He Stands Alone

It's not surprising that Roger Federer's fans put him on a pedestal. What is shocking is how many of those fans are his fellow competitors, who feel that Federer has taken his game--and their sport--to a higher level
January 17, 2005

He did what little boys do when faced with something huge and dark: He ran. He rushed out into the warm Toronto night; he was alone and the street was unfamiliar, and there were no taxis anywhere and he had to find someone to explain how this nightmare could've happened, but ... where was his hotel? Where were the cabs? He ran and ran, past storefronts and doors and lights. No, he thought. He ran through the strange city, gasping, trying not to believe what he'd just heard. God, no.... ¶ He had been in a bar. It was near midnight. His cellphone rang, but he ignored it, thinking, What does he want now? It rang again, he ignored it again. Why? Because he was 20 and had lived half his life being told he was special, and he had become rich too early; because Roger Federer was a boy still. He didn't want to deal with responsibility that August night. He didn't want to hear his coach, Peter Lundgren, telling him to get some sleep, or think about the next day's doubles match or about how great he was supposed to be. Hadn't he already bombed out in his singles match three days before? He lifted his glass. He didn't have to answer if he didn't want to.

Federer had, by then, shed his more brattish ways. He didn't weep during matches anymore, or throw rackets or scream so loudly after mistakes that even his father, Robert, would yell down from the stands, "Can you please just stop?" Roger was years past the point of howling back at his dad, "Go have a drink and leave me alone!" embarrassing the man to the point that father and son would make the long drive home in silence, the trip ending once with Robert shoving his son's face into a snowbank. But it still took Roger a half hour to stop crying in the locker room after losses, and he still flung rackets in practice. When going to sleep, he often needed to lie on his stomach and slam his face over and over into the pillow--"head-banging," he called it--searching like a troubled child for the rhythm that would send him into slumber.

He was soft. Everyone knew it. The year before, at Wimbledon in 2001, Federer seemed to make his long-predicted breakthrough when he snapped Pete Sampras's 31-match winning streak there, but he lost in the next round. His game could be breathtaking, and that hurt him. He got lost in trying to play beautifully, to create astonishing points, and anytime he climbed into the cage with someone who could stretch a match to the place where talent and beauty aren't enough, he was in trouble. He won minor titles but lost too early, too often, on the game's biggest stages. By the summer of '02, Federer had cracked the top 10 but cemented a reputation. "The word on me was, Mentally he's not the strongest," Federer says. "People would hang on, thinking, If the match goes on over two hours, I will get him."

Some people are middle-aged at 30; some remain children forever. Here was Roger Federer on Aug. 1, 2002: callow and unfinished. His cellphone rang, and he didn't answer. He checked his messages, though, then called his coach at last. That's when Lundgren told him: There'd been a car crash. Federer's mentor, the 37year-old man who had traveled with him for years, who had shaped him more than anyone into the player and person he'd become, who was more brother than coach, was dead. He had been en route to a safari, a trip Federer had long pushed him to take. Guilt coursed through Federer like poison. The cabs had vanished and Federer ran a mile, maybe more, searching for a ride back to his hotel. "I was going crazy," he says. "It was horrible."

Back at the hotel he went from being the recipient of bad news to the bearer of it, sobbing as he called friends. He was, as someone who spoke to him that night says, "destroyed. You cannot describe how he was at that moment: You had to hear it, feel it."

Now experience and age came together for Federer, like hands of a clock lining up at midnight. How many of us can point to the moment they crossed into adulthood? When his friend's body arrived in Federer's hometown of Basel, Switzerland, a week later, Federer had to grow up. It was his birthday. He was 21.

On a rainy afternoon in October, Roger Federer strolled to the dais in the council chamber at Basel's city hall, taking both the applause and the setting easily in stride. Paintings depicting scenes from Swiss history covered the ceiling. The benches were only half-filled with officials and journalists, most wearing jackets and tightly knotted ties, and from the wood-paneled walls and the middle-aged men rose the scent of order, history, law and money. Ostensibly, all had come for the official draw of the 2004 Swiss indoor tournament set to open in Basel the next day, but it was more a celebration of the city's favorite son. For the first time, Federer had come home as the No. 1 player in the world, the first Swiss man to reach that height and--unlike his often mouthy compatriot Martina Hingis--now seemingly incapable of making the Swiss establishment cringe.

The old like Federer. He plays a classic game, never upbraids umpires or linespeople and, though he spent 2004 on one of the most spectacular rolls in tennis history, shows little sign of conceit. After being named the tour's most popular player, Federer thanked everyone and finished with a catchphrase prized by grandmothers the world over: "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."

