I had barely been on this job for a month when I suggested that Roger Federer would never win a Grand Slam title again.
The then 17-time Grand Slam champion had just turned 32, losing to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round of Wimbledon (ending a run of 36 consecutive major quarter-finals), then in straight sets to Tommy Robredo in the last 16 of the US Open.
Perhaps attribute it to the impetuousness of inexperience, as well as not being aware of a significant back problem, which Federer later described.
Not that it was controversial nine years ago to suggest that the best days of a tennis player in his thirties are behind them. It’s just that since then Federer and Serena Williams, with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic now following their lead, have overturned convention and expectation.
“I’m very inspired by people like Usain Bolt or Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Valentino Rossi or Michael Schumacher: guys who did things at the highest level for a very long time,” he told me after winning an eighth Wimbledon title a month ago. before turning 36, in 2017.
“I would be amazed at what they did when I was younger. I couldn’t understand how they would get match ready day after day, practice every day and give 100%. I struggled a lot with that when I was younger .”
Federer also struggled with his fitness and his temper – racket throwing, tears and profanity were not at all uncommon in his teens. But two new relationships forged in 2000 made a big difference.
He started working with the fitness coach Pierre Paganini, whom he had first met a few years earlier at the Swiss National Training Center. The partnership has lasted throughout Federer’s career.
And he also met Mirka, who would become his wife nine years later. They both represented Switzerland at that year’s Olympics in Sydney and played mixed doubles at the 2002 Hopman Cup. Mirka’s career was ended later that year by a foot injury, but she quickly became the “rock” in his life.
Federer’s most golden spell was between 2003 Wimbledon and the 2010 Australian Open. He won 16 of the 27 Grand Slam tournaments played during that time (and reached the finals of a further six). But the autumn years of his career also had a golden hue.
Most notable of all was his run to the 2017 Australian Open title, achieved by beating four top-10 players and winning three games in five sets, despite being 35 and missing the previous six months due to knee surgery.
Federer played with a refurbished knee and backhand. A few years earlier, he traded for a bigger racket, which gave him more power and spin, and more success against Nadal, whom he defeated in the final.
An eighth Wimbledon title followed in the summer, a 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne the following January, and had Djokovic been unable to save two championship points at Center Court in the 2019 Wimbledon final, Federer would have been the oldest player. who wins a Grand Slam in the Open era.
So many memories. Nothing, perhaps, more special than winning his one and only French Open, in 2009, only to become only the sixth man in history (at that stage) to complete the Grand Slam career.
The French public was desperate for him to win that Roland Garros final against Robin Soderling, and many seemed in conflict when Switzerland faced France in the 2014 Davis Cup final. A world-record tennis crowd of 27,448 people clung to the retractable roof of Stade Pierre. Mauroy in Lille to watch Federer win the famous team competition for the only time.
Interviewing Federer was always a pleasure – albeit with perhaps one exception, just a few days before that Davis Cup final. The previous Saturday night, at the ATP Finals in London, Federer had survived four match points by beating his Swiss teammate Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals. But Wawrinka had been very unhappy with what Mirka had shouted from the stands during the match, and the two exchanged more than a few words in the locker room afterwards.
Two days later, I was the only English-speaking journalist at the first Swiss team press conference of the week in Lille. They started with questions in English. There was only one topic that an English-speaking audience wanted to hear about. It certainly wasn’t the only topic Federer wanted to talk about. But as always, he replied—even though his usual politeness was laced with a tinge of irritation.
The debate over the greatest of all time is in the eye of the beholder. Federer, statistically, has been overtaken by Williams, Nadal and Djokovic, but played the game with a ballet-like grace that cannot be compared to modern times. He had balance and coordination in kicks; he had an iron forehand with a velvet fingerboard; and the footwork of Muhammad Ali.
Federer says he used to cry after every game he lost until the age of 15, so it came as a surprise when he finally started crying after winning.
And that was a big part of its enduring appeal. The tennis he played may not have been recognizable, but his warm and emotional nature certainly was.