Roger Federer is still searching for Grand Slam number 18. He tells Sport there is no reason why it cannot come at Wimbledon this year
Roger Federer

It was just one tear.

But the solitary drop that rolled down Roger Federer’s cheek was telling. Standing a few feet away from him on Wimbledon’s Centre Court stood his conqueror, Novak Djokovic, proudly holding aloft the Wimbledon trophy for the second time in his career. 

Later that evening, Federer spoke of the “unbelievable sadness” that overwhelmed him as he walked off the court on which he had won his first Grand Slam title 11 years earlier. Had it crossed his mind that he might never come so close again? “You could have asked me exactly that question in 2003,” Federer snapped when he was asked a similar question in the aftermath of his ninth Wimbledon final last summer. “Maybe there’s much more to come… I feel if I’m playing well, I can control the field to a degree.”

For the remainder of 2014, Federer played as though determined to back that statement up. He won titles in Cincinnati, Shanghai and Basel, reached the final of the ATP World Tour Finals (where a back injury forced him to pull out of a hugely anticipated rematch with Djokovic) and ended the year by helping Switzerland to win an historic first Davis Cup title (a victory he says was the highlight of his year). By the start of 2015, Federer was ranked the second best player in the world.
 
The 33-year-old (he turns 34 in August) is still there when we meet ahead of the French Open. By now, though, Federer’s form has cooled a little. At the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia, Andreas Seppi – a player against whom he had previously dropped only a single set in 10 matches – beat him in the third round. 

“That was clearly very disappointing,” Federer says pensively. “There was more possible, I think.” 

PERFECTLY BALANCED

Wearing his standard uniform of ‘RF’ embossed tracksuit top and shorts, the father of four (with his wife Mirka, Federer has twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva; and twin boys, Leo and Lenny) appears relaxed as he looks ahead to the second part of the season.  Or, as he describes it, the “easy” half:
 
“I call the first few months of the year the travelling period, because we go through so many different time zones. It’s tough for us as a family, but from now until the end of the year it’s mainly European flights, one East Coast [for the US Open], then Asia. It should be easy.”

Maybe, but it will still be planned with military precision. These days, Federer’s scheduling is meticulous. It has to be, given his age and his habit of producing children twice as quickly as the regular man. While younger players ride the conveyor belt from one tournament to the next, Federer steps off whenever he feels the need – though admittedly that’s easier to do when you’ve already racked up more than 1,000 career wins.

He took a fortnight off after his early exit in Australia, and a longer break after reaching the Indian Wells final in March. 

“I wanted to go to Monaco refreshed and ready to go,” says Federer, referring to the Monte Carlo Open, where he suffered an early loss to Gael Monfils. But, as he goes on to explain, time away from the Tour is no holiday: 

“Some days can be really long. Waking up at 7am, driving somewhere to work on the court and some fitness, having treatment and then getting back at 7pm. It’s like a full-on working day. Other days are more laid-back. I’ll maybe spend half a day on tennis, then half a day with the kids and my wife. It’s important for me to try to find a good balance, but usually my mind and my body tell me exactly what I need.”

THE REBIRTH

Two years have passed since Federer discovered what happens when he ignores body and mind. In 2013 he failed to reach a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002, and dropped down the rankings to seventh – his lowest placing in 11 years – after playing on through back pain for months. 

“With hindsight, I shouldn’t have,” he says. “You get judged differently than someone who is injured and taking time off, because that’s a guy you can’t judge. So the scrutiny [over his form] was sometimes difficult, because only I knew and my team knew how good or bad I was actually feeling.”

Once healthy, Federer showed a world that had been preparing to bid farewell to one of the game’s greats that he was not ready to go. 

Not yet. It started with his decision to add six-time Grand Slam champ (and Federer’s childhood hero) Stefan Edberg to his coaching team at the end of 2013. It continued at the first Slam of 2014, where he reached the semi finals of the Australian Open. But it was at Wimbledon last year that Federer feels he found his best form. 

“The last six months of the season were unbelievable,” he says. 

“I gave myself an unbelievable opportunity to win at Wimbledon and the US Open [where he lost to eventual winner Marin Cilic in the semi finals]. That’s the kind of tennis I expect from myself again this year and next year.”

Edberg’s influence is just one factor that comes up in discussions about Federer’s resurgence. Others include a bigger racket (with a surface area of 97 square inches, compared with the 93 offered by his previous one), shortening his swing and even an alteration to his footwork. But for Federer, the key to his success in 2014 was good health. 

“To be successful you have to be healthy, that’s number one,” he explains. “Without that, you can have the best racket, the best coach, the best everything – but you’re not gonna win. 

“I’m sure the racket has helped me in a big way as well, and obviously Stefan has been very inspiring and interesting to work with. Plus the birth of the boys gave me a lot of energy. They were born in May and, from that moment on, I played very well again.”

PRESSURE COOKED

Federer will make his 17th successive appearance as a senior at SW19 next week. His first came in 1999 when, having won the boys’ title a year earlier, he was given a wild card for the main draw. He failed to make it past the first round, losing to Czech Jiri Novak despite taking a two-sets-to-one lead. “It’s not the best memory,” he frowns.

