Two ounces. That is how much a tennis balls weighs. The head of a tennis racquet has an area of 97 square inches. Is that all Roger Federer needs for personal fulfillment?
He has won Wimbledon eight times. The Australian Open six times, the US Open five, and the French Open once. 20 Grand Slam titles. Over 300 weeks at the top of the world rankings. Roger Federer, from Switzerland, is the greatest tennis player of all time. How do you become Champion of Champions?
No, Roger Federer was not drilled into becoming a tennis prodigy by overly competitive parents as a young boy. He chose to play tennis. Because he enjoyed it. And that has not changed to this day. He plays just for the fun of it. As he says himself, that is an elementary component of his success. And he puts a lot of stock in the fact that he comes from a down-to-earth family and had a very normal childhood. Of course, his parents and grandparents supported him in his love for tennis – and didn’t mind looking the other way when he once again hammered tennis balls against the garage door or the doors and cupboards of their apartment while practicing. And naturally, as a teenager he dreamed of one day becoming a professional tennis player and perhaps winning Wimbledon. Most of us have big dreams. But very few have the strength and will to make them a reality.
“I find myself engaged in a constant learning process - as a tennis player, husband, father, and person."
Roger Federer learned tennis from scratch, put his talent to better and better use, was encouraged, and won more matches than he lost. He gained initial international experience and, aged 21, came out of the prestigious Wimbledon tournament victorious at the first attempt. After that, he led the world rankings. What makes this success story so special and extraordinary is not only Federer’s innovative style of play, his exceptional physique, and his precision on the court, but also his intuition in reading games and players. In short: his emotional intelligence. Correctly perceiving, understanding, and influencing his own emotions and those of others.
Reaching that point is not so easy when you – like Federer in his storm and stress period – are more the rebellious and quick-tempered type. In those days, it was not unusual for him to succumb to outbursts of rage, break his racket after an unsuccessful return, or curse loudly after dropping a match point. “I was angry because at that time I still thought reaching perfection was possible. And I absolutely wanted to be perfect. When it didn’t happen, I quickly got frustrated. That got me into a downward spiral. At some point, I realized I had to change my attitude. Otherwise, I would never achieve anything. I swore to myself that I would change. But a few days later I was on the court cursing again. I was 22 at the time, and it really took two years for something in my attitude to change.” Since then, Federer has tried to get as close as possible to the perfect match. After all, perfection is like happiness: It only comes along briefly and very rarely. But striving for it is what continually drives him to top performance.
Roger Federer remembers: “When I became a father, I had to restrain myself even further and couldn’t allow myself to be upset by a defeat for long. After all, I don’t want my children to think: dad is in a bad mood now because he lost the semifinal.” Smiling, he adds: “I find myself engaged in a constant learning process – as a tennis player, husband, father, and person.”
Family is the clear top priority for the likable and exceptional sportsman. He met the Swiss former tennis player Mirka Varinec, the love of his life, in the year 2000, and has not let go of her since. The couple married in a small ceremony in 2009. In the same year, they had twin daughters, and then twin sons in 2014. Friends of the pair believe Mirka is responsible to a large degree for Roger’s mental strength and balance. And the 37-year-old is happy to confirm the importance of having energetic support behind him. “Sometimes, when I doubt myself, it gives me that extra burst of self-confidence I need to win.”
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Three years ago, he needed self-confidence more than ever. After a long period out through injury and a back operation, he managed – even to his own surprise – world rankings. At the age of 35. How did he manage it? “I’m sure it is partly down to the fact that I continually adjusted to the new wave of good tennis players over the years, was extremely flexible, and modified my style of play again and again.”
When asked about the most important realizations from his long career, he names two: “Firstly, you can’t keep everybody happy. And secondly, you have to follow your own path.” With a satisfied smile playing on his lips, he adds: “I am glad I battled through and can now look back on the career I have had.” Those words could only come from someone who has long since found themself and is doing things from the heart. Roger Federer no longer needs to prove to anyone that he is unique. And once that pressure to succeed has faded, every additional victory is a bonus.
As he likes to emphasize, his great success has not changed him.“ The best thing to do is ask my friends; they will be happy to confirm that for you.” And it seems to genuinely be the case. He is virtually completely absent from the tabloid press, with no hint of scandal or other embarrassments. It seems he doesn’t waste an ounce of energy on things that do not matter to him. And when it comes to his social skills, he likes to help others. In very concrete ways. Children in the world’s poorest countries with his RF Foundation, for example. “It’s important for me to give something back from all the luck I’ve had in my life.” That’s why he traveled to the areas affected by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and cared for victims. He also plays in benefit tournaments from time to time, collecting hard cash for those in need in the process. In 2006, he became the first Swiss person to be named a UNICEF international Goodwill Ambassador.
And when he eventually gives up professional tennis? No problem. A few months ago, he bought an old bus built in 1960. He intends to use it to “travel back to all the cities and countries I went to as a tennis player. But this time, fully relaxed and with no pressure.” And what does a perfect day in the life of Roger Federer look like? “First, I drink a coffee and check on the kids. Then I see what is on the agenda for the day. But no two days are the same. During vacations, my wife, the kids, and I start the day slowly. I always try to do a lot with family and friends and to enjoy our time together.”
It is said that tennis players will never be able to do anything else as well as they play tennis. When you see Roger Federer with his family or experience his commitment to people in need, it becomes clear that is not the case. Can he sum up his life philosophy in four sentences? “Tennis? Great! If I win – fantastic. If I don’t, everything is still fine.”
Text | Ulrich Lössl