Roger Federer Can’t Be Stopped
BEFORE WE BEGIN, an important disclaimer: Roger Federer isn’t supposed to be doing this. Playing pro tennis, that is. Especially not pro tennis like this—as the best men’s player in the world, or awfully close. Federer turns 37 in August. A tennis player his age is supposed to be retired to the geezer circuit, lifting easy lobs to other geezers. Pete Sampras, one of Federer’s idols, played his last match at 31. Björn Borg quit at 26. By now, Federer’s supposed to be on TV, ruffling phenoms with his cranky-old-man critiques. He’s supposed to be enjoying the spoils of a career well done. He’ll have that second glass of wine, thank you very much. Dessert? Sure. Maybe he lets a roll of belly fat grow above his waistline. Yep: Roger Federer is supposed to be at work on a Roger Federer dad bod.
Instead, Federer is here, in Miami, writing a surprising late chapter to what is already one of the greatest careers in the history of sports. When we meet, in the quiet, Zen-like courtyard inside the Setai hotel off South Beach, Federer is just a couple of months removed from winning his all-time-record 20th Grand Slam at the Australian Open. He’s amid a fresh run as the world No. 1, the oldest men’s player to do so. When Wimbledon begins in July, he’ll be the defending champion—and likely the favorite.
Federer takes a seat. He’s dressed in a set of dark Nike warm-ups and a black bubble-heeled pair of sneakers. A waiter appears, as if summoned by the ions of celebrity, and Federer orders a single espresso with a sparkling water. “And a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce, thank you,” he says.
Pasta for lunch. Interesting. There’s not a trace of dad bod anywhere. Dammit.
We talk for a few minutes about the vibe in South Beach—the tournament he’s about to start, the Miami Open, coincides with Miami Music Week, a thunderous citywide event featuring DJs and a thumping OONTZ-OONTZ-OONTZ beat that rattles hotel windows day and night.
“It’s intense,” Federer says, laughing. “Instead of reading good-night stories to the kids, you’re looking down at pool parties. But the kids like it.”
He likes it too. In person, Roger Federer is not what you’d expect. Over his career, he’s developed an otherworldly image—the tennis star who looks like James Bond, floats like Baryshnikov, speaks a half-dozen languages and carries himself with an almost regal bearing. Off the court, Federer’s a far looser guy. He can make a joke—and take a joke. “He’s always had a sense of humor,” says his good friend, the former pro Tommy Haas. “He’s got different accents and can impersonate people quite well.” (Federer does a great Borg, Haas confides.)
Federer was not always so stylish, either. The man was not born wearing that slick, embroidered Gucci tux he wore to the Met Gala last year. There’s a funny old photograph of a teenage Federer standing in his childhood room in Switzerland. The door and walls are plastered with posters of Pamela Anderson, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan. But the best part is Federer’s ’90s bottle-blond peroxide hair, which makes him look like a lost member of the Backstreet Boys. I show him a copy of the photograph on my phone, and he giggles. “I actually wanted to do red hair at some point,” he says. “I just felt like it was a time to try out stuff, you know? I wasn’t the only guy who did it.”
That haircut was a long time ago. A lot of Slams ago. A marriage and four children ago. Today, Team Federer operates as Swiss Family Federer. Somewhere on the hotel premises are Federer’s wife, Mirka, a former Swiss tennis pro herself, as well as the couple’s two (!) sets of twins: 8-year-old girls Charlene Riva and Myla Rose, and 4-year-old boys Lenny and Leo. The children keep Federer busy—and humble. He tells of competing in intense matches, only to look into the stands and see his spawn flipping through comic books. “I’d be playing, and they’d be reading their books,” he says, shaking his head.
Are the kids playing tennis?
“Yeah, they play a bit,” he says. “It’s one of my mini-requirements with Mirka. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want them to be professional players, but I would like them to play recreationally.”
Piano lessons are also on the docket, he says. But most of the time, there’s the comical madness of having four children under 10. The girls are at an age where they want to boss around the boys, Federer says—and the boys are at an age where they can now defend themselves. “Organized chaos” is how Federer puts it. “Sometimes we have to be the umpires.”
FEDERER LIKES the chaos—even if it’s occasionally hazardous. Usually tennis players get hurt, you know, playing tennis. But in 2016, Federer suffered the biggest injury of his career in the most dad way imaginable: He stretched too far when he was trying to draw a bath for his daughters and tore a meniscus. He lunges away from the table to show me how he did it—how he wanted the kids to take a shower, how they begged for a tub, how he reached for the faucet, how he overextended and heard an ominous click in his leg.
