Roger Federer: A smashing guy

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The Independent Online

Since the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club moved to its present site in 1922, only three men have won Wimbledon more than twice consecutively. Fred Perry dominated for three years in the mid 1930s; Bjorn Borg won five times on the trot between 1976 and 1980; and Pete Sampras four times between 1997 and 2000, having also won in 1993, 1994 and 1995.

That Federer is already considered by some shrewd judges of the game to be an even better player than Sampras shows why he is being talked about, a month before his 24th birthday, as destined, more likely than not, to become the greatest tennis player ever.

Of course, different eras, different equipment and different standards of opposition make "greatest ever" labels both invidious and hypothetical. Although Federer beat Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, ending the American's run of 31 victorious matches on grass, who can say whether he would have beaten the great Rod Laver on level terms?

Actually, Laver himself reckons he can. "I am honoured just to be compared with him," the 66-year-old Australian has said. "A lot of the shots that he produces are just totally uncanny."

While it is true that Federer often seems to weave sheer magic on the court, leaving even the most nimble of opponents flat-footed with the improbably acute angles of his shots, he still has some way to go to match Laver's record. The "Rockhampton Rocket" remains the only man with two Grand Slams, twice winning all four major tennis tournaments - the Australian, French and US Opens, and Wimbledon - in a year.

But that happened in 1962 and 1969. The speed and intensity of modern men's tennis, and the ferocity of competition at the highest level, with different players trained to excel on different surfaces, now make it almost unimaginable that one man could capture all four titles inside 12 months.

And yet last year, Federer came astonishingly close to realising the unimaginable, winning on concrete in Melbourne and New York as well as on the Wimbledon grass. Moreover, in the course of winning the US Open he subjected Lleyton Hewitt, his losing opponent in yesterday's semi-final and a brilliant player in his own right, to a humiliating "double bagel" - 6-0 6-0 - in the final, triumphing 6-0, 7-6, 6-0.

This year has not been such an annus mirabilis for Federer. He lost in the semi-finals of the Australian and French Opens, and hasn't yet won Wimbledon. But everyone knows that when he plays his best tennis, he is unbeatable. And when he plays below his best, he is quite often unbeatable, too.

If a mad scientist created a composite of the finest tennis players, it would perform like Federer: he has the extraordinary speed, agility and focus of Borg, the brilliant improvisational skills of John McEnroe, the overwhelming power of Sampras. But he also, almost dispiritingly for his opponents, has the friendly personality of, let's say, John Lloyd. When you cannot find a chink of vulnerability in your opponent on the tennis court, you can sometimes find some personal animus to light your fire. That tactic doesn't work with Federer.

On Thursday evening, the men's number two seed, Andy Roddick, was asked what he respected about the champion. "He's probably the most talented person ever to carry a racket around," Roddick replied. "The shots that he can come up with ... the way he's kind of become a totally complete player. But I think off the court, it [the respect] is huge.

"There have been a lot of good champions, but he's just classy. He is never high and mighty in the locker room or anything like that. He treats people with respect. Even if it's the locker room attendants or the people serving food, he is 'please' and 'thank you'. I think that's why he's so well-liked on tour. There's not a whole lot of animosity towards him, even though he has been that successful."

Much of the credit for this belongs with Federer's parents, who refused to tolerate his boyhood petulance. As in the case of Borg before him, the calm demeanour of the man grew out of the histrionics of the child. During the tournaments he played in his early teens, Federer was prone to racket-smashing tantrums on court. His father, Robert, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, was horrified. He would yell at him to desist, then drive him home, a journey sometimes lasting several hours, in complete silence. His son eventually got the message. By the time he turned professional, aged 16 in 1998, he had learnt to control his temper.

Federer is a second child (he has an elder sister). His father is Swiss and his mother, Lynette, is South African. They both played tennis socially at a club near Basel, and as a toddler Roger used to watch them. When he was three, he started hitting balls himself and his impressive co-ordination was cheerfully remarked upon by members of the club. Within a few years, Robert and Lynette realised they had a prodigy on their hands. At 12, Federer, whose idol was Boris Becker, acquired a proper coach, an Australian who worked with the Swiss Tennis Federation, called Peter Carter.

Carter refused to be dazzled by the prodigy. He insisted on him playing plenty of doubles, both to develop his game and to avoid burn-out, and advised him never to neglect his social life. In due course, Federer changed his coach, hiring Peter Lundgren, a Swede who had been a decent Tour player. But Carter remained his mentor, and watched proudly as his brilliant protégé moved quickly up the world rankings and into the top 10.

For quite a while, however, Federer could not fulfil his promise in Grand Slam tournaments. It was widely believed that he did not have the cussedness to make it through a two-week competition, that being told since boyhood that he was a genius had somehow sapped the single-mindedness needed to string together win after win. His world ranking began to slip. At Wimbledon in 2002, a year after his five-set, fourth-round victory over Sampras, he was dumped out in the first round. For the first time in his gilded life, he was heading down rather than up.

Then came a tragedy. Shortly before his 21st birthday, during a tournament in Canada, Federer received a phone call from Lundgren relating the appalling news that 37-year-old Carter had died in a car crash. He had been on holiday in South Africa, a holiday that Federer had urged him to take, when the rented jeep in which he was a passenger overturned on a bridge, killing him instantly.

Federer spent his birthday utterly distraught and remained so for months afterwards. "Peter was the person who gave me the most, and I owe him the most," he said. At first, the quality of his tennis plunged even further, and yet he gradually emerged from his grief with a new resolve, his wondrous shot-making now complemented by a sense of purpose and, that most difficult of skills to acquire for sportsmen of an easy-going disposition, a killer instinct.

Eleven months after Carter's death, he won his first Grand Slam event, Wimbledon, the most prestigious title of them all. And afterwards wept copiously, assailed by contrasting emotions of elation and sadness. Since then, without quite as much emotion, he has won three more Grand Slam titles. Tomorrow, he looks likely to add a fifth. He still has the north face of the Eiger to climb if he is to exceed Sampras's record haul of 14, but then he's Swiss; he knows about mountains.

In the meantime, a small but devoted entourage attends his every need. His mother is his agent, and his girlfriend of five years is his public relations manager. She is a former player herself, Mirka Vavrinec, who owed her own career to the kindness of another great champion, Martina Navratilova.

In 1987, when Mirka was nine, her father took her to watch a tournament at Filderstadt in Germany. The event coincided with Navratilova's birthday, and Mirka's father, a huge fan, managed to hand her a present. He had his daughter by his side and Navratilova asked the youngster if she played tennis. No, she'd never tried it. Navratilova said she looked athletic and ought to give it a whirl.

There the exchange might have ended had it not been for Navratilova's immense generosity of spirit. When she discovered that the Vavrinecs - who originally came from Slovakia - lived in Zurich, she phoned a friend there and arranged Mirka's first tennis lesson. Later, she sent one of her rackets from America for Mirka to use. And her instincts proved remarkably astute. By 2000, Mirka was in the top 100 players in the world and in Switzerland's team for the Sydney Olympics. It was there that she met Federer.

A year later, Mirka was forced to retire because of a persistent foot injury, but Federer enjoys the story of her introduction to tennis. He likes the idea that it was Navratilova who, in a way, brought them together.

But he is also inspired by the example of a celebrated tennis champion showing so much kindness to a child. This is partly why he has set up the Roger Federer Foundation, to help underprivileged children in his mother's native South Africa. And while it is true that other leading sports stars, among them Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods, also have charitable foundations, Federer is unusual in having set it up so early in his career and devoting so much energy to it. He flies to South Africa as often as he can to meet the children and see how things are going.

So, this young man would appear to be a paragon of virtue as well as a paragon of ability on the tennis court. There must be some flaws in his make-up, although the only thing anyone seems able to get their teeth into is his passing resemblance to the film director Quentin Tarantino, he of the pronounced jaw. There will doubtless come a time when Tarantino is fêted as a Federer lookalike rather than the other way around. In fact, it has probably arrived already.

A Life in Brief

BORN 8 August, 1981 in Basel, Switzerland

FAMILY Mother, Lynett, South African; father, Robert, Swiss. One sister, Diana

PARTNER: Mirka Vavrinec, whom he met when they represented Switzerland in tennis at the 2000 Olympics

CAREER Wimbledon Junior Singles champion and World no 1 Junior, 1998; reached finals at US Open, the same year and turned professional; won first ATP title in Milan, 2001; his first Wimbledon and Grand Slam title in 2002; Wimbledon, Australian and US Open Grand Slam titles, 2004, during which he gained 11 titles overall.

RECORD SO FAR THIS YEAR: 7 titles including ATP Masters Seriesm Miami, Hamnburg and Indian Wells.and S2.586m.


THEY SAY: "He's probably the most talented person ever to carry a racket around," Andy Roddick

HE SAYS: Some of my shots are very natural, but there is also a lot of practise and hard work behind my game. I love experimenting shots though.