It's no wonder that Basel tournament president Roger Brennwald, noticing Federer posing for a photographer before the oversized draw sheet, bolted in mid-sentence and darted across the room to throw an arm around his neck. Ten years ago Federer had been a ball boy at this tournament, and his mother had made name tags in the press office. This all fits nicely with Basel's homey self-image; the town sits just minutes from both the French and the German borders, and in his multilingual openness, Federer is, as provincial president Jörg Schild puts it, "typically Basel."

"Roger's easy," Brennwald said. "We are down-to-earth people. In Zurich they are a little ..."--and here he lifted his nose in the air--"... like the French. Basel is not like that. You can talk to Roger like a simple man on the street."

Simple. Easy. Nice. Talk to anyone in the game who had to wrangle with John McEnroe or the Williams sisters or any open-era No. 1, and you will never hear those words together. Federer's dominance has been so absolute, his winning of three 2004 Grand Slam titles so effortless, his assumption of the attendant media and sponsor responsibilities so angst-free, that it's only human to overlook how radical a force he is. Tennis has never seen anything quite like him.

Sailing alone, making his own game plan, famously outthinking coaching guru Brad Gilbert during the Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick, the 23-year old Federer lost just six matches in '04, went 11--0 in finals and won his last 23 matches against top 10 players, routing the field to win November's Masters Cup. Only a third-round loss to Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros stopped Federer from winning all four Grand Slam tournaments; the last time the sport got even a whiff of that was in 1997, when Hingis won three.

Yet if Federer's campaign placed him in the company of tennis greats, it also had an oddly unique feel. Throughout, Federer seemed less intent on making history or crushing the competition than on exploring his limits. Whenever a big or tricky match loomed, he wondered if he could handle, say, Roddick's power or bad weather or New York's singular pressures; he was the first to say he didn't know. Faced with Ivo Karlovic's massive serve at Wimbledon, he was less nervous than intrigued. "I thought it was an unbelievably nice test: Can he serve me off the court? Am I not a good enough returner to cope with that pressure?" Federer said after. "Well, I did, and I'm happy."

It's not often you see the tennis tour used as a platform for personal growth, but Federer hasn't followed the norm for a while. Despite his conservative demeanor, he has broken with convention far more fundamentally than, say, Andre Agassi or McEnroe; where it matters most--money and winning--the game's rebels have needed their hands held as much as anyone. By the 1980s every young player had a big-time agent, either from behemoth IMG or one of its enemies, and a No. 1 without a full-time coach was as normal as a limo without a driver. But in 2003 Federer broke with IMG and directed his business dealings to his parents; his girlfriend, former Swiss player Mirka Vavrinec; plus a media expert, accountant and lawyer. Later that year, despite winning Wimbledon and the Masters Cup championship in Houston, Federer fired Lundgren. For the next 13 months, he talked over his game mostly with Vavrinec and a friend from his junior days. Last week Federer hired Aussie coach Tony Roche as a consultant, but he's still in no rush to hire someone full time. After all, Federer broke into greatness on his own.

"Roger has this natural instinct for getting better--and he did," Hingis says. "I find that incredible. I always had someone to tell me if something was wrong. He just felt it."

Hingis, of course, upended the women's game with brains and touch similar to Federer's, but it's no shock that his game leaves her mystified. It does that to everybody. The service motion, forehand and demeanor prompt an easy comparison with Sampras, but Federer's youthful nickname of Petit Pete hasn't held up. Sampras's career was built on aces and quickness; his greatness was easily explained and thus, for the easily bored, boring. But no one has accused Federer of being dull, because his tennis is as smooth and elusive as a ball of mercury. You can't quite put your finger on him. In an age of power his is a game of manipulation: Federer doesn't shut down opponents so much as expose them. Few players generate more racket head speed, and his combination of conditioning and exquisite footwork leaves the impression that he always has more time, more space, in which to react. His rivals, in a clear sign of surrender, have all but given up using tennis terms to describe him. Marat Safin, arguably the second-most-talented man on tour, calls Federer "a magician"; '04 French Open champ Gaston Gaudio calls him "a genius"; for Agassi he is "an inspiration." Rod Laver, whose Grand Slam season in 1969 may well be the only one comparable with Federer's 2004, is no less awestruck. Federer's anticipation and court sense, Laver says, leave him wondering, match after match, How did he do that? "It's uncanny," Laver says. "He's never out of place. But you think, How can he never be out of place?"

