Roger Federer can’t cook. That’s it. That’s the only negative I’ve got. Digging deeper and looking for hidden faults is a futile exercise.
While covering the Western & Southern Open over the years, I’ve shot photos courtside during many of his matches, sat in the interview room for countless post-match pressers, watched fans swarm his practice sessions, and chatted with him in stairways. Although he isn’t following me on Instagram (yet), it’s safe to say I’ve seen the Maestro in enough situations to be a decent judge.
At face value, the man is exactly what we see on television: suave. Federer plays with the effortless grace of Baryshnikov. While Novak Djokovic contorts to reach every angle of the court and Rafael Nadal attacks from the baseline with sheer force, Roger plays a more calculated game marked by finesse. He serves ace after ace with a cerebral quality, and his fashion choices — the occasional pink shirt, tailored shorts, and a longtime friendship with Vogue’s Anna Wintour — mirror his style of play. Fans at every tour stop hold up a traveling banner which reads, “Shhhhh! Quiet. Genius at work.”
The regal air extends off court where the prototypical Swiss gentleman opens doors for women, sparkles with joy while discussing his wife Mirka and their two sets of twins, and gives candid, interesting interviews to 13-year-old citizen journalists.
“I can’t cook,” Federer once told a pair of junior reporters from Cincinnati.com. “I can barely make an egg.” He said Mirka, thankfully, is an incredible cook, as is his mother. “I’m lucky to have them. . . . You guys should learn cooking, too, because it’s good. I can’t do it, so you’ll be one up on me.”
Following every match, after fielding questions in English, he goes on to conduct fluent interviews in both French and his native Swiss German.
Even when given an opportunity to trash Cincinnati — a tour stop lacking the cosmopolitan flair of Barcelona or Monte Carlo — he came up with something charming to say about the Midwest.
“I like the idea of coming from bigger cities to smaller cities, back to bigger cities. Doesn’t always need to be Paris, London, New York and all that stuff,” Federer once explained. “That kind of relaxes you. It’s less stressful. I drive my own car here, go to coffee shops, go hang out, read some books, spend time with friends, go to the movies. You know, it’s just a bit of a different, how do you say, feeling here.”
Who knew? Roger Federer feels at home in Southwestern Ohio. Coffee shops? Bookstores? I’m confident if I run into him in Mason next summer, we’ll be best friends within minutes.
I’ll have to get in line, though. Federer is as well-liked by his peers as his fans. Have you seen his infamous laughing fit video where Rafa and Roger attempt to make a commercial? You can’t fake that camaraderie.
“He’s a real person,” Andy Roddick has said of Federer. “He’s not an enigma. Off the court he’s not trying to be somebody. If you met him at McDonald’s and you didn’t know who he was, you would have no idea that he’s one of the best athletes in the world.”
After grueling late night matches followed by rounds of press, Federer routinely signs autographs at the players’ exit until the last fan leaves. I’ve seen him do it at 1:00 a.m. This is just one of the reasons he was named in 2011 as the world’s second-most respected human. The first? Nelson Mandela.
The latest example of Federer’s ability to amaze his audience off court comes via his self-managed Instagram account where he routinely posts striking, perfectly composed images. This shot from Dubai makes me wonder: was the man destined to dominate any field he entered? Would he have become the I.M. Pei of architecture? The Annie Leibovitz of photography?
It’s easy to fall into the gushing fan-girl trap when writing about The Greatest of All Time. As I’m excruciatingly close to crossing that line, let’s acknowledge the perceived weaknesses.
One fan’s bliss is another’s boring. Critics will say Federer is a wimp. Titles aside, you’ve got Nadal rocking the big guns. One should avoid Stan Wawrinka in a back alley. David Ferrer looks like he could sink your battleship with a single, icy glare. Djokovic, though not particularly fearsome, wins over the crowd with his court-jester humor. And, then there’s Roger. Perfect, bland, well-spoken, skinny Roger. With that hair. And, he cried that one time, remember? Admit it. He would not be your first choice for backup in a bar fight.
And, yet, at the risk of disappointing naysayers who expect FedEx to be too nice, there’s another side to consider. Roger — on or off court — is no pushover.
Kanye West’s “Stronger” plays at the start of each of Fed’s matches. “That that don’t kill me can only make me stronger” and “bow in the presence of greatness” go the lyrics. At first, the song seems like an oxymoron given his status as the beauty-shot guy. Or, not, as it turns out. Darned if he doesn’t move around the court on changeovers with a Safin-like swagger. Nadal, by comparison, mopes.
There’s a palpable moment as Federer waits to return serve when you realize you wouldn’t want to face him at a poker table in Vegas. He stares down his challenger from across the net, blowing on his fingers a la Bjorn Borg. In the old days, players did this because they didn’t have overgrips. Some do it out of habit, absentmindedly. When Roger does it, it’s all about the intimidation factor. “I’ve got this,” he says with a flick of the wrist.
Opponents have meltdowns in his presence. Moments before one prime time semifinal, Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus stood in the tunnel with Fed as they awaited a pre-match interview with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert I looked on. Baggy, despite being built like a heavyweight fighter and having just knocked out Rafa the night before, danced around nervously, fidgeted with his headband, and wiped the visible sweat from his brow. Federer? He patiently stretched like a jaguar about bring down his prey.
And, back in Cincinnati’s interview room? It’s not all saccharine. He usually shows up wearing casual workout clothes and a baseball hat, struts to the microphone, and throws his leg over the chair to sit in one swift motion. It feels like we were about to toss back a few beers in a frat house. “Questions?” he asks, rhetorically.
Tennis is a mind game, and the battle often goes beyond the confines of the service box. Roger has a remarkable ability to take the simplest of press questions and turn them into a psychological evisceration of his opponents or even the journalist. It’s skillfully placed, sophisticated trash talk.
Asked how he managed his infamous trick-shot Gillette ad, Federer teased with a sly grin: “You know how it is with magicians. They don’t tell how their tricks work.”
After a victory over Davydenko, Federer nonchalantly dropped this gem: “I was able to play really well when I wanted to.” When he wanted to?
Note to those who have defeated him the last, oh, decade? He is not losing sleep over you. Asked how he deals with a typical loss, he didn’t mince words: “Well, look. I’ve had an incredible career, so when I lose, I’m sad for five minutes.”
He continued, upping the gamesmanship: “[Losses have] always been easy to digest since the last seven, eight years since I won my first Wimbledon and became No. 1 in the world. For me, that completed my career really. That’s all I’ve ever wanted was to hold the Wimbledon trophy, and I was able to do that already in 2003. So I could have walked away then feeling a very happy man, because I did something all my idols did.”
Federer doesn’t limit his chess match answers to press rooms. In a Reddit AMA appearance last year, a fan asked, “At this point in your career, are there any records or achievements that you still really want?”
“There are some great new CD’s out that I haven’t bought yet,” Roger punned. “But in terms of tennis records: Any record is welcome.”
So, if we're keeping score, Roger proves stylish, kind, generous, loyal, multi-talented, fierce, and quick-witted. Just don’t ask him to make you breakfast.
adapted from an earlier story dated September 12, 2010