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Reflections On 'The Long Run And Beautiful Game' Of Roger Federer

Roger Federer plays a backhand during his men's Singles Quarter Final match against Hubert Hurkacz during The Championships - Wimbledon 2021 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 7, 2021 in London, England. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Roger Federer plays a backhand during his men's Singles Quarter Final match against Hubert Hurkacz during The Championships - Wimbledon 2021 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 7, 2021 in London, England. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Tennis fans received shattering news over the weekend when Roger Federer pulled out of the U.S Open for a fourth knee surgery. 

The 40-year-old Swiss tennis player has twenty Grand Slam Titles — tied with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Federer hoped to make history at the tournament.

The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer,” a new biography from New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey, tells the story of Federer’s longevity on the court. 

Federer’s first injury happened in 2016 when he tore his meniscus giving his daughters a bath, Clarey says.

“He came back so strong after that, took six months off at the end of 2016 and came back and had some of his best results ever in 2017 and 2018,” Clarey says. “[He] went back to number one at age 36 and it was just kind of a fairytale run for him there.” 

After a remarkable career full of accomplishments, Federer now finds himself in a poignant situation after more than two decades of hard work, Clarey says. Maintaining physical health long enough to play deep into his 30s is a blessing for Federer, the writer says.

“Inevitably, the game is very grueling,” Clarey says. “Your body is going to break down at some point”

Federer is known as a real threat to win multiple tournaments in a year and challenge opponents at the Grand Slam tournaments. However, Clarey believes this marks the end for Federer on the court.

“To be honest with you, I wrote [the book] now probably because I felt like the main body of work for him was already finished,” the author says. “And I feel like the book has an elegiac tone to it in places and a valedictory tone to it as well.”

Interview Highlights

On why we should care about Roger Federer 

“Roger is a naturally gifted player — one of the most naturally gifted ever — but he’s also a self-made man. I’ve covered him since he was in his teens and have seen his evolution. But I don’t think I really grasped how challenging it was and what an accomplishment it was on so many levels. And he’s somebody who started with a bad temper. He learned to manage his temper and his expectations and really became a Zen master on the court, working with psychologists and on himself and his coaches. He managed to really channel all that nervous energy and frustration into a very composed tennis player and style.”

On Federer’s temper tantrums, such as throwing his racket and screaming, when he was a young tennis player

“He had a very difficult time losing. I mean he was quite young at the time but there stories from his Swiss coaches when he was young about him sitting under the chair — umpire’s chair — after a junior match where he lost and crying. Everybody else went to have lunch and their picnic. And Roger stayed there on the court in tears, basically unable to control his disappointment. 

“I think we have to really recognize the achievement there in terms of being able to master that. He’s been able to master himself as well as the game. And it also applies to out of court things rather … his business career as well. He started from a very low point, unpromising point as a Swiss player from a small country, even though it’s a wealthy country. And he built himself into the most successful financially tennis player ever. He’s earned over $1 billion on court and off during his career.

On a part of the book where American tennis player Andre Agassi talks about Federer taking the game to a different level

“That story comes from Darren Cahill, who was Andre’s coach for a long time. Darren was blown away by that moment just because he’d never seen Andre — a great long lasting champion — have that kind of reaction to a match. And I think it’s basically like realizing that the technology has moved beyond you or the world that you’re living in suddenly you’re no longer fit entirely. That was Andre’s epiphany that day, I think. 

“I think the problem with Roger is that when Andre played other players in the past — Pete Sampras or Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, previous great players — he always felt there was a safe place to go. But against Roger, because of Roger’s ability to take the ball early and create angles and power from anywhere on the court, there was really no safe haven anymore for Andre. And I think that’s what he was feeling. And he also had a really hard time reading Roger’s game. I think it’s just that feeling of being rushed and confused. And during Roger’s heyday, a lot of players felt that way.”

On the French calling Federer’s gameplay “relachement” — looseness and ease

“That French word, which is about relaxing and looseness, really does sum it up. But the question is why? And if you talk to people who are part of his career early on, part of it is his childhood coach, Peter Carter … He basically built Roger’s game. And one of the things he did was he sort of had him keep his eyes on the ball and the contact point quite a bit longer than the usual tennis player. Peter Carter did this himself. And it gives Roger this kind of polish on his shots. And it also gives the impression that he has a bit more time and everybody else. And he’s also just a naturally beautiful mover with his legs and the way his footwork works around the court. But I think that extra bit of time that he seems to have is the key, what they call ‘court vision’ in tennis. Your ability to sort of see the whole canvas, if you will.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Bentley.  Camila Beiner adapted it for the web. 

Book Excerpt: ‘The Master’

By Christopher Clarey

Chapter One

TIGRE, Argentina

Midnight approached, and so did Roger Federer.

We journalists do a lot of waiting, and this wait was in a chauffeured car in a Buenos Aires suburb with Eric Carmen’s plaintive ballad “All by Myself” playing on the radio. That sounded right on key for me as I sat alone in the backseat with my notes and pre-interview thoughts, but not for Federer, who so seldom seems to be all by himself and certainly was not on this occasion.

It was mid-December 2012, the tail end of a resurgent year in which he had returned to No. 1 by winning Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam title in more than two years. Now, he had left his wife, Mirka, and three-year-old twin daughters at home in Switzerland and come for the first time to this part of South America to play a series of exhibitions that had sold out in minutes.

He was here for the money: $2 million per appearance, which guaranteed him more for six matches than the $8.5 million he had earned in official prize money in all of 2012. But Federer was also here for the memories: the chance to commune with new audiences in new places despite all the demands on his mind and body in the previous eleven months.

Other champions with their fortunes already secured would have been content to pass on the journey and the jet lag. But Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick, were thinking big picture: considering untapped Federer markets as well as untapped Federer emotions. The tour, which had taken him to Brazil and now Argentina, had surpassed their expectations, symbolized by the crowd of twenty thousand that had filled the makeshift stadium in Tigre this evening. That was a record for a tennis match in Argentina, proud land of tennis icons like Guillermo Vilas, Gabriela Sabatini, and Juan Martin del Potro, who had been Federer’s opponent and to some degree Federer’s foil.

“It was great but a little strange for Juan Martin,” said Franco Davin, then del Potro’s coach. “He’s at home in Argentina, and they cheer more for Federer.”

So it has gone in many a tennis nation. Federer gets to play at home just about everywhere, and even near midnight several hundred Federer fans were still waiting outside the stadium: adults standing on boxes to get a better view, children perched on their parents’ shoulders, digital camera lights flashing as their owners kept fingers on but-tons in order to capture the moment.

It was quiet and expectant, and then it was bedlam as Federer emerged from a side door and made his way to the backseat, moving lightly on his feet even after the three-setter against del Potro.

“Bye-bye. Bye-bye. Bye-bye!” he said rhythmically in a conversational tone to the fans before opening the car door.

“How are things?” he said to me in the same tone after closing it behind him.

I have followed Federer on six continents; interviewed him more than twenty times over twenty years for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Our meetings have taken place every-

where from a private plane to a backcourt at Wimbledon to Times Square to Alpine restaurants in Switzerland to a suite at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris with a ridiculously good view of the Place de la Concorde while his future wife, Mirka Vavrinec, tried on designer clothes.

One habit that separates Federer from most other elite athletes I have encountered is that he will ask about you first and not in a perfunctory manner: inquiring about your own journey to this particular place, your own perceptions of the tournament, the country, the people.

“The reason Roger is so interesting is because he’s so interested,” Paul Annacone, his former coach, once told me.

My family of five had embarked on a globe trot of our own in 2012: a school year on the road beginning with three months in Peru, Chile, and Argentina.

Federer wanted to hear the highlights (Torres del Paine and Chiloé Island in Chile, Arequipa in Peru). But he was most interested in the schooling and how our three children reacted and benefited. It was yet another hint that he planned to remain on the road with his own family indefinitely, that he wanted to keep his children part of his everyday life and show them quite a bit of the world along the way.

