Roger Federer: At home on his holy lawns, the master of grass heads for court of the invincibles
This tennis icon is not for shattering as he lines up title No 3. Nick Townsend meets a relaxed champion who might be the best ever
Sunday 19 June 2005
Thursday lunchtime and, with dabs of paint being applied, leaves being vacuumed and courts receiving their final manicure, the host is all dressed up and awaiting its guests. The All England Club is ready. So, too, there can be no doubt, is Roger Federer as he returns interviewing serves with a customary fluency which exudes a fundamentalist's faith in his own abilities, but without trespassing into the realms of disdain for his opponents.
As a squall of rain lashes these "holy lawns", as he has described them, the world No 1, top Wimbledon seed, and the man about whom such extravagant claims as "potentially the best ever" have been forth- coming from those who feature among the élite themselves - Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Federer's own schoolboy idol, Boris Becker - is clearly content to be back. Not just on grass, a surface on which he is ready to extend his undefeated sequence to 30 matches, but in his tennis haven.
This should not imply, as he is swift to remind you himself, that he has been a man cast adrift in recent months. Two Grand Slams may have passed him by since a 2004 in which he dominated tennis like no other player in the open era, but semi-final appearances in both the Australian and French Opens (the former an epic five-set contest before he yielded to Marat Safin) are testimony to his fortitude. Victory in both the singles and doubles at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, a week ago reconfirmed his liking for getting back to nature, at least where surfaces are concerned.
Like the cow, named Juliette, with which the Swiss player was presented at his home tournament at Gstaad in 2003 in recognition of his first Wimbledon title, he is back on his preferred pasture. It is fortunate that he is not given a cow after every successful Wimbledon, or the man who confesses "I am no farmer" could well end up with a herd.
"I've lived through so much here," he says, after the draw has been made which pairs him on Centre Court in tomorrow's first round with the Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu. "I won as a junior. I beat [Pete] Sampras here, won the two championships. My idols, you know, Becker, Edberg, Sampras, they all played here. This is what I rem- ember watching on TV when I was young. This will always be the most special. But of course I've got other goals I'd like to achieve: in the Davis Cup, Olympics, and the French Open [which he is still to win]."
He adds: "I may have an edge over other players mentally because of the success I've had on grass and the way I've been winning Wimbledons without too much of a problem. It's definitely not so easy for your opponent."
Today, lest you were wondering, Juliette is grazing contentedly up in the hillsides after having given birth to her first calf. Her owner, who is viewed as being capable of overtaking Sampras's Wimbledon record of seven titles, is relaxing and chewing the cud as he prepares to challenge for a hat-trick here.
Federer concedes that, at this stage in his career two years ago, he was not so sanguine. "When I lost in the first round of the French Open against [Luis] Horna that year, I came here and was really under pressure to show what I can do," he recalls. "Like this year, I had won at Halle just before, and I remember I arrived with a horrible back. I got to the third or fourth round and I was close to throwing in the white towel because I could hardly move. From then on, my back started to get better. I came through in the end. The only fight I had was against myself, not against any opponent."
The player who first announced himself here with triumph in the 1998 junior tournament, continues: "What has happened since we all know, but Wimbledon saved me. It came at the right time. Everybody was starting to be on my case, saying, 'Is this guy going to be the talent he has promised to be? Is he going to show what he really can do?' "
How perceptions have altered. The BBC's surreal Wimbledon trailer, to a background of Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang, portraying images of icons being shattered, scarcely applies to the 6ft 1in, 23-year-old, who began to perfect the adroitness and versatility necessary to counter the power lobby by striking tennis balls against the wall of his local club in Münchenstein, near Basle, where he was raised, the product of a South African mother and Swiss father.
It is three years since he was defeated on grass. Learned judges like McEnroe believe Federer can prevail on it even when not at his optimum. "It is true, the last few years have been quite incredible on grass," Federer agrees. "I've surprised myself. The last one I lost was against [Mario] Ancic. That one was a heartbreaker. But since then, every time I've won at Halle, I've won Wimbledon, so now I'm prepared. I'm confident. I'm feeling great."
And does he harbour a belief that Sampras's target is attainable? "I'm focused on the next couple of weeks, rather than the next five years," he states. "Of course, if I win again this year..." He hesitates, circumspection getting the better of bravado, before continuing: "You always have to set yourself higher standards."
He adds: "On the grass, you don't have many experts on this surface. You have some that play really well on the surface, others where it would be a big surprise if they play well. On clay, there are many outsiders who could actually win the tournament, while here you feel there's a bunch of guys who are really big favourites to win the tournament. But you do get surprises on the grass in the early rounds, so you have to make sure you're feeling good and you get through those matches."
Federer speaks with an assuredness and authority that belies his years. His talents, though intuitive, have been honed by a constant dissection, not just of his own flaws, but the areas in which he excels. "To me, it was very important to know my own game," he says. "There's a lot of players out there who play good, but they don't know why they play good. They can't really analyse their game. I got to really understand my game, especially at the time when I didn't have a coach [including, remarkably enough, last year]."
Last year, he concedes, the expectation was intense, because he was, for the first time, a defending champion. This time, Federer insists, "I feel less pressure, just because of all I've been through in the last year. There's been that US Open title, some good matches in the Australian and the French." He adds: "I didn't feel too disappointed about the French. It was still my best performance ever in Paris. Coming to this tournament, I'm more relaxed than I have been in the last couple of years. But I still make sure that I'm well prepared."
That means not just on court, but off it, maintaining a familiar schedule that has been so successful in the past. "I'm in an apartment, like I have been for the last two years," he says. "There I can enjoy the cooking of my girlfriend [Miroslava "Mirka" Vavrinec, the former Swiss player, who retired because of injury in 2002]. It's very relaxed. It's like being at home almost. Everything is walking distance unless you want to go downtown, but I hardly ever do that, because Wimbledon is just too important. I can come here for a sightseeing tour another time."
The promotion of Andy Roddick to second seed, two places above his world ranking, means that Federer cannot meet the American until the final, which would be a repeat of last year's denouement, after which the champion described their rivalry as "Mr Service against Mr Finesse".
While neither Roddick nor Lleyton Hewitt, the player whom Federer humiliated with a "double bagel" (two 6-0 sets) in the 2004 US Open, are likely to ask any new questions of Federer, the same cannot be said of the Spanish teenager Rafael Nadal, winner of the French Open earlier this month.
"It's something quite incredible to win the French, and he's still very young," says Federer. "You have to give respect to his personality, mentally, and also his game. He's a very different player to the rest we have, because he's a leftie. He also brings something else to the court, like great athleticism and great charisma, even though he's very shy."
He adds: "On hard courts, he'll be a huge threat for years to come. On the grass, we'll see what he can do. I don't consider that is his best surface. But it doesn't matter. Once you're in the top five, you should be able to play on any surface."
Certainly Federer has demonstrated the truth of that maxim, but it is here, where he is generally assured of a magic-carpet ride, that he reigns supreme. Already he is developing that invincibility we used to associate with Sampras. There can be no greater affirmation of his capacity for greatness than that.
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