Roger Federer on historic career: 'I never thought it would be like this'
Editor's note: This is an extended version of a Q&A with 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the Aug. 25, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It was once a victory tour. Each year at this time, from 2004 to ’08, Roger Federer would roll through New York City, put on a two-week magic show and leave with the U.S. Open trophy. Now it’s more of a ... well, a what? It’s not a farewell tour. Federer, 33, has no immediate plan to retire -- just as the rest of us wouldn’t if we were still among the top three practitioners in our line of work. It’s not even a nostalgia tour. Last week he won the Western & Southern Open title and, having come within a few games of winning an eighth Wimbledon last month, Federer is a prime contender in Queens.
Before taking his five-year-old twin daughters swimming in a Toronto hotel pool during the Rogers Cup two weeks ago, Federer sat down with Sports Illustrated. Over an espresso and a bottle of sparkling water, he marveled at his past, enthused about his present and pondered his future. But not too much.
SI: What’s it like to be Roger Federer right now?
Federer: First of all, I can’t believe how old I am. Time goes by way too quickly on the tour. I can’t believe it’s already August. Time feels like it’s on fast-forward. But I’m in a great place. Feeling so much better than I did last year. Family’s great.
SI: When you leave home—
Federer: It’s always a test: Would I rather stay at home, or am I happy to go on the road again? I was so happy to get back on the road [in preparation for the U.S. Open]. I love Switzerland. We had a great time there, caught up with friends and family ... but [my wife] Mirka and I love packing things up and traveling again. We always see its positives. The organization is the toughest thing.
SI: Different players have different relationships with the sport. Someone like Andre Agassi had an on-again, off-again thing. Did you ever fall out of love with tennis?
Federer: I struggled early in my career. I wouldn't want to go to practice or I would play for 45 minutes and feel so flat or not enjoy it. Why am I doing this? Can I do it tomorrow? Those kind of feelings.
In a way, I'm happy I had so much of [the lethargy] early, between 16 and 21, but it was tearing me up as well. I would come out on court at 9 in the morning for practice. There was the other guy, the professional, jumping up and down, really sweating, because he's been practicing. I'm rolling this way from bed. My coach told me to practice at 9. Here I am. One hour later, you're down 6-1, 4-1. It's over. It wasn't worth it. Like, What am I doing?
I had so many of these moments that I [finally] said, "I'm not going to waste practices anymore, I'm not going to do this anymore, I'm going to be professional." In the process, I started to really enjoy it.
Today I love practice. My favorite is when nobody's watching. I feel I can be a clown or how I really am. When there's a crowd, I feel I'm being watched. People are taking pictures. People are filming. People are analyzing. So I go more into the zone: OK, let's make this a good practice, let's try to work on what we wanted to do. I still enjoy it, though, because people are happy they can see me and I can do what I love.
SI: Most of us who have kids know you have to recalibrate your workday. How has the adjustment been?
Federer: It has a huge impact on your life. I mean, 24/7 you think, What are the kids up to? Like right now I know what my four kids are doing. In an hour it’s a different situation, maybe they’re going to have dinner, we need to put them to bed, I can go back and read good-night stories. The train is going at the same time even though you’re not with them.
I miss the family when I'm not with them. At the same time, I know it’s not always possible to be with them. That’s fine. I’m happy it didn’t pull me away from tennis. That’s the first worry I had five years ago. I thought I was not going to be able to practice as much as I need to. Then I thought my schedule was going to be cut by maybe 30 percent. But it didn’t happen. I play full schedules and am able to manage it. That was a surprise for me.
SI: You once told me you don’t like being alone. Has that changed?
Federer: I love having people around. I love having an open house at the hotel or in my place. People can always come around. I felt super odd when I went to Shanghai by myself last year or to Monaco this year. I get back to my room and there's nobody there. So I give keys to my coach and physio. Just come by.
SI: What has been the biggest change, 33 versus 23?
Federer: The game has evolved. Racket technology and especially string technology have had a big impact. More and more guys play from the baseline. I’ve had to adjust to that. Back in the day, in a nutshell you'd have about 30 percent of the guys serving-and-volleying, 30 percent playing aggressively and 30 percent retrieving. Now it's all pretty much the same. Everybody has a good serve, forehand, backhand. Usually don't volley very well. So you get stuck in the same rallies more often, which is way more predictable, which is easier. But maybe it's not as fun sometimes as it used to be when one day you played the retriever, then you play the aggressive guy. I like the change.
Then [another change is] just how do you manage your experience? Because experience can be a very good thing, but sometimes it can also be a hindrance. You’re not playing as freely, you’re playing the percentages too much. It becomes too calculated. I like to play free-flowing tennis. I have to remind myself to play like a junior sometimes.
What would you say?
SI: The biggest change for me? Social media, probably—
Federer: Social media, right!
SI: You really seem to have taken to it.
Federer: Yeah, it took me awhile. I started with Facebook slowly. Then Twitter -- I started last year at the French. Took a lot of convincing. I didn’t quite understand the idea. Everybody uses social media differently. Some use it as information coming to you. Some guys are really open and say, “Look, I’m having an espresso right now,” which to me is like, What?
Then I just said, "If I do it, it needs to be me." My idea was to give people extra insight nobody else has. Feed them something they didn’t know. People like what I’m saying. I think it’s been actually quite nice.
SI: You set the tone.
Federer: Then let's say I read the press sometimes. At the end of an article, those seem very mean quite often.
SI: Comments? Yeah, don’t read those. It’s like you see the decline of civility in real time.
Federer: Yeah. That's how I thought it would be on social media. But it's not so bad. It's actually super supportive.
SI: There is an easy trope: Federer is so efficient, Swiss, punctual, precise. Do you feel your Swiss heritage expresses itself in your game? Do you feel Swiss culture is part of your personality?
Federer: Switzerland is a very interesting place because of the four languages we speak. I've lived in many places in Switzerland, and everywhere it's different. Every half hour you drive, the accent changes. I don't want to say people are different, but it's a very diverse place.
So I think, Who is the real Swiss? It's a tough question to answer. But it is an amazing place to grow up. It gave me the freedom I needed. In that sense, I was very fortunate.
Switzerland has always been very supportive. The people don't lose it. When you do something really big, they keep you grounded. Everybody is supposed to be equal. I love that about Switzerland.
At the same time you think, Why can't we be more euphoric sometimes? Why can't we go crazy? We do, but very rarely. We come right back to who we really are. From that standpoint, it's actually a very comfortable place to live.
SI: You hear that you're so artistic. What kind of art inspires you?
Federer: When I was younger, I didn't understand how you can get inspired by things. But then I met certain people, went to art galleries, listened to certain music. You drift off a little bit. That's happened to me more often recently. Maybe it's because I feel like I need more motivation and inspiration to be able to perform well, whereas in the beginning you're so excited, a kid in a candy store. I'm playing against the guys I saw on TV? You don't need any more inspiration than that when you're younger.
SI: What do you like?
Federer: I like modern art. It's been good for me to have an open mind, to not just think tennis. That's one of the things I've done so well over the years: When I finish my practice, I switch off the moment I get in the car.
SI: What are two things that have nothing to do with tennis and family that you like to do?
Federer: Catching up with friends. Going for a coffee. When I'm on vacation, it's going to the beach, just listening to the waves. It's very quiet [in those moments], which is nice because I live this busy life.
SI: What’s one thing you’re looking forward to when you’re no longer playing tennis?
Federer: I had to put playing other sports on the back burner because I'm too scared to get injured. I used to play squash, badminton, basketball, soccer and go skiing. Now my family clearly has taken up that part in my life.
SI: Whenever you do retire, is there part of you that says, I did these wondrous things, made this magic on the tennis court, what am I going to do in my next phase that’s going to compete with that?
Federer: I don’t see it that way. Tennis for me is isolated. It’s been this most incredible journey. Yeah, something that gave me all these opportunities to travel and do all these cool things. I never thought it would be like this. I thought it was going to be a little bit of press, maybe the odd sponsor. It's been so much more.
Maybe we'll be doing an interview in 20 years and I'll say, "I did the most incredible things after tennis." [When I’m done] I will do quite different things, but I’d like to stay in tennis. And my foundation. I’ll have more time to travel, to do projects, do some more fund-raising. ... I don’t know where it’s going to take me. I feel like I don’t want to think too far ahead. The more I think about life after tennis, the closer I am to the end. I don’t want to be there. I can figure it out once it’s all said and done.
SI: You said earlier that you have the experience, you play the percentages, you don't play like a junior. Do you ever think, I'm 23, I'm just going to go out there—
Federer: Nothing to lose?
SI: Nothing to lose.
Federer: Not every shot, not every point.
