Federer digs deep for fighting spirit to match the awesome talent

Men's singles: World No 5, whose stomach for a scrap has been questioned, boasts natural ability to rise to big occasion
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The Independent Online

Mention natural talent to Roger Federer and the Swiss world No 5 is liable to point to Lleyton Hewitt as an exemplar of mental toughness, almost as if the Wimbledon champion represents his polar opposite.

The 21-year-old from Basle is acutely aware that many observers question his stomach for the fight for major honours. Since he won the boys' singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon in 1998 and became the world's No 1 junior, Federer's progress has been scrutinised by critical eyes, impatient for confirmation that the youngster with the majestic strokes was destined to rank among the greats. So far they have been disappointed.

Last year's first-round loss to Mario Ancic, of Croatia, at Wimbledon has been compounded by a second consecutive opening-round defeat at the French Open. Was that startling fourth-round win against Pete Sampras in 2001, when Federer curtailed the maestro's 31-match winning sequence, a mirage?

"When I beat Pete, I was on a cloud," Federer recalls, "but somehow Wimbledon is always very difficult for me. It's my favourite Grand Slam, the one I would really love to win the most. I want to do so well, and if I lose it's like half the season is broken. After a loss at Wimbledon it always takes about a week to get over it. Then I start practising, and I'm horribly disappointed."

The 19-year-old Ancic, described as a right-handed Goran Ivanisevic, is regarded as a danger man this year after his impressive debut last June. Federer remembers it well. "That hurt me a lot," he says. "I was looking forward to Wimbledon so much, and everybody was saying, 'You have a great chance.'

"I tried to serve and volley, and play aggressively, but I didn't have the rhythm. I was not very confident, because I felt something was wrong with my game. In the end I was basically staying back on my serve, and the other guy, who I expected to stay back, was serve-and-volleying. I got caught cold, I guess. That was bad.

"My huge problem was that I couldn't pass, somehow, because first of all I didn't get enough balls back, and then when I got the chance I just choked it off."

Federer says Wimbledon is "a bit like poker", because the grass court season is the shortest of the year. At the same time, his attacking style ought to slip a few aces up his sleeve.

"In the beginning of the grass court season," he says, "you have to adjust your technique - shorter backswings, a different running technique - and you've got to have more guts to serve and volley first and second serves. It takes character to be able to serve and volley on second serve if you're not used to it. It's a question of habit, so the more matches I get under my belt before Wimbledon the better I feel. Last year coming into Wimbledon I wasn't feeling good, even though I played in the semi-finals in Halle.

"For me it's always difficult to serve and volley on the second serve, because on hard courts and clay courts I don't really do it. I just do it occasionally to throw the opponent off. It's important that your running technique is in place and that the returns are right, because the serve, if it works, is a huge advantage."

Growing up on clay courts, Federer relied on groundstrokes in his early days. "I didn't really serve and volley too much," he says. "I guess Sampras almost had to serve and volley to have less pressure from the baseline. In the grass court season I really try to improve my attacking game. On the hard courts, it depends how fast it is. I also try to come in more, but a little bit of confidence is missing. But in the doubles I have no problem to serve and volley, because it feels so natural to me with my one-handed backhand. Otherwise, I just have to do it more in practice, I guess."

Tim Henman, one of the sport's few surviving serve-volleyers, ended Federer's run in the quarter-finals in 2001, when the Swiss was hampered by a groin injury. "My whole game is totally different to Tim's, even though we both play with a one-handed backhand and we both volley well," Federer says.

"Tim volleys much better than I do, because he's just much more consistent. He's much more at the net than I am. I really like my running technique on the clay courts. I can really stride out to the forehand and have a fast arm. Maybe Tim is missing that little extra spin out in the corners. But this is my advantage of playing a lot in the juniors on clay, and this enabled me to play good on all surfaces."

Sampras and Richard Krajicek, the 1996 champion, are among the players who once considered that their return of serve was not good enough to win the tournament. "The return is more and more important," Federer stresses, "because the surface at Wimbledon is somehow getting slower. I was shocked last year how slow it was. The surface was too hard, so the ball bounced too high. There was not enough skid. We are used to the grass at Wimbledon being worn out at the end of the second week.

