09.06.10

Federer Breaks His Silence

The Swiss tennis star, who's dominating his U.S. Open competition, has been known as a controlled, silent type. But that's just because everybody's listening to him in the wrong language.

With the legion of English-speaking reporters funneling out of the U.S. Open interview room, the smaller contingent of Swiss journalists moved into place. Instead of lobbing their questions for Roger Federer from afar, the more familiar bunch—Federer is on a first-name basis with most of them—gathered around the desk. Some even sat on it. One opened with a question in Swiss-German, which Federer happily answered. Not understanding the 30 seconds of guttural noises and flat vowels, a French-speaking journalist asked Federer to translate. Federer grinned back.

“I’m just talking bullshit,” he said.

Hard to imagine him saying the same to ESPN or the BBC. When faced with a room full of notebooks and cameras, the sound bites from the Swiss tennis machine, who has plowed into the U.S. Open quarterfinals, usually come in a near monotone, with a few deep thoughts sprinkled between the athlete-speak platitudes. But that’s because he’s speaking English. After a week or so of listening to Federer speak in his native tongues, you can see the charisma behind the cold efficiency peeking out.

Now, as Federer enters a new phase of his career, one in which he has already cemented himself as the most successful man ever to play tennis, he is beginning to open up to the public at large. The model of professional focus, of singular devotion to his art, is finally showing the world a personality.

“He’s definitely revealed more of himself and I think he enjoys that,” said Justin Gimelstob, a former player and commentator for the Tennis Channel. “He’s confident with what he’s accomplished. He can still give some of himself to the rest of the world without showing vulnerability.”

Why exactly the 29 year old is mellowing in his old tennis age comes down to a pair of momentous occasions that happened in the last two years. The first was breaking the sport’s most hallowed record by winning his 15th Grand Slam-event singles title at Wimbledon in 2009. He added another at the Australian Open in January, leaving Pete Sampras second on the all-time list with 14 and Rafael Nadal trailing him by eight. Within weeks of that Wimbledon success, Federer also became a father. His priorities haven’t changed, but the burden on him has lightened.

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“I’m in a place where I’m playing for myself,” he said in French, another language in which he talks loosely, this week. “I’m not playing to prove anything to anyone. I’m just trying to do my best with everything that I’ve already done. It’s actually more relaxing to play today than it was in the past. I hope that makes sense, because to me, it makes a lot of sense.”

“Though he’s been a terrific player, I even think Rod Laver had a little bit more edge to him,” one marketing professor said of Federer.

It doesn’t to everyone. Thousands of newspaper inches have been spent worrying that perhaps Federer has taken his foot a little too far off the gas. He hasn’t won a Grand Slam singles title since the Australian Open, causing him to slip to No. 2 in the world rankings. This is also the first time since 2004 that he did not enter the U.S. Open as the defending champion. But it can only be considered a downturn by Federer’s own astronomical standards. Even his biggest rival is there to defend him.

“You have to go to the limit all the time, and it’s very difficult to be at 100 percent all your career,” Rafael Nadal said earlier in the tournament. “He did something unbelievable the last seven, eight years, so I think he deserves a little bit to relax.”

This stage of Federer’s career has also teased a wistful side from under his permanent shell of total confidence. Nine years after he first upset Sampras at Wimbledon as a pony-tailed youngster—a five-set epic that signaled the changing of the guard—he is the same age Sampras was on that afternoon. Today, Federer is the old master facing players who idolized him as teenagers.

“Playing against the younger generation is pretty complicated,” he said in French. “It hasn’t been my favorite, honestly. You start missing that older generation. Guys like Agassi and Sampras are a long way away, and the young guys take their place. You don’t have the same respect for those guys at first, and it’s almost sad. Then you get used to it, the rivalries grow.”

He admits that he has had to alter his game to keep up with the kids shooting through the ranks, adding more power and becoming a better athlete. But the cool finesse of his play remains his most intimidating and identifiable trait. Through four rounds at this year’s U.S. Open, he has been so efficient in dispatching his opponents that he has spent less than a combined seven hours on court. Everything about his game, from the silent, balletic footwork to his deceptive strength is functioning with clockwork precision. “He’s classy,” said Brian Dabul, his first-round victim. “Very classy. Every stroke is perfect.”

The awe-inspiring artist is the side of Roger Federer the public has always seemed to know. The only side of Roger Federer that, until now, he has let the public see.

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For all of his newfound openness and public comfort, there is one compromise Federer refuses to make: Personality cannot come at the expense of his privacy.

When asked anything about his home life, Federer whips out humor the same way he might go to the slice backhand in an on-court emergency. Asked after his wedding last year if he would be taking time off for a honeymoon—and where he would go—his cheeky answer to the press was, “I wouldn’t miss, you know, being with you guys.” Even when someone pressed him for a small detail about the way he arranged his six Wimbledon trophies at home, Federer just grinned back, “What do you think?”

