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Roger Federer reflects on early career: 'I was like a rough cut diamond'

Roger Federer turned pro in 1998 but didn't claim his first Grand Slam title until 2003. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Roger Federer turned pro in 1998 but didn't claim his first Grand Slam title until Wimbledon in 2003.

Roger Federer says the turning point in his career was his ability to push himself to become mentally stronger in the early years of his career. "In the beginning, maybe I was too nice to be successful," Federer told The Sunday Mail. "You need to have that fire, that grit, that toughness to be successful for a long time.''

It's odd to think of the 17-time Slam champion as a late bloomer, but Federer came up alongside a generation of young champions who achieved immediate success, like Lleyton Hewitt (still the youngest player to hold the ATP No. 1 spot), Andy Roddick (won the 2003 U.S. Open at 21 years old), and Marat Safin (won the 2000 U.S. Open at 20 years old). While his contemporaries were shooting up the rankings and racking up titles, he struggled to break through.

"I don't want to say I was frustrated, but I didn't understand why it wasn't happening for me," Federer said. "I was far enough behind that I was, 'OK, let's push myself a little more'."

For Federer, it was about getting more serious about his career and becoming more professional with his daily habits. "I was like a rough cut diamond," he said. "That's how a lot of people saw me. I needed polishing."

Coming off his worst season in more than a decade, Federer, now ranked No. 6, will begin his 2014 season at the Brisbane International on Dec. 29. He says his back injury and loss of confidence in 2013 led to a lack of aggression and that he "somehow became a different player."

But Federer is optimistic after a solid finish to the season. Playing without back pain, Federer made the final of the Swiss Indoors and the semifinals of the Paris Indoors and ATP World Tour Finals, with the losses coming to three top guys in Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro.