces does he have up his sleeve? How much fire still burns be­hind that suave ex­te­rior? In Fe­bru­ary, he sig ned a con­tract ex­ten­sion for his home tour­na­ment in Basel that will take him up to 2019. But no one, in­clud­ing Fed­erer him­self, re­ally knows how his In­dian sum­mer will end.

‘You have to be hun­gry,’ he said. ‘If I’m los­ing sec­ond round every week, yes it makes me happy that I’m healthy and I can play, but it’s not go­ing to make me par­tic­u­larly happy as a tennis player. I’ve had too much suc­cess for a sec­ond round to keep me en­ter­tained.

‘At the same time, it doesn’t mean that I have to fin­ish as world num­ber one or achieve cer­tain things. Some peo­ple would al­ways feel that it needs to be this fairy-tale end­ing, but I feel like the time will be the time. I just hope I can do it on my own terms.’

Above Aged 35, Fed­erer is on top form

Fed­erer’s agent, Tony God­sick, his mother, Lynette, and his wife, Mirka, with twin daugh­ters Myla Rose and Char­lene Riva, in 2014

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