At first he thought he’d be OK, but by afternoon the knee had swelled. Federer got surgery, rehabbed quickly and made a go at playing, but he was not himself. Shortly before the Olympics in Rio, he decided to shut down his season for good, missing the U.S. Open as well. It was a devastating setback. Still, I chuckle. As a father of young children myself, I can imagine the madcap bathroom scene and bizarre parenting injury.
I apologize to Federer for laughing.
“No, it is funny,” Federer says. “It’s absolutely funny. It’s crazy.”
As it turned out, the break was a perfect opportunity for a reset. Federer had been playing for decades without pause; now his aging body was telling him to relax. So he relaxed. And recuperated. He returned in 2017 in Australia with zero expectations, only to charge to a final against his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, where Federer prevailed in five sets. It was Federer’s first Grand Slam title in nearly a half decade—which he followed up with another at Wimbledon.
“It became magical,” Federer says.
That Slam drought had done something to Federer’s image: It humanized him. Early in Federer’s career, the game seemed almost too easy. He ripped through the competition, collecting titles at a furious pace, and though his play was elegant, there was something almost clinical about his dominance. As he got older, however, the competition widened. Federer won less. After heartbreakers like five-set losses to Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon—not to mention upsets by players we’ve not heard from since—it became fashionable to wonder if Federer could get another Slam. He became an underdog, almost. Tennis fans desperately wanted to see him relocate his former self. For the first time, Federer seemed...vulnerable. It wound up making him bigger than ever.
“When you struggle, when you’ve had injuries, when you’ve had to reinvent yourself, people are like, ‘That’s what I feel every day. That’s what I go through,’ ” Federer says.
His comeback season in 2017 was cathartic, because fans weren’t sure if they’d ever see it. While injuries thinned the top of the field—Djokovic and Andy Murray, in particular, haven’t been themselves—this isn’t the uneven Federer of a few years back. He’s a much better player. Federer has trimmed his schedule (this is the second year he’s skipped the clay court season) and remodeled his game, switching to a bigger racket, shortening points, turning his angelic one-handed backhand into a fearsome weapon. Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach, says it comes down to belief, that Federer realized “what he is still capable of, regardless of who is on the other side of the net.”
Others close to Federer marvel at his persistence.
“He never lost faith,” says Federer’s friend and frequent courtside guest, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. “He always felt he could come back. There were a lot of people out there saying maybe it was time—but he never gave up.”
Here in Miami, a couple cautiously approaches for a photograph. Federer obliges, standing for a quick iPhone snap. This happens wherever he goes. There’s hardly a place left on earth without Federer fans, or Fedheads, as they’re nicknamed. His matches feel like rowdy pilgrimages, full of obsessives and bucket-listers eager to see him before he’s gone. He’s the crowd favorite at every tournament, even when he’s far from home or (somewhat awkwardly) on the home court of his opponent.
“He really is a living legend,” says Tony Godsick, CEO of Team8 and Federer’s longtime agent and business partner. “You want to take your kids and friends to see someone who could go down as one of the greatest athletes in history.” He mentions Federer’s recent charity Match for Africa with Bill Gates in San Jose, California. “We sold 17,000 tickets with no advertising.”
In September, Godsick and Federer will take their two-year-old Laver Cup—named for iconic Aussie Rod Laver, it’s basically an All-Star Weekend for the best men’s players—to Chicago. Last year’s Laver Cup delivered the spectacle of Federer and Nadal playing doubles together for the first time. The event was an immediate smash. Nadal will always be remembered as Federer’s top rival, but Federer’s closest contemporary may be a legend on the women’s side, Serena Williams, who was born seven weeks after him in 1981. The holder of 23 singles Grand Slams, Williams recently returned to the sport after giving birth to her first child. Federer marvels at Williams: “It’s been fascinating to watch. She had a totally different upbringing—I came up through Switzerland with the federation, she did it with her dad and her sister. It’s an amazing story unto itself—and then she became one of the greatest, if not the greatest tennis player of all time.”
I have to ask: Did Federer, considered by some to be the tennis GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), just suggest Serena was the GOAT? Did he mean GOAT on the women’s side—or overall?
“Overall,” Federer clarifies. He ticks off the staggering stats of players like Williams and Steffi Graf, which eclipse those of anyone in men’s tennis, especially when one factors in all of Serena’s doubles titles.