Serena Williams says, "I wish I could play like Roger Federer."

It has been 20 years since a man has been talked about in such a way. McEnroe's touch allowed tennis cognoscenti to bandy a word like "artistry," and Federer is blessed with the same rare gift. But it's harder to be an artist these days. Racket technology and weight training have made the players bigger, more powerful; Federer who is 6'1", 177, is creating beautiful tennis off a barrage McEnroe never faced. At the same time, the tour is dominated by athletes, not players, and though the top 100 is better than ever, the top 10 is not. It's easier to look as though you're working with brush and palette when everyone else is playing paintball. "Nobody hits a good slice, so nobody knows what it is anymore," says Swiss coach Heinz Gunthardt. "So Roger hits his little short slice--which used to be a standard approach shot--and nobody knows how to get past him, and people say, 'My God! Look at that shot!'"

There's never been a player more complete. Unlike McEnroe and Sampras, Federer can beat the best on clay and will be a favorite to win the French; unlike Laver and Bjorn Borg, he has won Slam titles on hard court. "He stays back better than me, his backhand is better, and his forehand is just as good," Sampras says. "His temperament will enable him to stay on top as long as he wants." This is why, though Federer has won only four Slam titles, many believe he can complete a Grand Slam and gun for Sampras's record of 14 Slam titles. "There's no one who can play with him today," Sampras says. "For the next four or five years, his competition will be the record books."

Aside from injury, then, the only thing capable of stopping Federer is Federer. For now, he's motivated: On Saturday it took him just 63 minutes to win the Qatar Open. Whether he cares enough to chase Sampras won't be known for years, but it's clear that the first stage of his career has ended. When Federer returned to Basel last autumn, he came home for the first time free of pressure, free of frustration and fear. "Everything from now on is only positive," he says. "Of course there will be ups and downs, many moments when I'll think I should've won that match or done this or that differently. But I've lived up to all the expectations. It gives me huge relief: I can look in the mirror and know I can achieve. I'm playing great tennis. I'm enjoying the tour, having fun with the fans off the court. I'm loving it now."

Peter Carter died young, but that wasn't the only reason his death felt cruel. The Swiss Davis Cup coach had just emerged from a wrenching period: He had been married just more than a year but had never taken a honeymoon because his wife, Sylvia, had learned she had Hodgkin's disease five weeks after their wedding. Their world revolved around doctors, chemotherapy, hair falling out in clumps, and Peter was there for all of it. Then, in the summer of '02, Sylvia's tests came back clean. Federer's mother is from South Africa, and he had always pushed Peter to go there, go on a safari, so Sylvia and Peter made their plan. "The trip was a celebration," says Bob Carter, Peter's father. "To celebrate her becoming well again."

It was Aug. 1, the day after Sylvia's birthday. Peter was riding in a Land Rover with a guide in Kruger National Park. Police say a tire may have blown out; the driver lost control, and the vehicle plunged off a bridge into a stream and overturned. Both men were killed instantly. Sylvia was in another car, riding with the other man's wife. "It just destroyed her," Vavrinec says of Sylvia. "It cannot get any worse. Her birthday is now a nightmare to her." Nothing compares with the loss of a spouse or a child; Federer knows that his grief pales in comparison. But he was green enough to gain something priceless from that tragedy: the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed. Not happiness, not love and not, certainly, anything as flimsy as tennis greatness.

Carter knew that. He grew up in rural Australia, a graceful serve-and-volleyer but slight; "a waif," says his coach Peter Smith. Carter had just two big moments: beating Pat Cash when Cash was the world's No. 1 junior and then, in 1982, ranked 756th, stunning 34th-ranked John Alexander. But every year brought a new injury, and at some tournaments he played in constant pain. There was only one reason he accomplished the little he did. "He was so tough," Smith says. Later, when Smith began coaching Lleyton Hewitt, he gave the tenacious blond boy the best compliment he could imagine: "You look like a little Peter Carter out there."

By then, though, Carter had moved to Switzerland, playing club-team tennis and coaching, and washed up at the Old Boys Tennis Club in Basel. He met Federer as a 10year-old, and already people were talking about Federer's touch--and his attitude. The Basel youth tennis scene then was like Bollettieri's-on-the-Rhine, highly competitive and highly strung; smashed rackets and screechy tirades made every tournament a trial. In one match Federer was beating his opponent so badly the boy started crying. On the changeover Roger told him not to be so hard on himself; things would turn around. Then the boy started winning, and Roger cried. Federer never screamed at anyone but himself, tormented by mistakes, poor judgment, his inability to stay in control. "Everybody tried to calm me down," Federer says. "But I told them it eats me up from the inside. I knew I was over the top, but I just had to get it out."

