Doubles Game: Federer - My life with the twins
He has passed Sampras's Grand Slam record, married Mirka, and become a father – now Roger Federer hopes to close an incredible year in style at the ATP World Finals in London. He tells Paul Newman why, despite the nappies changing and sleepless nights, he's more driven than ever on court
Wednesday 18 November 2009
Rich or poor, famous or humble, young or old, men are apparently the same the world over. Roger Federer, whose wife Mirka gave birth to twin daughters three months ago, knows, like most males, that when it comes to dealing with babies who cry in the middle of the night, the job is best left to an expert.
"Mirka gets up more," Federer admits. "She's quick on her feet. I sleep very deeply, which actually helps me to sleep through some screaming."
Do Charlene Riva and Myla Rose wake up much during the night? "Sure. If one sleeps the other one's awake. That would be too nice of them to be asleep at the same time! They don't sleep through yet. There were times, especially at the beginning, when I woke up and helped as well. Now I think we've got into the right habits. During the day I try to help as much as I can."
Federer does "a bit of everything", including feeding the babies and changing nappies, but adds: "For Mirka, the most important thing is just that I'm there. She doesn't care too much if I change nappies or feed them. She just wants me to hold them as much as possible, because we both believe it's very important that mum and dad are both there as much as possible."
Few sportsmen and women have to travel as far and as frequently as tennis players. Federer and family were on the road within a fortnight of the twins' births, heading for Montreal, Cincinnati and New York.
"I knew that trip would give me some idea of how possible it would be to travel," Federer says. "What I have realised is that travelling with babies isn't the most difficult thing in the world. The twins are very good travellers. Of course we'd never put their health at risk for anything, because that's what's most important, but it's been fun, travelling in a big group, as a family. I'm happy because it was the way I expected it to be. I expected some more screaming along the way in planes and everything, but it's been really easy.
"We were a bit surprised when we learned that Mirka was going to have twins, and we were maybe a touch worried that it would be really difficult and stressful, but so far it's been really easy. I think we've had the right approach. Mirka is very laid-back and I'm also a calm person, so I think all of that enabled us to handle the situation."
Federer is talking at Roland Garros, home of the French Open, where he practised during last week's Masters tournament, staged on the other side of Paris. The most remarkable year of even his remarkable life will finish, in sporting terms, next week in London at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which start at the O2 Arena on Sunday.
It is a year that began in tears after his defeat to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open, and saw Federer marry his long-term girlfriend, become the father of twins, complete his set of major triumphs by winning the French Open, win an all-time record 15th Grand Slam tournament with his sixth Wimbledon title and reclaim his world No 1 ranking.
It could not be finishing in more appropriate fashion. "This is an amazing trip for me," Federer says. "It only really came to my mind when I was playing in Basel. I thought to myself: 'I'm playing here at home in Basel, where I grew up, then I'm going to Paris, where I won the French Open for the first time, then I'm going to London, where I won Wimbledon.' It's really inspirational to come back to places where you have so many memories – and these three tournaments definitely have that. These are good times."
No wonder he is in a relaxed mood as he sits back in his chair. Before the ATP Masters, the Swiss took a six-week break from tennis, before returning to a competition in his home city of Basel. Federer rarely gives the impression that he is anything but calmness personified, but the time he has been able to spend recently with his family back in Switzerland seems to have left him particularly mellow.
What was a typical day for an extraordinary family during his break? "I was just happy to be at home. We really had no plans. Friends would come over to see the babies and we would hang out with them – it was those kind of days. It's what you sometimes look forward to during the year – not having something to do at two o'clock, four o'clock, six o'clock. If we were in the mood to go out, we did.
"I tried to spend as much time as possible with the babies because I know there will be a time when we're travelling, like we are right now, and we're at the tennis, doing interviews and practising, and can't be with them."
The time at home was also beneficial from a sporting standpoint. "Babies or not, I needed that break, mentally and physically, to recuperate from a tough year," Federer says. "From Miami all the way through to the US Open was a tough stretch with a lot of emotions – getting married, expecting the births, was all energy-consuming. On top of that I had so much success, so it was a lot of things at once. But I feel like I'm refreshed again. That's great. Spending some time with the babies in a completely private way was key. I'm lucky in that I haven't spent one day apart from them yet."
Federer will go into the end-of-season finale in better shape than 12 months ago, when he had a back problem and then fell ill. He estimates that he was feeling "only at 50 per cent well" – for a while he could not even bend down to tie up his laces – and went out at the round-robin stage, ending a run of five successive appearances in the final. The knock-out blow was delivered by Andy Murray, who gave everything in a three-hour thriller that probably scuppered his own chances of beating Nikolay Davydenko in the semi-finals the following day.
Had Murray's determination to send Federer packing come as a surprise, given that the Scot had already qualified and did not need the win? "You've seen me play many dead rubbers over the years and you don't just give them away," Federer smiles. "There are too many points involved and maybe too much money. There's too much at stake, too much pride as well. Why just lose against a main rival if you don't have to? I was vulnerable and he knew that."