Four years later, he made some better ones. A then 21-year-old Federer arrived at Wimbledon in 2003 with plenty to prove after a disastrous French Open in which he lost in the first round to a player ranked 83 places below him.
 
“I totally underestimated [Luis] Horna,” says Federer of the Peruvian who made a mockery of the Swiss man’s number five world ranking. “I knew he was a good player, but I was dreaming of winning the French Open that year. The dream was too big and it blew my mind.
 
“Instead of focusing on point after point or set after set, I was already thinking about winning the tournament. It was only when I was down a set and in real trouble that I realised how difficult it was going to be. I put way too much pressure on myself. Afterwards I decided that this kind of thinking has no place on a centre court, or in my life really. I left Paris unbelievably angry at myself.”

Federer refused to read any press after the defeat. Not that he needed to – he knew what was being written: “They were obviously saying that maybe I was going to be one of those guys who was never going to win a Slam. But I refocused and, thankfully, I won Halle [his traditional Wimbledon warm-up, in Germany], which gave me confidence.”

SEVEN STEPS TO GLORY

Glance at the seven ties that saw Federer win a first Wimbledon title in 2003 and it is easy to assume it was a smooth ride. He dropped just one set – to Mardy Fish, in round three – in the entire tournament.
 
“It wasn’t at all smooth,” he counters, recalling his fourth-round match against Feliciano Lopez, when he was almost beaten before a point had been played. “I hurt my back in the warm-up and had to call the trainer before the match started. I could play at maybe 70 per cent of my ability, so I thought there was no way I could beat Lopez. But somehow I found a way.”

In the next round, Federer says he “got lucky”. He faced Dutchman Sjeng Schalken, who was hampered by an injury of his own. “He had bad foot problems,” recalls Federer, who eased past Schalken into his first Slam semi final. “And, by the time I made the semis, I was 100 per cent again.”

His opponent there was a then 20-year-old Andy Roddick, who had just won his first grass-court title at Queen’s Club. 

“It was the big match everyone was talking about, because it was two young guys who were coming through and one of us was going to make the finals,” says Federer. “Even though we had played a few times in the past [Federer had won all three of their previous meetings], he was the favourite to win.”

Federer took just one hour and 43 minutes to demolish Roddick, saying afterwards: “This was just outstanding – I hope I can keep it up for the final.”

“All of a sudden, I was the favourite,” says Federer of the days leading up to that final against Mark ‘The Scud’ Philippoussis (pictured, previous page), the giant-serving Australian. “I always enjoyed being the favourite, but in my first major final I knew it was going to be tough to handle. 

“Winning the first set was crucial to settling the nerves. When I sat down after winning it and realised I was playing well and feeling good, I thought: ‘This could be it.’ But it was only in the third-set tiebreaker when I was 6-2 up that I thought: ‘Oh my god, it’s upon me now. I’m probably the Wimbledon champion.’ I was shaking… tears were already happening. I couldn’t believe I was so close to a dream come true.”

FINAL CHANCES

As part of his work for the BBC, Boris Becker gave his view on why Federer had stumbled so many times before making his big breakthrough. “He is a very emotional young man,” wrote Becker in the aftermath of the 2003 final. “That is probably the reason he has never really played great on the big occasions.”

But Federer sees it a different way: “I have to disagree with that. I was a big-time player. I enjoyed playing on the big stages against the best players. My problem was consistency. Physical fitness, mental strength – all of that was stuff I had to work very hard on. Talent maybe came a little too easy for me until I put in the hard work. I believe mental and physical strength are things you can control, whereas the talent – technical and tactical – is not something you can always control because your opponent is there to make it hard for you.”

Federer’s talent – some call it genius – was there from the beginning. But with his last Grand Slam title coming three years ago at Wimbledon in 2012, is the consistency that he worked so hard to achieve fading with his advancing years? Federer cannot afford to let himself believe so. 

“One of the reasons I’m on tour is trying to win the big tournaments like Wimbledon,” he says defiantly. “I think my game is good enough to win it, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise or shock to me. Although, of course, I know how hard it is. I’ve been there many times, so I know what it takes. And that belief and experience is only going to help me.”

Does he feel he still goes into the big tournaments as one of the favourites? 

“As one of them. Not an outright favourite like in 2005, 2006 and 2007, when I was almost expected to win – expected not to drop sets. Usually it’s Novak or Rafa [Nadal] who also have their say on hard courts and clay. Then on grass maybe it’s more me as well. But I know I’ve been able to overcome those players more often than not, and it is not always them you have to beat. I lost to Seppi at the Australian Open – not Djokovic or Nadal – so we’ll see how it goes.”

Federer believes Grand Slam title number 18 is still there for him. Wimbledon 2015 might not be his last chance to make it happen, but many believe it’s the best one he has. Judging by that solitary teardrop 12 months ago, Federer wholeheartedly agrees. 

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