Carter coached Federer until he was 14. The two traveled together, "father and son stuff," as Smith puts it. Federer credits Carter with teaching him his peerless technique, his backhand, a professional attitude, politeness--in many ways, how to be a man. It didn't all take, not then anyway. After seeing Hewitt play in Europe, Carter called Smith and said, "I saw your boy today. Pretty good, but I think mine's a bit better." One thing bothered him, though. "He thought Roger didn't have Lleyton's mental toughness," Smith says.

Federer may have been soft, but he didn't lack will. At 13 he announced it was time to leave home and attend the Swiss national training center in Ecublens. He came home on weekends and cried every Sunday night on the way to the train. But he always went back. After joining the coaching staff at the new training center in Biel, Carter began coaching Federer again at 16, guiding his rise to world No. 1 junior. It wasn't easy. Federer's talent gave him so many options on each ball that it was almost paralyzing. "You learn one new language quicker than four new languages," says Pierre Paganini, Federer's longtime trainer. "He plays 10 languages on the court." Federer knew how good he was supposed to be; he heard what everyone said. "I really felt I had to please the crowd: to hit the most difficult shot," Federer says. "But it made me lose."

Lundgren, a former coach of onetime No. 1 Marcelo Ríos, joined the staff at Biel and began coaching Federer on a limited basis in 1997. Two years later, when Federer joined the tour full time, he stunned everyone--including Carter--by choosing Lundgren as his coach. It made sense; Lundgren, a former top 25 player, had tour experience that Carter lacked. It also demonstrated that Federer possessed a ruthless objectivity about his career. But he also made sure to consult constantly with Carter, and after helping oust Jakob Hlasek as Switzerland's Davis Cup captain in 2001, Federer used his clout as the No. 1 Swiss player to install his old coach in Hlasek's place. It wasn't a simple task; in fact, it was a bit like making Nick Faldo the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. The Swiss Tennis Federation insisted that Carter, an Australian, couldn't officially assume the captaincy and sit on-court with the team until he had gained Swiss citizenship. But Federer didn't have to feel guilty anymore. Everyone had a place now.

Federer and Carter had one Davis Cup tie together, in February 2002. Federer beat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Russia, but Switzerland lost 3--2. Then came the summer, Federer's first-round losses in Paris and London and Toronto, the phone calls, his first funeral. "Did it change anything in me?" Federer says. "I was playing quite badly, but it put everything in perspective. I fought a lot, and I came out stronger."

Not instantly. Federer's game collapsed at first; he lost in the first round in Cincinnati and the fourth round at the U.S. Open. Then came a late-September Davis Cup tie with Morocco, on clay, in Casablanca, with the loser to be knocked out of the world group. Federer rose to the moment, avenging the loss at the French Open by beating Hicham Arazi in straight sets, pairing up with George Bastl to win the doubles, then beating Younes El-Aynaoui to win the tie single-handedly. His rampage continued deep into the 2003 season, 10 straight wins, and he won Wimbledon for the first time. Everyone around him says it: Carter's death gave Federer the inspiration he had always lacked. But he had soft spots still. Federer lost in the first round of the '03 French Open in straight sets to Luis Horna.

In September of that year Switzerland traveled to Melbourne for the Davis Cup semifinal against Australia. For the first time the two teams would play for the Peter Carter Memorial Trophy--awarded now at every Davis Cup meeting between the two nations. Bob Carter and his wife, Diana, and Peter Smith all came in from their houses near Adelaide. Federer won his first match on Friday but, with Switzerland down 2--1, needed to beat Hewitt on Sunday to keep the tie alive. He glided to an easy two-set lead, then to 5--3, 30--all in the third: two points from the win. Hewitt dropped a tricky return on the back of the line, and Federer swiped at it lamely, hoping for a call that never came. He had choked, and instantly knew it; when Federer looked up, his eyes were as wide and shiny as quarters. Hewitt came back, of course. He screamed, "Come on!" revved the crowd up, and clawed his way into his opponent's head. Federer buckled, went down 6--1 in the fifth and ran off the court sobbing.