That result was the second of four successive defeats to Murray. When Federer ended the sequence at their most recent meeting, in Cincinnati in August, the Swiss seemed particularly fired up, although he insists: "I always have the same hunger to beat players. I'm not one for revenge, even if many people like to build that up."
There have been times, nevertheless, when Murray, a classic counter-attacker, has appeared to get under Federer's skin. After losing in Dubai last year Federer said he was surprised Murray's game had not developed and that he would "have to grind very hard for the next few years if he's going to keep playing this way."
However, Federer believes he copes with opponents like Murray better than he did in his early days against men like Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian. "I had a lot of trouble against those baseliners early on just because they were too consistent. They could always get one more ball back. Maybe they didn't have the best serve, but I wasn't the best return player, so I couldn't take advantage. My serve wasn't solid enough yet, so I would always get tangled up in those horrible baseline rallies.
"Murray can still do that to some degree, but when I play too well or too offensively I can take time away from him now. And I'm too physical, whereas in the beginning I couldn't do that. I couldn't get around backhands like I can now. Now I can mix up my game too well for him to get under my skin.
"I know what I can do and I know what he can do. When we both play well it's a close match, but I always feel it's the attacker who holds the key to success, so it's up to me whether I win or lose, not up to him. That's why I don't mind the match-up, to be honest.
"It's like when [Pete] Sampras and [Andre] Agassi played. Agassi was more aggressive [than most counter-attackers], but still Sampras held the key because he was serving, pushing the limits, taking the risks. Which Murray doesn't do so much – though that doesn't take anything away from Murray. That's just his game style.
"Everybody has his own game and you can't change the way you play. It's just something you're born with. He comes to the net more, for instance, than other players. I think if you look closely, every player needs to have something aggressive in his game to play well. If you want to be a top player you need to have offensive skills."
Is he surprised that, at 22, Murray has not yet won his first Grand Slam title? "How old was I?" says Federer. He was 21. "I'm not that surprised. How many serious chances has he had to win a Slam now? Maybe six, when he's been a real contender? Before that it would have been a bit of a surprise.
"It's not that easy. I was favourite to win the French Open in 2003 and I lost in the first round in straight sets. He's done better than I did! Of course I never expected to be as dominant or as good after that, but sometimes you just have to wait and see. But at the same time he's come close a couple of times. He made the final against me [at the 2008 US Open] and the semi-finals at Wimbledon, and was able to handle the pressure there. I think he's not far off."
Woods becomes the model parent for Federer
If Roger Federer needed inspiration to maintain his winning ways after becoming a father, he need look no further than Tiger Woods, who has become a good friend. The world's best golfer has two children, the first of them born two years ago. Although the flow of victories may have slowed, the American remains the man to beat.
"When you do something best in life, you don't really want to give that up – and for me it's tennis and for him it's golf," Federer says. "Next to that I think we love being fathers of kids. And being a husband is for me as big a priority as being a father."
Although opportunities to see each other are rare, Federer and Woods support each other whenever possible and stay in contact by telephone and by text. In terms of major victories, Woods held the lead over Federer for a while, but he has been stuck on 14 since last year's US Open, four behind Jack Nicklaus's all-time record. Federer's victories this year at the French Open and Wimbledon took him on to 15 Grand Slam titles, eclipsing the previous record held by Pete Sampras.
Although Woods won in Melbourne last weekend, the American does not have to travel as far afield or as regularly as Federer. Three of golf's four majors are staged in the United States, which also hosts a year-round tour. Tennis, in contrast, visits numerous countries around the world. The four Grand Slam tournaments are staged in three different continents, while Masters Series events are held in cities as far apart as Shanghai, Cincinnati and Madrid.
Does Federer envy Woods for being able to stay closer to home for longer periods during the year? "That's his advantage, but not really," Federer says. "I don't mind travelling the world. Sure, at times it's hard, but we're both a little a bit in control of our own schedules. We can play as much as we want.
"Of course there are some rules and regulations and if you want to be the best player in the world you have certain commitments and there are other things you want to do on your own behalf because you love the sport too much. And sitting at home on the couch isn't that fulfilling.
"I always said I love travelling the world and going to all those great cities. I consider myself very fortunate. I'm not sure that I would want the tour just to be in Europe. Sure that would make it easier for the family, but that's not the way it is. You can't change it."
Federer has always had strong family bonds but agrees his focus had shifted since the birth of his twins. "Before, I guess, mum and dad were everything, but now, in my case, I had two new girls and all of a sudden they're completely dependent on you and there's a third generation. It's a funny shift all of a sudden. You have the babies, you have yourself and then you have your parents. Unfortunately I don't have grandparents any more.
"All of a sudden it makes you realise even more what your own parents did for you and how much you owe them, although at the same time I always knew that. I think that's the nice part of becoming a parent."
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