Federer takes the plaudits in role as natural champion
The beauty of Roger Federer's game is matched by the maturity of his approach to fame. Having enraptured spectators at Wimbledon last year, the 22-year-old from Switzerland has continued to develop as a champion, allowing humour to percolate in his interviews, though, as John McEnroe has said, Federer's eloquence emanates from his racket.
"Maybe my word counts more than it used to," Federer says. "People are more interested in what the No 1 in the world says than the No 15 or something. You have to try and speak more wisely. But I don't feel like I have changed at press conferences. I'm still very open. I think I tell the press enough. As I'm not a guy who has done scandals anyway, I'm not the guy who is going to start with it now." Federer's partner, Mirka Vavrinec, a Slovakian-born Swiss former WTA Tour player, is also his personal assistant, co-ordinating all his appointments. At the French Open, a Slovak journalist asked Federer if he would say a few words in Slovakian. "I can't. I won't," Federer said, smiling.
"It's true," Federer says, "that my situation now has changed. Becoming more popular, and where I am, I have to be better organised, I have to prepare everything better in advance. I totally understand my commitment to things, but I almost have to make appointments for everything and everybody. Sometimes it felt to me that this was not coming naturally. This was a little bit strange for me, but I think people do understand what I'm going through and they know that I cannot always call back right away.
"Off court I definitely haven't changed. You're always going to keep your character and the way you are. People like you, or maybe they don't. But your true friends, they know who you are, and I don't think you should change to them. Maybe where you build up a bigger shield towards people you don't know yet. Maybe it takes a little bit longer to get to know you, because you're just a little bit more aware of things you have to be aware of. My time is precious. It's so seldom I get a lot of time for myself and my family and girlfriend and friends, that when I spend time with them it's a top priority for me."
An important connection has yet to be established with a coach whose credentials will satisfy Federer to apppoint him as successor to Peter Lundgren, of Sweden, who was in his corner at the All England Club in his moment of triumph. Rumour has it that Federer may be waiting for the 34-year-old Andre Agassi to call a halt to his amazing career, which would put Darren Cahill on the market. Cahill guided his Australian compatriot Lleyton Hewitt to the Wimbledon and US Open titles and the No 1 ranking and later replaced Brad Gilbert in Agassi's camp. In common with his friend the late Peter Carter, one of Federer's mentors, Cahill is from Adelaide, and his personality is a rich mixture of steel and empathy.
"I've said I'm definitely looking for a coach, because at my age I still need one," Federer says. "I can still improve in a lot of areas in my game, even though I am the best right now. At the same time I also enjoy the situation I'm in now. I get to know myself better. I have to watch out for more things, be more alert, and I can do what I really feel is right. So far it has been working. The Australian Open gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of air to breathe again, because I know it can also work this way, which I was not sure in December. So I don't see a reason to change. I'm not actually even thinking about it too much."
At the top level of the game, the role of a coach seems to be evolving from full-time guru to pit-stop technition. "I think it depends on the character and on the player," Federer says. "Some players feel like they need a coach all the time, or somebody who travels with them. The other guy just thinks a friend is good enough. Another guy thinks just somebody who is there I can warm up with or just do practice sessions a little bit. Every guy has to find what he feels is important for him."
Some players, such as the Frenchman Nicolas Escude, make a list of the qualities they seek in a coach and then make a choice. "Yes, you can do that," Federer says, "but it's difficult. It's similar with a girl, you know. You would like to have this, this and this, but maybe you cannot get that girl. She doesn't exist or whatever. I don't know if you can compare it in any sense, but I'm the guy who is maybe more relaxed, so I just don't put it on paper. I'm not planning to travel with one at the moment, and I have nothing in mind."
Not that Federer travels alone. His physiotherapist, Pavel Kovac, helps ease the stress on his body, and his fitness trainer, Pierre Paganini, ensures that he is tuned to make music on his strings. Ms Vavrinec is usually with him, too.
"Since I won Grand Slams," Federer says, "I have been taking everything I do more seriously. I take each match more seriously. My preparation is more important now - the practice sessions, making sure I get the right amount of sleep, what I eat, everything. It's a mental process. Before, I was doing things because everybody has to do them. Now I'm doing things because I know I need to do them. I've had a lot of pressure throughout my career, and I feel now that I've reached the top I'm much more relaxed. I know what I can do and what I have to do to win." He seems to enjoy international celebrity. "It's funny just to meet a lot of famous people and rich people, because it's kind of a different world. It's sometimes even easier to speak to somebody who is also very famous, or who has achieved a lot of things in sports, or in general. You can ask the other person how they feel and how is it, and the other guy can respond easily, so you can have an easier conversation than with anybody else. That is something I was not used to before.
"I quite enjoyed having dinner with Martina Navratilova in Australia, and I played mixed with her the week before, which was nice. It was interesting, because she went through so many things in her career. Her career was so long, and she is so wise. It is interesting to hear anything she has to say.
"I also practised with her in Hong Kong. I asked her to hit with me. She gave me one tip, a piece of advice which is top secret," he added, smiling. "If there were three tips, I would tell you one of them, but she only gave me one." Did it work for him? "Yes, it worked."
Federer's mother, Lynette, is South African, which is why his charity, The Roger Federer Foundation, has become a supporter of a project designed to improve social conditions for children and young people in the New Brighton township near Port Elizabeth. "I have always had a close affinity to the country," he says. "To me South Africa is a shining example of a country that has overcome hatred and oppression."
Part of Federer's charm is the way he accepts compliments as his due without appearing conceited. "I've always got a lot of praise over my career," he says, "especially from top players. I feel I have them a little bit on my side because they maybe see a modern style of their game in me, because I play one-handed backhand and I use a lot of tactics like they used to before power became such an important thing. This is why maybe I feel I have a little more behind me than the other players.
"It's still nice to hear it, even though in the beginning it was putting me under a little more pressure, because I thought if all these guys are saying these things I must be on the right track and I must be very close to making the breakthrough. But finally, when I did it at Wimbledon and the Masters Cup and at the Australian Open, I felt I had proved something and I began to feel much better about it. Everything that comes now, it's a case of: 'Well, thanks very much.' And I appreciate it."
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