“We are sort of returning guests at most of the cities and tournaments, and we’ve also created a lot of friends around the world,” he said. “It’s that home-away-from-home feeling. I’m able to reproduce that quite easily now, especially now with the kids. I want to keep reproducing that for them so they always feel comfortable everywhere we go.”

Federer’s curiosity— be it polite or from the heart— sets the tone for a conversation rather than a structured interview. It is disarming, although that does not seem to be his intent. What it creates, most of all, is an air of normalcy amid the extraordinary, and that is something Federer projects very intentionally. Federer can handle being on a pedestal (he has had lots of practice), but he often emphasizes that he is happier seeing eye-to-eye. His mother, Lynette, might well have passed this on. When someone hears her surname or a shopkeeper sees it on her credit card and asks if she is related to that Federer, she answers in the affirmative but then quickly shifts the focus by inquiring if they have children of their own.

As the Argentines shouted and pressed toward the car, he did not shrink from the window. He drew closer to it.

I asked Federer if he knew the English word “jaded.”

“A little bit,” he said, sounding hesitant.

“In French, it basically means ‘blasé,’” I said. “You’ve been through it all before, things no longer give you the same rush. It’s kind of how you imagine Björn Borg in the car leaving the US Open, never to return.”

Borg was twenty- five then.

Federer considered that for a moment.

“It happens very quickly,” he said. “You’re just, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m tired of it all.’ And really, that’s what I try to avoid by having the proper schedule and the proper fun and the

proper change, because, like you mentioned, if you do the same thing, it doesn’t matter what you do, too many times, all the time, too often you get bored of it. It doesn’t matter how extraordinary your life might be, so that’s where I think these kinds of trips, or a good buildup practice session or a great vacation or some amazing tournaments in a row, toughing it out, whatever it might be, it’s in the mix that I find the resources for more, the energy for more. Really, it’s pretty simple in a way.”

Watching Federer stay fresh and eager deep into his thirties, against logic and against tennis precedent, it was intriguing to realize that his ability to remain in the moment was in fact about forethought. If he was relaxed and accommodating despite all the forces pulling at him, it was because he knew himself and his microcosm well enough to avoid the pitfalls that would likely snuff out his pilot light.

But then such intentionality is very much in harmony with his career as a whole.

He has often made the game look astonishingly easy through the decades: hitting aces, gliding to forehands, and, in his most gravity-defying act, remaining high above the waterline in a world right-fully flooded with icon cynicism. But his path from temperamental, bleached-blond teenager with dubious style sense to one of the most elegant and self-possessed great athletes has been a long-running act of will, not destiny.

Federer is widely perceived as a natural, and yet he is a meticulous planner who has learned to embrace routine and self-discipline, plotting out his schedule well in advance and in considerable detail.

At a press conference, Federer will answer queries at length and with a certain restraint. It is rare that he will stray off topic or volunteer information, but he respects the question and the questioner: quite a contrast with some of his predecessors (see Jimmy Connors) and his peers (see Lleyton Hewitt and, sadly in her later years, Venus Williams). In more intimate settings, Federer’s natural exuberance and geniality often get him waving his arms and launching into rambling paragraphs. Thoughts expressed in English— his first language but not always his best language— can take him in unexpected directions that require him to double back and make a few detours to get to his intended destination.

He is less polished off-camera, even goofy at times, although he saves his pranks and surprises for friends and colleagues, not for journalists along for the ride.

It is just one planet, and he has covered a great deal of it: pursuing trophies, paydays, novelty, fulfillment, and, increasingly through the seasons, communion.

Argentina was an unexpectedly meaningful stop on the journey, and as we approached his hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, Federer, winner of a record seventeen Grand Slam singles titles at that stage, was emphasizing how much he still wanted to improve.

“I’m going to take a vacation after this, rest and just get away from it all, because the last few years have been extremely intense,” he said. “I feel if I keep on pushing at this pace I might lose interest like you mentioned, just get jaded.”

Federer laughed.

“‘Jaded.’ That’s the new word I have in my vocabulary, and that’s the last thing I want happening,” he said. “Hopefully next year is going to be a platform for many more years. That’s the opportunity I want to give myself.”

Excerpted from THE MASTER: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer. ©2021 Christopher Clarey and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.