It’s the regular retirement question and it usually gets a stock answer from Roger Federer. But, in an emotional in-depth interview, he revealed to me as close as you’re going to get to his retirement plan.
“Wimbledon stands out as maybe a place,” he said. “I don’t have the fairytale ending in my head saying there has to be another title somewhere. I hope it doesn’t end with an injury. I’d like to go out on my terms.” So, no date, but at least we have a possible, albeit obvious place.
It turns out Federer is as meticulous and prepared in his answers for an interview as he is on court. In a wide-ranging and candid interview on a Dubai rooftop, he discusses his passion to educate kids in Africa, the tragic death of his mentor and his first kiss with his wife Mirka. Turns out the unstoppable tennis machine hides a big heart.
With 20 grand slams, Federer is the most successful men’s tennis player of all time, who next week in Melbourne could not only potentially win a third successive Australian Open title, but his 100th title overall. Not that he needs any of this to secure his place in history.
Anyway, enough of the numbers, what about that first kiss?
It came at the age of 18 with a girl, two years his senior, during the Sydney Olympic Games. Her name was Mirka Vavrinec. If you’re thinking Romeo and Juliet balcony scene … think again. What should have been a much anticipated moment of intimacy was instead a rather public affair – thanks to a dormitory full of excitable wrestlers.
“We were both playing for Switzerland in tennis,” recalls Federer, “and then we spent two weeks together in those dorms. We were together with the wrestlers and all the other cool athletes. I guess over the two weeks, we built up some chemistry.”
It also turns out that wrestlers have big hearts – it was one of them who suggested Federer make the first move. “He said, ‘Hey, kiss her now.’”
Federer giggles: “And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t know, maybe, should I?’”
The wrestler egged him on. “So, anyway, I did,” continues Federer.
Even so Federer had to fall back on the teenage trick of beefing up your age with fractions. “She told me I was so young when she kissed me. I tried to tell her I was almost 18-and-a-half. I tried to sneak in a quarter year.”
As well as revealing the early days of his courtship with Mirka, Federer is also keen to pay tribute to the people that set him on the path to sporting immortality, notably his childhood coach Peter Carter.
Federer readily admits that it was Carter, who took Federer under his wing at the age of nine, that laid the foundations for the player the Swiss is today.
“Peter was really a really important person in my life – it’s because of him I can say thank you for my technique today.”
As he trained the future champion, Carter shared his experiences with his closest friend, Darren Cahill, who was coaching another prodigy, Lleyton Hewitt. Both were from Carter’s native Adelaide and regularly swapped notes. Their two teen sensations would later face each other at the highest level.
Carter had come to Switzerland to play club tennis in Federer’s Basel club. With a girlfriend in Basel, Carter decided to stay.
“They used to call each other and say, ‘I have this really special kid I’m training.’ Cahill would say the same from Adelaide of Hewitt. And then of course we played each other when we were 14, 16, 18, 20, and then our whole careers. Who knew we were both going to become Wimbledon champions, world No. 1s.”
But Carter never got to see the tennis legend he helped create win a grand slam. The Australian was killed on his honeymoon in 2002 – just a year before Federer won his first grand slam at Wimbledon – in a tragic car crash in South Africa.
“That was hard, and it just took a great friend away from me and somebody who was really inspirational for me,” says a composed Federer.
But asked what would Carter have thought of Federer with 20 grand slams to his name and suddenly the Swiss star’s composure slips.
“I still miss him so much,” says Federer as he wells up with tears. All of a sudden the normally eloquent and articulate Federer struggles for words.
“I hope he would be proud. I guess he didn’t want me to be a wasted talent. So I guess it was somewhat of a wake-up call from me when he passed away. I really started to train hard.”
He pauses again for a glass of water. “Geez, never broke down like this … I just need a couple of minutes.”
As the sun sets over the Dubai skyline, Federer’s composure returns.
“I think what I would like to say is that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to having had the right people at the right time, the right coaches at the right time.
“Sure, you could argue I made those decisions, but I also got lucky along the way,” adds Federer, who when he competes in Australia will be cheered on by Carter’s parents, a testament to the connection he had with the coach.
When you’re one of the greatest tennis players ever pretty much every door opens for you and every head turns. But not always – there is one place where it has absolutely no impact at all, and that is one of the strangely welcome side benefits of Federer’s work with children in Africa, through the education programs of his Roger Federer Foundation.
“Last time when I was in Zambia, midway through this year, I tried to explain to them that I was a tennis player. And they said: ‘The one with the rocket and the table?’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s table tennis.’”
He smiles as he remembers his newly discovered anonymity. “You realize who you are actually doesn’t matter. I’m not a tennis player here. I’m actually a philanthropist on the ground. It hit me, you know? I think it’s wonderful.”
Different than a tennis outfit
The foundation has surpassed its targets, assisting over a million children before its 15-year anniversary in December.
Federer says it has been both the most challenging and satisfying experience he has had, taking him off his familiar tennis court and, suited and booted, into government boardrooms.
“It’s different than being in a tennis outfit,” he said. “It’s in a suit. It’s speeches. It’s very much protocol. I go meet officials to maybe push it up the agenda – early childhood education.”
His expression becomes serious. “Eighty per cent of a child’s brain is developed by the time they’re seven, so that’s why I truly believe in it. When they know I took the time to fly there, took the time to go meet them, they might take this issue more seriously. The process will really help a lot of children more quickly. And that’s very exciting.”
The interview is over, but Federer doesn’t make the usual hurried exit of so many stars. Instead he stays on, alone, to talk off camera for an hour, signing tennis balls, reflecting on the year ahead. A class act – on and off the court.