"In the matches against Pete and Henman I really felt good in returning. And when you get the confidence and the groove on the return, you have a huge advantage, because then you don't really think about the guy's serve, you just counter-punch it. Otherwise you try to get it back by chipping and then you just don't have the right feeling."

Virtuosity can be a yoke. "Talent is very tough to describe," Federer says. "Hewitt, for example, has unbelievable fitness and mental toughness. This is also a talent, but just in a different area of the game. A lot of people love my game because I am so relaxed on the court, and I play with touch. I play spin, slice, I come to the net. I play all over. But it can also be a disadvantage [to have so many options].

"A few years ago, because everybody was saying, 'How talented you are' and, 'How easy it looks', I felt I had to live up to this and play the miracle shots, the crowd-pleaser stuff. But I stopped that. All I want in the end is to win the match, not hit the best shot of the tournament, of the match.

"I feel now that I know in what moment to play the shot. This is very important for my game, why I have been in the top five for more than six months. Mentally and physically, I can change a match now. Before, it was more that I was maybe a little lucky. But now I feel like I can really turn around matches by hanging in."

Federer is coached by Peter Lundgren, of Sweden. "I've known him for five years," Federer says, "but I was travelling with Petr Korda mostly in the juniors. And then Petr did not want to travel the whole time, because he also had to stay at the [training] centre, so Peter Lundgren sometimes travelled with me.

"There came a point where I had to choose a coach and I chose Peter Lundgren. He knows the game. He knows the tactics and the techniques from different players, and can spot their weaknesses, so he can help me a lot. He told me he did not want me to make the mistakes he made in his career. He's quite lucky. I'm very serious. I don't go to parties, I don't drink, I don't smoke. I'm very professional. Anyway, I'm too tired in the evenings to do anything except watch television or play cards."

Federer's position as the mainspring of Swiss tennis was intensified when Martina Hingis's career wound down at the age of 22. "For me it's a big pity that Martina stopped because of injury, because I always loved to see her play, and also she's very nice," he says. "I won the Hopman Cup with her, which was very special for me, because she was No 1 in the world, and I was the lucky partner. I learned a lot, because she's such a professional. And now that she's stopped, and knowing that she's only one year older than me, it's quite incredible."

Federer takes the view that Hingis was so talented at the age of 14 that she was ready to compete on the WTA Tour. The germination of his own career took longer.

"I didn't have too much of a busy schedule until I was 17 or 18," he recalls. "I quit school when I was 16. I won a couple of under-16 junior events and started to win under-18s, and by stopping school I could focus on the tennis. And then the big junior results came, like junior Wimbledon and the Orange Bowl. I could have played one more year of juniors, but I decided to try out the pros. I got some help with wild cards and I went from 300 to 100 in a month. And there I was, and you don't go back to juniors when you're 100 in the world."

School provided his biggest challenge. "From 14 to 16 I was in Lausanne, in the French-speaking part. I couldn't speak French in the beginning, and I had to do exams in French, so that was quite difficult. But now I'm thankful, because I can speak French also - maybe not for press interviews, because I'd do three languages every time I come to press. For me that was a big effort. I had to put a lot of work into the exams, and I just finished the ninth school year, which everybody has to finish. It was special for me because I finished it in French. I think it took a lot of energy, because I was always tired coming out of school.

"I was not a huge talent at school, because I was always getting very bored quickly, and all I wanted to do was play tennis and do sports. Also being away from home was not so easy. I was leaving on Sundays, coming back on Fridays. It was a big move in my life, to leave so early at 14. I was very sad in the beginning, I felt so insecure: no results, having to make new friends."

Federer's fascination with Wimbledon goes straight to its roots. "It's not really the Wimbledon title that made me think, 'Wimbledon is great'. I like the Australian Open as a tournament and Wimbledon, then the next two. But this whole thing has got something to do with the fact that in my entire life I never got to play on grass until I got a wild card into the junior event at Queen's in 1998. Grass is so special, with the players all in white, and all the greats have won at Wimbledon, and all my favourite players, Edberg, Becker and Sampras."

We shall see if he has the heart to join them.