Roger Federer: ‘If the doctors had found out, they would have told me not to play’
Roger Federer blames an undetected illness for his slump during the opening months of the season, but now, he tells Paul Newman, he is fully recovered, has a new coach and is ready for battle at the French Open
It seems an appropriate place to meet Roger Federer. Like the world’s best tennis player, the Excelsior Salon at the Hotel Hermitage in Monte Carlo exudes style and elegance. Like his 2008 trophy cupboard, however, it is almost completely bare. We sit by a table beneath a mirror, the rest of the room as empty as the Mediterranean Sea that stretches into the distance beyond the terrace outside.
Federer’s only tournament win of the year was at a small event in Estoril a fortnight ago and even that came by default, Nikolay Davydenko retiring with injury halfway through their final. Elsewhere he was beaten in the semi-finals of the Australian Open by Novak Djokovic, in the second round in Dubai by Andy Murray, in the semi-finals of Indian Wells by Mardy Fish, in the quarter-finals of Miami by Andy Roddick and in last Sunday’s final up the road at the Monte-Carlo Country Club by Rafael Nadal.
It is a run that would satisfy almost any other player on the planet – except that the 26-year-old Swiss is unlike any other player on the planet. Among his many records, Federer has spent the most consecutive weeks (currently 222) as world No 1, made the most consecutive appearances in Grand Slam finals (a run of 10 ended in Melbourne in January) and enjoyed the most consecutive grass-court victories (his last defeat was 55 matches and six years ago, to Mario Ancic at Wimbledon).
If illness – more of which later – can explain his form earlier this year, his current trial with a new coach, Jose Higueras, pointed to a realisation that he has work to do. The Spaniard, who has guided Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Carlos Moya in the past, is a clay-court specialist and is aiming to help his new charge win this month’s French Open, the only Grand Slam title that has eluded him.
Coaching Federer is not the easy ride it might seem. How do you tell arguably the greatest player in history what he is doing wrong? “I think it’s very hard for coaches to work with me,” Federer acknowledged. “They’ll no doubt have a good CV afterwards, but at the same time they’re under a lot of pressure.
“Jose came to Estoril for two days and the whole world wanted to talk to him, even when there was nothing to talk about. He doesn’t want to do anything wrong or to confuse me about anything because if I had bad results then people would say it was because of the coach. It could easily backfire on him. It’s a big challenge, which is why Jose doesn’t want to do any press interviews. I think that’s the best approach.”
What benefits does he think Higueras can bring to his game? “You look for little things, the small details,” Federer said. “It’s not as though I’m going to start playing all of a sudden with a two-handed backhand. We’re not looking for that sort of crazy stuff, but little things that can make a big difference. I obviously have to get on well with the coach as well. I want to be able to go and have dinner with him. Jose seems like a nice guy and we get on well. We like talking.”
Could Federer ever see himself coaching? “I don’t think it would be a problem, though I’ve realised over the years that it’s sometimes not so easy. I can’t just tell a guy: ‘Do that, do this. It’s very simple for me’. For the other guy it might be impossible. I’ve found this when I’m at a Davis Cup tie and I’m trying to help someone like Stan [Stanislav Wawrinka] or someone ranked maybe 150 in the world. You obviously have to have a different approach.”
Federer insists that most of his problems this year have been down to illness. He fell sick before January’s Australian Open, but it was only the following month that doctors diagnosed mononucleosis (glandular fever). Despite suffering from an illness that drags most mortals down for weeks on end, he recovered in Melbourne from a five-set marathon against Janko Tipsarevic to beat two top players in Tomas Berdych and James Blake before losing to Djokovic.
“The first time I got sick [before Christmas] I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary,” Federer said. “The second time [before the Australian Open] I thought it was food poisoning. The third time I thought something was wrong. That was when the doctors told me I had mononucleosis, but they said that by then it was almost over.
“By the time they’d done one more test they said it was over already, so it was never really a case of me saying: ‘Oh my God, I’ve got mononucleosis’. It didn’t really scare me. It wasn’t as though I was in bed 24 hours a day for six weeks. I could play. That was what was so amazing. I was able to get up and play a five-setter against Tipsarevic at a time when apparently my mononucleosis was at its strongest.
“I hope I didn’t take any health risks, because if the doctors had found out then they would have told me not to play. It was over before it started for me. When I started practising again I was feeling slow and not too good, but a month later, when I caught up with my conditioning trainer in Miami, he said how different a person I was to when I was with him just before the tournament in Dubai.
“After I won in Estoril people were saying how relieved I must be to win my first title of the year, but I really don’t care about this stuff. I was never going to play very much at the start of the season anyway. This is a year when I want to save myself for the most important tournaments coming up now – the French, Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open. That’s when I want to have extra energy. It was part of my scheduling that I knew maybe I wouldn’t win a tournament early on.”