An hour later the two teams congregated in the team's dressing room with Bob and Diana. Federer hadn't seen them since before their son had died. His teammates urged him to stay strong, but something inside him gave way, something he had been carrying for a year, and for the second time that day, Federer broke down. He went into a smaller room with Peter's parents, where they comforted him. "I'm very happy it happened," Federer says. "It was hard to lose, and [Peter's] parents came in and I got more emotional--so many emotions. But it was important for me to face it."

The morning after he won Wimbledon last year, Federer called the Carters. He still does that occasionally, telling them how often he thinks of their son during tough matches. For them his success has become a vivid reminder of their youngest child, a graceful embodiment of everything Peter knew and taught and was. "We're rooting for Roger," Bob says. "We feel part of his tennis. We feel part of his team."

Melbourne changed Roger Federer. At 22 he had the artistic temperament down--everything had to be just so, the weather perfect, his hair set, before he could perform. He was a diva. But after his fold Down Under, he got harder. In November 2003, at the Masters Cup in Houston, tournament chairman and furniture magnate Jim (Mattress Mac) McIngvale cornered Federer and blistered him for some benign remarks Federer had made about the "wavy" court and smallish stadium. Federer argued a bit but got so rattled that he had to retreat to the locker room to compose himself. He told Lundgren he couldn't play. "I'm not happy," he said. "I'm not ready."

But he shook it off. He went out before the pro-Andre crowd that night, saved two match points and beat Agassi. He dropped one set the whole week, beat longtime nemesis David Nalbandian and No. 1--ranked Andy Roddick, then weathered a 21/2-hour rain delay and Agassi again to win the year-end championship. McIngvale all but ignored him while lauding Agassi during the postmatch presentation, but Federer just smiled. He had the win, and Mattress Mac's money.

Even with his success, he wasn't satisfied. Federer dumped Lundgren within days of his win in Houston because their relationship had gotten too comfortable for comfort. He went on vacation, but two days in he called his trainer to map out his fitness program for 2004. "I realized, Roger, you have to wake up now," Federer says. "The train is leaving. You have to catch the train."

Roddick pushed him at last year's Wimbledon, but Federer adjusted and won. Wind and rain disrupted his quarterfinal match at the 2004 U.S. Open against Agassi; Federer adjusted and won. After losing seven of their previous nine meetings, Federer took Hewitt on an around-the-world clinic in 2004, beating the No. 3 player on all surfaces--in every Slam in which they met--six times in all. Federer launched their U.S. Open final with perhaps the finest set of tennis ever played, winning all but five points in an 18-minute, 6--0 blitz. A point away from 5--2 in the second set, Federer wobbled, lost serve and gave Hewitt his chance. For a moment it smelled like Davis Cup all over again. But Federer didn't get scared this time. He eased past Hewitt in the tiebreak and then carved him up again, 6--0, in the third, the first time that a U.S. Open finalist had been double-bageled. Federer made Hewitt look mystified, resigned; he took Hewitt's fight, his Hewittness, away from him. "No one had ever done that to Lleyton," says Smith.

It was, in a sense, the performance that men's tennis has been leading to, the moment when class, artistry and athleticism gathered into something close to an ideal. "We've never seen tennis like that," Hlasek says. "Nobody ever played as creatively, but it is as correct as you want to play too. He's creating every point as it should be." At the year-end championships, there was no drama: Federer beat Hewitt twice, including a straight-set yawner in the final. Mattress Mac couldn't have been nicer.

Yes, Federer knows that he can only go down from here. But he doesn't worry; he's not that young anymore. In bed at night he bangs his face into the pillow only when he wakes up cold. Then his girlfriend covers him, and he sleeps again, deep and silent, like a man without fear. In the morning he remembers none of it, not even the dreams.

His play at the U.S. Open was the moment when class, artistry and athleticism gathered into something close to an ideal.

" Everybody tried to calm me down," Federer says of his brattish ways as a youth.

"I knew I was over the top, but I just had to get it out."

" There's no one who can play with him," says Sampras.

" For the next four or five years his competition will be the record books."

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Adam Pretty/Getty Images COLOR PHOTOAL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES FLAT-OUT GREAT Even Federer was bowled over by his brilliance in the 2004 U.S. Open final, in which he dominated Hewitt. COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE FEDERER FAMILY BOY TO MAN Under Carter (above, left), Federer learned flawless technique and the importance of conducting himself like a pro--though he was still kicking up the occasional storm in 2001. COLOR PHOTORICK RYCROFT/AP COLOR PHOTOBOB MARTIN TOUCH OF GRASS Federer ruled Wimbledon in '04.