I remember this moment: I think it was against Alex Radulescu in Toulouse, second round of qualies, 1998. I think it was 5-all in the second-set tiebreaker, maybe second serve. He was serve-volleying first, second serve. I think, I'm going to go inside backhand, Becker style. And I just drilled the backhand in the corner. 6-5. Served it out. 7-6, 7-6. Went on to make the quarters.
Sometimes I wish I said, "At this particular point, I'm just going to go crazy." I sometimes do, but it's more forced than it was back in the day when you say, "This is what I'm going to do and I know it's going to work."
SI: How do you sort of out-think yourself and convince yourself to do that?
Federer: I know I can hit great shots. But it's something that goes against logic. One-in-10 [chance] back in the day, one was enough. But today one out of 10 is not enough.
That's where confidence comes in. Either we talk too much about it or not enough, but confidence is a huge thing in tennis, sports in general. It's a hard thing to explain, but it really does make you win or lose sometimes.
Last year, for instance, I lost my confidence. Instead of serving it out, you won't. Or instead of making that break point, you won't. You just won't get lucky because you've played too passive.
SI: You're open about it.
Federer: Yeah. [Confidence] has a much bigger place in sports than we sometimes think. Same with home-court advantage. When you have home-court advantage, I feel like you dare to try things out, and risk pays. It makes your opponent nervous if he feels he's against the crowd. You feel like it's going to pay off if you play aggressive.
SI: But you have home-court advantage every time you play.
Federer: Quite often. So it's definitely been helpful.
SI: We talk about the Federerization of tennis. You have a big impact on the whole culture. How much is this intentional that your ethic has affected things?
Federer: I just needed to get my losing in check. I needed to figure out how to lose, not in style, but keep it together. I used to always break down crying when I was younger. That became embarrassing to a degree at one point.
The problem is that once you're in the limelight, once you've won the big one, been world No. 1, you're supposed to always be humble and good. Sometimes I feel like it's gotten to be too much. Like everybody has leaned toward, I'm not the favorite. The other guy played great. It's always the same thing from everybody. I miss the feistiness sometimes because I do believe there is a place for feistiness in the press room, on the court. As long as you play by the rules. But that's why we have the umpires. They keep us in line.
SI: Do you wish there was more friction?
Federer: I do, more aggressive characters. That's why I like the guys who are a bit cocky or confident. It's important to be that way as well. Not silly about it, but still really believing.
I was like that when I was younger. But my hero was [Stefan] Edberg [now Federer's coach]. He was very humble. Even [Michael] Jordan, he always seemed like he was this elegant guy in victory and defeat. I don't know what the perception of him was in the States, but that's how I saw him. I wanted to be like that eventually.
I just said I need to not go overly crazy when I win. But trends have gone the other way. When you win, everybody lies on the floor now, runs into the crowd. Sometimes I wish everybody wouldn't go crazy. Back in the day, it was a handshake and a jump over the net.
But I understand the pressure is so great on us today, the focus is so big. Everybody is like, What is he going to do? I understand that people want to share their emotions, especially in our sport when you're out there by yourself without the chance to celebrate with teammates during a match. I just want the game to be represented the right way. Tennis is a very classy sport, and nobody is bigger than the game. Players come and go.
SI: This is a different life than you led 10 years ago.
SI: Are you any less fulfilled than you were 10 years ago?
Federer: Less fulfilled? I think I can enjoy it so much more off the court. On the court, I was probably enjoying myself more when I was winning five to 10 tournaments a year. I miss going to every second tournament and winning it, leaving with the trophy. It was an amazing feeling, I must tell you.
But today in my personal life, away from it all, I feel so much happier. I don’t feel so stressed because I don’t feel this need to prove myself to everybody. Running around, being invited to a photo shoot, a gala. It would all freak me out, all this show business. It was really uncomfortable. It took me a while to get used to it, to that attention, that whatever I said was going to be picked up. I would feel misunderstood. I would sometimes feel on edge because it was all new. At the same time, it’s an unbelievable experience, wanting to defend a title, wanting to be successful. You forget about all these bad times eventually.
SI: I wrote this recently: You really like being Roger Federer, however demanding it may be at times.
Federer: Yeah. I mean, otherwise I would stop. I would say, "I’ve had enough of this."
SI: You have a wife and four children.
Federer: Yeah. I promised them we'd go in the pool.
SI: Can you do that?
Federer: Not before matches.
Second video via the ATP World Tour.