Did Federer think it would be harder to win his first French Open, on a surface where Nadal is so dominant, or to win three more Grand Slam titles and beat Sampras’s record of 14? “My goal is both to win the French Open and to break Sampras’s record. What’s important is to have the desire, the motivation, the will to want to do those things. I have it and I hope that will stay forever. Eventually it will probably be my body that breaks down, but for the moment I have no problems.
“I know I can win the French Open. I know I have the game. I’m a natural on clay. And I’m very close to Pete’s record. It’s such an interesting time for me. I’m chasing Olympic gold, my sixth Wimbledon, my fifth US Open, my first French Open. If I win any of those I’ll be such a happy person. And I believe I can do it all.”
Whenever Federer’s clay-court credentials are questioned he points to his outstanding record on the surface. In the last three years he has reached the semi-finals and two finals of the French Open, three successive finals in Monte Carlo and the final in Rome. On each occasion he has lost to Nadal, who has dominated clay-court tennis like no player in history. It was Federer who ended the Spaniard’s record 81-match winning run on the surface in Hamburg 12 months ago, which confirmed his belief that he has the game to beat the world No 2 on terre battue.
“I’ve proved so many times now that I know how to play against Rafa,” Federer said. “At the start I felt uncomfortable playing against him, but now it’s different. Beating him in Hamburg may have proved that I can beat him, but I think that’s more something for the media and the experts to talk about. I always knew that I could beat him. For me it didn’t mean any change mentally.”
The slowing-down of the game’s faster surfaces – particularly at Wimbledon, where Nadal has reached the last two finals largely from the baseline – has led to a blurring of the distinction between clay-court specialists and those who prefer quicker courts. Federer agreed this had led to a lack of variety in the modern game. “Unfortunately you have to play today with a style that allows you to win tournaments at the very top,” he said. “And for this you need to be able to play from the baseline. I don’t think you can dominate the tour any more by playing serve-and-volley on first and second serve, unless you’re really tall and have a 220kph first and second serve.
“It’s become more difficult today because conditions have slowed down quite drastically. People definitely don’t volley as well as they used to, but then again the game from the baseline has become so fast. Some people think the game is slow because it’s being played from the baseline, but look at how fast we have to move, how much we have to be on the defensive all the time, how players can only attack when they’re in the best possible situation.
“I guess players like Mario [Ancic] and I have a different option – to shorten points – if we want. Players like Nadal, Djokovic and Blake have the shots to shorten points, but they’re not natural attackers who want to come to the net. I like to come to the net and don’t mind playing a low volley. I think other guys don’t want to do that.”
The rise of Nadal and Djokovic, combined with his own results this year, has arguably put Federer under greater pressure than at any stage of his reign, but he still gives the impression of taking everything in his stride.
“It’s not as though you get used to being No 1 in the world, but for me there is pressure at every tournament, from fans, sponsors, the media and not least myself. I expect a lot from myself. I try to give everything I have. It doesn’t matter whether the tournament is Estoril or Wimbledon. I always try to give my best.
“I feel completely fine about it. I like the excitement around me. I realise I may not be as free as a bird, but I feel that life is fine for me. I can live pretty much a normal life. I don’t have a problem in Switzerland or in Dubai. And on tour I’m ready for a problem. I’m at hotels and there are fans who expect me to be there and to sign autographs.”
Having his own charitable foundation, which supports under-privileged children in Africa, helps retain a sense of perspective. “I know my life is busier than ever, but I try to generate as much money as possible for people in need,” he said. “I definitely want to find more time for that. I’ll try to go to South Africa next year. I want to visit the projects I support now. I have one in Mali, one in Ethiopia, one in South Africa. For me that’s important.”
Fed Express: The Swiss maestro’s career statistics
Born: 8 August 1981, Basel
Turned professional 1998
Career record 571-139
Career titles 54
Has been World No 1 since 2 February 2004
Prize Money: £19,773,252
Grand Slams (12)
Australian Open: 2004, 2006, 2007
Wimbledon: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007
US Open: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007
Masters Cup wins (4):
2003 bt A Agassi 6-3, 6-0, 6-4
2004 bt L Hewitt 6-3, 6-2
2006 bt J Blake 6-0, 6-3, 6-4
2007 bt D Ferrer 6-2, 6-3, 6-2
Masters Series wins (14):
Hamburg Open 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007; Indian Wells Masters 2004, 2005, 2006; Toronto Masters 2004, 2006; Miami Masters 2005, 2006; Cincinnati Masters 2005, 2007; Madrid Masters 2006
World Sportsman of the Year 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008
Currently sits joint second in the list of Grand Slam titles, two behind Pete Sampras.
P Sampras (US) 14 Grand Slams
R Emerson (Aus), Federer 12
B Borg (Swe), R Laver (Aus) 11
Last year’s victory at Wimbledon was his fifth title there, equalling Bjorn Borg’s record.
Borg: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980
Federer: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007