In front of the media, he leaves no doubt that he is in control. Information trickles out as he sees fit, with his family and entourage more tight-lipped than Cold War spies. Visible as they may be in the stands during every tournament he plays, members of Team Federer hardly ever speak on the record.

Few other players on the tour can claim to know him well, either. He and his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, maintain a healthy professional respect. They chat. They get along. Federer jokes that they play tic-tac-toe in the locker room. But no more than that. Over the summer, he invited one of his regular practice partners at tournaments, the German Philipp Kohlschreiber, to train with him for a week in Zurich. Kohlschreiber came away with little he didn’t already know. “He’s not a very open person,” he said in the hallways of Arthur Ashe Stadium last week. “But for him it’s the right way, because he’s so much in focus from the cameras, in the press.”

That’s not to say Federer’s personal life is a total mystery. Since his wife Mirka’s brief tennis career ended due to an injury eight years ago, they claim to have spent all but two nights together. His 1-year-old twin girls (plus a nanny) go wherever Federer goes. The intensive family-and-job focus is almost reminiscent of the life his friend Tiger Woods presented to the world before it was all undone. Those “tough few months,” Federer he put it, along with the tennis star’s conspicuous lack of tabloid scandal, have left Federer as perhaps sports’ only rumor-free megastar.

* * * * *

With one of the richest endorsement baskets in sports, full of luxury goods and reliable brands from Rolex to Mercedes-Benz, Federer raked in more than $35 million in the last year, putting him roughly on par with earners like Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez. And still, his lukewarm public persona means that not everyone is convinced of his marketing magnetism. For instance, Switzerland’s leading tennis magazine, Smash, sells far fewer copies when it puts Federer on the cover than when it leads with Rafael Nadal.

“Though he’s been a terrific player, I even think Rod Laver had a little bit more edge to him,” said Donald Sexton, a professor of marketing at the Columbia Business School. “Federer’s probably at a point in his career where he needs to be transitioned into something larger than tennis to continue making money,” Sexton added.

Federer is only taking small steps to grow his brand independently of tennis, but there is no doubt that he is becoming more visible. “If you look at the viral Gillette spot or what Lindt is doing with him, there seems to be an increase in activation and marketing around Roger,” said Adam Helfant, head of the ATP World Tour, referring to a couple of Federer’s more recent campaigns.

The Gillette spot begins with a dapper-looking Federer making small talk on the set. A brief conversation soon leads to a William Tell feat of skill that sees Federer knock a bottle clean off the top of someone’s head with a tennis serve at roughly 30 feet. Twice. There have been some doubts as to the video’s authenticity—doubts that Federer is happy to let linger—but it hasn’t stopped it from garnering more than 6 million views and counting.


Federer's viral Gillette spot

Video screenshot

Not only does it hammer home the point that he is supremely gifted, that the rest of us are just scenery in his career-long masterpiece, but it paints him as a suave, spontaneous entertainer who can turn on the magic at any time. Like the guy who sits down at the piano in a hotel lobby and bangs out Rachmaninoff.

The one trait marketers have not been able to locate in Federer is raw sex appeal. For that, they look at Rafa Nadal’s biceps, not the sedate father of two. Still, Lindt, the Swiss chocolate manufacturer, tried to gently play up Federer’s attractive side in its latest spot, which premiered during the U.S. Open. The result, however, was more awkward than swoon-inducing. It was certainly not as smooth as Peyton Manning’s daily life pep talks for MasterCard or Thierry Henry’s “ va va voom” delivery for Renault. The Lindt ad features Federer being stopped by a pair of female security officers at the airport for carrying a bag full of chocolate balls. They confiscate his candy, ogle his backside, and threaten to conduct a strip-search. Federer, half-smiling, doesn’t catch on. He just walks away, saying, “You ladies are crazy.” Whether or not he really is that comically, or even endearingly, oblivious doesn’t matter. As Federer fills out his public image, the spot just adds another brushstroke.

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If there is one place in the world where Roger Federer can truly be himself, it’s under the floodlights at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The blue court there has been the site of some of his greatest successes next to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, except the New York crowd has for some reason adopted a Swiss player as its favorite son.

Last Monday night, it could hardly contain itself when Federer produced what was dubbed the shot of the tournament before the first round was over. During his sleepy formality of a match against Brian Dabul, Federer chased down a lob behind his own baseline and, desperately trying to save the point, smacked the ball between his legs with his back to the net. Like a homing device, it zipped over the net, into the corner of the court, and past the helpless Dabul to win the point. Dabul shrugged. There was nothing he could have done.

The fans erupted into a frenzy. Now there was a time when Federer might have acknowledged the crowd with a fist pump and a smile and moved on to the next point. But on that night, as his fans rose for a standing ovation, he drew it out and soaked in the moment. He gave a coy grin and then a big “Aw, shucks” wave. He was clearly having fun. And he wanted to show it.

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.