Federer knows that greatest-ever debates in sports are usually a fraught exercise, and in tennis, this is especially so. Changes in equipment, the tournament calendar and travel have made it a markedly different game (if you want to give Laver and Billie Jean King private jets and modern rackets and string, then we can talk). Federer points out that the early generations weren’t chasing records—they were just playing. “It’s not fair to compare, actually,” he says.
“But we know [Serena] is all the way up there. I’m probably up there with somebody, somehow. Maybe there’s a group, a best of five—and if you’re in that group, you should be pleased and happy. Tennis is a funky sport when it comes to that stuff.”
“I’m in full admiration of Serena,” he says. “And Venus, too, by the way.”
(A few weeks later, I see Williams at the premiere of her HBO documentary series, Being Serena, where I relay Federer’s GOAT comment. “I think we can say that about both of us, respectively,” she says. “He’s done amazing things in his career—I have the utmost respect for him. He’s a wonderful athlete, a great guy. I love what he’s doing [with his foundation] in Africa too. That was really impressive to me.”)
It’s incredible they’re all still at it, Federer says. “Rafa’s still playing, I’m still playing, Serena and Venus are still playing—and it seems like they love it more than ever.”
Tennis writer (and frequent Wall Street Journal contributor) Tom Perrotta has noted an underappreciated part of Federer’s makeup: He enjoys playing tennis. It sounds odd, but it’s important. We’re accustomed to tennis tales of burnout and helicopter parents—Andre Agassi’s autobiography read like a tennis version of Mommie Dearest—but Federer appears to suffer from no such demons. He’s excited to play the Miami Open for the umpteenth time (he’ll wind up losing in the first round, shockingly). He cares about the little tournaments as well as the biggest ones. Annacone says he even likes practice. Practice!
“It’s one of the most amazing things about his makeup,” Annacone says. “He still finds happiness in hitting a tennis ball, the gym, doing the work. It’s hard to imagine that, at 36, it can still be fun, but it is for him.”
Federer knows it’s unlikely he’ll get to write a perfect ending to his career. Sports can be cruel, even to the best. “I’ve long given up that it needs to end in a fairy tale,” he says. “I don’t need to be ranked [No. 1] or need it to be after a big title. If it happens that way, that’s amazing. But you can’t control it all. You have to put yourself out there, be vulnerable. I play because I love tennis, not because it needs to end with a [perfect] situation.”
Are you afraid to retire? I ask. “No,” he says. “The only thing I wonder is: How will it be, the moment of retirement? How emotional will it be? Where is it going to be? What will lead to it? Is there a process—or do you wake up and decide at once?”
Maybe you don’t get to decide.
“Exactly,” he says. “The unknown. I think that’s quite exciting.”
What will Federer’s post-tennis life look like? He’s eager to spend more time with his family, especially Mirka, who has been by his side since before he won his first Slam and remains his essential confidante. “In moments of doubt, I could go to her and ask her how she really felt, if she believed I could come back again,” Federer says. “Without her, things would have turned out very differently.” (Says Wintour: “There’s no one who’s been more a part of his success than Mirka.”)
Retirement will likely mean more time for Federer’s foundation, which has raised millions for schools and education services in Africa and Switzerland. Coaching? Federer says he’d enjoy working with young players but can’t see himself coaching on the road, not with his own children so young. What about doing commentary on TV? He laughs. “I don’t know if people would listen to me.”
He says he’s curious about the fashion business, perhaps expanding beyond his RF Nike athletic-wear line. He’ll have Wintour’s blessing if he does. “I think Roger can do whatever he wants—he’s an incredibly smart businessman,” she says. “Whatever he does in fashion, he’ll think about it carefully. He knows a lot of us in that world; he’ll take advice, and he’ll surround himself with the right people. No one would be in his box cheering him on more than I would.”
On the endorsement front, it’s easy to see Federer, who also has deals with enviable status brands like Rolex and Mercedes-Benz, having a lengthy post-sports career as a pitchman, like Arnold Palmer or Michael Jordan. “He’s got long-term agreements with most of his brands,” says Godsick.
I ask Federer how he’d like to be remembered—admittedly, a weird question to ask someone currently in his mid-30s.
“Good for the game,” he says. “That people enjoyed watching me—and I brought the game forward, like Laver and others did. I want [to know that] people who came to see me, and paid a lot for tickets, left with a good feeling. They got their money’s worth.”
It’s time to go. Nearby, there are people waiting; there’s a ride to the stadium; there’s another audience thrilled to watch him take to the court. Reborn at an age he’s supposed to be retired, Roger Federer is off to play tennis. Not because he has to, but because he loves it.