Federer has perfect touch off the court in charm offensive

Wimbledon champion is ideal ambassador for game as ATP threatens to stage charity events to rival Grand Slams
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Amid the raving, the admiration and the sheer joy at the artistry with which Roger Federer won Wimbledon on Sunday, one highly significant message almost got lost - Federer is the kind of off-court ambassador tennis could only dream of.

At a time when the ATP is publicly fighting the Grand Slams for a share of their profits, and a list of tennis grandees calls for smaller rackets because they say tennis is getting "tedious", up steps a striking 21-year-old to win the game's most prestigious prize, a man of open emotions, considerable decency, and who can express himself with great eloquence in three languages. The PR folk could not have staged it better.

As the Swiss followed his two hours of post-match media requirements on Sunday with another round of breakfast interviews yesterday, there was no hint of irritation, or even the tired autopilot of answering the same questions over and over. He listened to every one, thought about his answers, and charmed those he addressed through simple humanity.

"Life will change in some ways," he said. "I'm more famous now, a celebrity - before, I was just a good tennis player. I don't know how that's going to be. My star sign is Leo, and Leos like to be the centre of attention, but I'll do the same work on-court, because if you don't work people will catch you."

One of the elements in Lleyton Hewitt's spat with the ATP which has metamorphosed into a $1.5m (£920,000) lawsuit is the Australian's belief that players like his mate Patrick Rafter and the former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten were overexposed by the men's tour. The ATP will certainly have to be careful not to overload Federer with too many off-court requests, because once his freshness disappears, he will lose some of the gloss that makes him such an attraction.

The first time I interviewed him was five years ago, just after he won the Wimbledon boys' singles. His hair was short then, but the charisma was there, his eyes twinkling. And he had the same degree of honest self-assessment that even now could be misconstrued for cockiness or conceit. He said he wanted to win the full Wimbledon title, and when asked whether he believed he could do it, he just said: "Why not?" The son of a Swiss father and South African mother who played social tennis every weekend at a club in Basle, Federer had to work on his temperament more than his technique.

"When I was 10, 12, 14, I was at my worst, it was horrible, even funny sometimes, a lot of throwing rackets, making comments on every shot because I just couldn't accept to lose. I was very talented, and I thought: how can this be that I'm not playing well? But it's not just about hitting the ball, it's about how you get to it, and the mental side."

The big turnaround came in Hamburg two years ago, when he was so angry at losing to Franco Squillari in the first round that he smashed his racket under the umpire's chair. "I never do this after matches," he says, "only during matches, and then I said: that's it, I'm not getting pissed off any more, I'm acting too bad. Then I felt much better, and I got to the quarter-finals at the French and Wimbledon. But then I almost had a problem with being too quiet. I had motivation and fire, but I couldn't express it any more, so I was struggling with my behaviour. Maybe I lost some time, but looking back now maybe it was very important for me."

Though his success makes him new to British audiences, he has been the next-big-thing-waiting-to-happen for three years, and the combination of Sunday's aesthetic strokeplay and display of emotion vindicates all those who felt he would be a star the moment he won one of tennis's top prizes.

He says: "People are looking at me differently now. Always I was the one with a lot of promise, for some people I'm only living up to it now. For me and my friends, it was already a very good career so far, the only thing missing was the Grand Slams and whether I could fulfil my dreams here at Wimbledon."

He once heard the saying "It's nice to be important, but important to be nice", which struck a chord. "I think it's just a nice way of living. I don't know what other people think, maybe they think I should be more tough, it sounds a little soft, but I wouldn't put myself down as a softie, it's just the way I look at things."

Being neither too tough nor too soft perhaps explains the willingness to let his emotions flow at the moment of victory. "There's no rule about how you should conduct yourself in the moment when you win, or when you lose, the only thing you mustn't do is throw your racket into the crowd and injure someone. There are people who don't smile when they win, there are people who smile for weeks afterwards. I'm the kind of guy who lets the tears flow, and I think that goes down pretty well, especially when people see this is the realisation of my biggest dream and that it's just amazing for me. I got a lot of feedback that people in the crowd also cried and enjoyed it, it's nice to share this with a lot of people."

Today the party moves to the Swiss alpine resort of Gstaad, where the European claycourt season resumed yesterday. Federer committed to playing there several weeks ago, still grateful to the tournament that gave him a wildcard in 1998 so he could make his tour debut. Playing Marc Lopez on clay in front of 6,000 spectators will not be quite the same as playing Mark Philippoussis for the Wimbledon title, but the reception he gets will be worth witnessing.

2003 WIMBLEDON ROLL OF HONOUR

Men's singles: Roger Federer (Swit)

Women's singles: Serena Williams (US)

Men's doubles: Jonas Bjorkman (Swe) and Todd Woodbridge (Aus)

Women's doubles: Kim Clijsters (Bel) and Ai Sugiyama (Japan)

Mixed doubles: Leander Paes (Ind) and Martina Navratilova (US)

Boys' singles: Florin Mergea (Rom)

Girls' singles: Kirsten Flipkens (Bel)

Boys' doubles: Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau (Rom)

Girls' doubles: Alisa Kleybanova (Rus) and Sania Mirza (Ind)

Men's over-35 doubles: Jeremy Bates and Nick Fulwood (GB)

Women's over-35 doubles: Ilana Kloss (SA) and Kathy Rinaldi (US)

Men's over-45 doubles: Kevin Curren and Johan Kriek (US)

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