Exclusive interview: Roger Federer - the legend has that winning feeling back ahead of Australian Open
The Swiss on how coach Stefan Edberg, a new racket and working harder than the rest of the leading players over the winter have lifted his confidence
Of Roger Federer's many qualities, his optimism is one of the greatest. The former world No 1 has suffered many setbacks in recent times – sliding down the world rankings, seeing his run of 36 successive Grand Slam quarter-final appearances come to an end, losing to some of the sport's journeymen – but always bounces back in confident mood. Ask him how long he took to recover from his latest devastating defeat and he will usually tell you that it was only a matter of minutes.
As the 32-year-old Swiss prepares to contest his 57th Grand Slam tournament in a row at the Australian Open here next week – a run which will take him past Wayne Ferreira's Open era record – he is once again thinking only of the positives. Federer looks back on last week's Brisbane International, for example, where he lost to Lleyton Hewitt for just the second time in 18 meetings, as a good start to 2014. He also draws encouragement both from his winter break, which followed his least productive campaign for 12 years, and the fact that he has recovered from the back problems that troubled him in 2013.
"I probably trained harder in the off-season than all the guys ahead of me in the rankings," the world No 6 said here in Melbourne as he looked forward to the new season. "They went off to play exhibitions, like I did last year, so that [counts in my favour]. I did a full-on month [of training], which I haven't done in a long time. My body held up for that and I've just played singles and doubles in Brisbane.
"I really feel like I'm on the way back. Who knows? Maybe I'll play my best in March or April. That's my feeling, but I still feel there's a lot that's possible right now. Maybe that's why I haven't set particular, special goals. I just want to get back to a good level and then, hopefully, I can start winning tournaments again."
He added: "Of course, I need to have goals, but right now I'm coming off a tough season. The important thing for me is that I find my way back into the whole rhythm, which I think I did, because I played a lot of tennis in Basel, Paris and London at the end of last season."
Never one to rest on his laurels, Federer has been ringing the changes in the hope of extending a career which has already brought him 17 Grand Slam singles titles and $79,265,175 (about £48.2m) in prize-money, both records. Having dispensed with Paul Annacone, he has brought Stefan Edberg into his coaching team. After experiments with new rackets, he has also settled on a new tool of his trade.
The choice of Edberg, who will be with Federer for 10 weeks of the year, is intriguing, particularly as the Swede's appointment comes at a time when two other former greats of the game, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, are working with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray respectively. You might think that the most accomplished player of all time would not need a coach, but Federer knows that Tony Roche was a major factor in his most successful years, while Annacone helped him to win his seventh Wimbledon crown after more than two and a half years without a Grand Slam title.
"I'm very inspired and motivated right now," Federer said. "Of course, working with Stefan Edberg is a very special situation for me. He was the man who I was watching the most when I was growing up and has influenced me most in terms of inspiring me as a tennis player. So to spend some weeks with him throughout the year is going to be very special for me.
"Trying out the new racket is something I've always wanted to do. That's something that is going really well and that I'm happy about. Then just having my body being back to a good level is also very motivating and keeps you very eager."
Federer experimented with a new Wilson racket last summer after Wimbledon, where he suffered his most devastating loss of the year, to the world No 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky. The change did not go well as the Swiss lost to Federico Delbonis (world No 114) in Hamburg and to Daniel Brands (world No 55) in Gstaad, after which he reverted to his former racket. Nevertheless, Federer still lost in the fourth round of the US Open to Tommy Robredo – a player he had beaten in all 10 of their previous meetings – and ended the season with just one title to his name, which was his worst haul since 2001.
Acting on Federer's feedback, Wilson provided him with more rackets for the US Open and again at the end of the season. He played with his latest choice for two and a half weeks while training in Dubai before coming here. "I feel very comfortable with it, more comfortable than I did with the one after Wimbledon," Federer said. "This one feels more of an extension than I had before, but I guess it's in a more futuristic form."
He added: "I had a much longer time to get ready for this swing than I had last time around after Wimbledon before the American summer. I'm not thinking about it when I'm going out there, which is a great thing. I'm hitting the ball really well."
The continuing pulling power of the seven-times Wimbledon champion was evident here on Wednesday night, when a capacity crowd filled Rod Laver Arena to attend "A Night with Roger Federer and Friends", a gala evening to raise funds for his charitable foundation. There were guest appearances by Laver and Pat Rafter, but the centrepiece was essentially a practice match between Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It was even broadcast live on television.
Federer, whose foundation supports underprivileged children in Africa, would like to see the sport do more to support good causes. "I see the power that tennis can have," he said. "We don't play that many pro-ams, like golf does. I think we could exploit more times the way we include charities into tournaments. I think the players are very open to these things."
He added: "Exhibitions and matches like that definitely inspire you to keep on playing. That's not my only goal because I actually want to play tennis and be successful and win as well, because the thrill of holding up a trophy, of being on match point, is actually an amazing one. That's probably deep down why I'm still playing, but of course there are so many other things I can do at the same time.
"The enjoyment factor I get out of playing on tour today is totally different. It's a much deeper love of the game that I have today and a much bigger appreciation and respect. I just remember playing out on Court 25 early in my career. Now that I play on Centre Court most of the time it's an absolute privilege."
Ever mindful of the history of the game, Federer can see how appropriate it would be if he were to add to his Grand Slam collection later this month. "Ten years ago I became world No 1 here and 10 years ago I won my first Australian Open," he said. "I think I can play very well here, though I'm not thinking too far ahead."
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