Roger Federer: Champion of champions

Poll of the Decade: So who is your ultimate hero from 10 thrilling years of sport? We asked readers to vote – and the 15-times Slam champion played the other nominees off the court. Paul Newman pays homage

Wednesday 30 December 2009 01:00

One room of Roger Federer's Swiss home is dedicated to his tennis exploits. "It's a wonderful room with three sides full of trophies and one end full of pictures," he said recently. "It's a very special room. Sometimes I just go and sit in there and do some autograph-signing for fans and I just look around. It's quite something."

The trophies and awards have been piling up ever since Federer's career was launched in less than auspicious circumstances 20 years ago. In his first serious match in junior competition he was beaten 6-0, 6-0 for the only time in his life. Fifteen Grand Slam titles later – he has won more than any other man in history – the Swiss is acknowledged as the greatest tennis player of all time.

When he next pauses for reflection in his trophy room the 28-year-old will have another accolade to his name. Federer is revealed today as our readers' choice of greatest hero in the The Independent's Poll of the Decade. The fact that he won more than two-thirds of the votes cast by readers, in the face of competition from sporting titans like Michael Schumacher and Tiger Woods, is a tribute both to his tennis prowess and to his impeccable credentials as a sporting ambassador.

Winning trophies is one thing – Federer has 61 titles to his name and is the first player to earn more than $50m in prize-money – but what takes the six-times Wimbledon champion to another level is the style and grace with which he conducts his business.

On the court Federer is poetry in motion. Arguably his greatest quality is his ability, through a combination of devastating speed, flexibility and anticipation, to put himself into the perfect position to hit his next shot. His majestic forehand is hailed as the greatest weapon in tennis, while his backhand – struck, unlike most others in the modern game, with one hand – is a stroke of beauty. Add an almost unreadable serve and exquisite volleys and you have the most formidable arsenal at the disposal of anyone who has played the game.

"There's no safe zone with him," Andre Agassi says. "He can hurt you from any part of the court. A great champion tends to have one or two strengths, one shot for sure that transcends everybody else. Federer has maybe three or four departments of his game that you could argue individually are the best in the world."

Has a sportsman ever perspired less than the Swiss maestro? While Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick seem to sweat buckets every time they set foot on court, Federer never appears unduly extended. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why he has become a style icon, a man who can come on to Centre Court at Wimbledon wearing a cardigan or a safari jacket and still appear the king of cool.

No player is more level-headed in a crisis, though we see occasional glimpses of fires raging beneath the surface. In Miami earlier this year Federer gave a decent John McEnroe impression when he smashed his racket in frustration while losing to Novak Djokovic.

Remarkably, family and coaches had grown used to such behaviour in his early days. Federer was a serial racket-abuser and tantrum-thrower but decided to mend his ways after a particularly unproductive show of emotions during a defeat in Hamburg eight years ago.

Two years later he was rewarded with his first major title at Wimbledon and has since put together an extraordinary run of consistency, reaching a record 22 Grand Slam semi-finals in succession. Last year he made the last four of the Australian Open despite being in the throes of glandular fever.

If luck was on Federer's side when he finally completed his set of Grand Slam crowns this summer, his perennial French Open conqueror Nadal having been knocked out in an earlier round, nobody was going to begrudge him his triumph. Federer is a hugely popular and respected champion among his fellow players as well as the general public.

Off the court he is the role models' role model. You never hear of the Swiss leaving a nightclub the worse for wear or being the subject of kiss-and-tell revelations. This year he married Mirka Vavrinec, his long-time girlfriend, and they are now proud parents of twin girls who travel everywhere with them.

No player is in more demand from the world's media, yet Federer thinks about every answer to every question, including those he has heard a thousand times before. Fluent in German, French and English, he is well aware of his ambassadorial status.

"If I've played a part in making the game more popular that's great," he said earlier this year. "I've always wanted to be a good role model for kids, someone who can encourage more juniors to play tennis and enjoy tennis, to understand that it's a fair game and a great game to play. It's a great thing when I hear that I'm someone's favourite player. These are things I'm very proud of."

Holding out for a hero How the other contenders fared

Manny Pacquiao may be acknowledged as the best pound-for-pound fighter of the decade but he finishes second in this tussle with Roger Federer. The Filipino has won six world titles across six divisions and battled to some classic triumphs along the way: this year he floored Ricky Hatton, the year before Oscar de la Hoya and then there were his three fights with Erik Morales that spanned the mid-part of the decade.

When he does finally end a career that began 15 years ago – perhaps after a grandstand finish against Floyd Mayweather Jnr in March – a move into politics will follow. He is already deeply involved in providing for the country's poor, having given tens of millions of dollars to charity. "He is," said one admirer, "a one-man welfare system." And if that all goes pear-shaped, look out for him at Alexandra Palace; darts is a passion.

Andrew Flintoff (right) claims the final place on The Independent's Hero podium. His achievements in terms of trophies and honours may fall some way short of others on the shortlist, but his extraordinary feats in the Ashes-winning triumphs of 2005 and this year hold him up as a true English hero, a once-in-a-generation cricketer.

Tiger Woods comes fourth – one place lower than his finish in the Villain of the Year standings, which just goes to show how quickly the achievement of winning 14 majors can be overshadowed in the eyes of some. The titled pairing of Sir Alex Ferguson and Dame Kelly Holmes share fifth, while the fact that Michael Schumacher's domination of Formula One occupied the first half of the decade may account for his lowly finish. What other reason could there be? Venus Williams completes the field with her five Wimbledons.

Fed Express: Decade of dominance

*15 Grand Slams

Australian Open 2004, 2006, 2007; French Open 2009; US Open 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008; Wimbledon 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009

*Masters Cup 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007

*16 Masters Series titles

*263 weeks as world No 1

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