Eye on the prize: Roger Federer's latest target is a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon singles title Photo: AFP
By Alexandra Willis
His love affair with Wimbledon has lasted nearly a decade and it has got to the stage that one of the things he looks forward to most about the event is the chance to have a cup of tea with the chairman before the action begins.
“I cherish those moments,” Federer said. “When I can see the trophy, see the Centre Court with no people inside.
“Go see the chairman and have a relaxed chat, maybe some tea on the balcony, that for me is the favourite part of Wimbledon, next to obviously playing the big matches.”
On this sort of foundation, the romance is built to last but it has not always been this way for one of the game’s greatest ever players.
In fact, only after Federer had his name engraved on the honours board in 2003, did he really appreciate the tournament and its history. “I definitely felt different,” he said of the impact of his straight sets victory against Mark Philippoussis.
“I felt like I had an obligation towards Wimbledon, towards the club, to represent tennis as a whole, as a statesman, as well as just being the classic young up and coming tennis player.
“So all of a sudden I did feel more pressure, and a big sense of pride as well, being in this awkward yet incredible situation. I think it helped me grow as a person and as a player.”
Wimbledon, then, was Federer’s first love; the Grand Slam title that got him started and has brought the 30 year-old a total of 16 slams so far. That starts to explain why he believes the success “changed everything”, but there is more to it than that.
“Your life as a tennis player is complete if you win Wimbledon, in my opinion,” Federer said.
His history, his struggles before finally reaching that “completing” moment is key to his SW19 love story. It started in 1998 when this tempestuous 16 year-old with a slightly amateur blonde rinse was playing an Austrian, Philip Langer (Federer remembers the name), in the boys’ singles.
Federer is happy to admit he was a bundle of nerves. So tense that he started seeing things that weren’t there. “I went up to the umpire and said to him I think you need to check the net, the net seems too high,” Federer recalls, laughing.
“He said I don’t think so, but OK. And he checked. And of course it was the right height.
“I was just so incredibly nervous, I felt the net was like a volleyball net and I couldn’t hit a ball into the court.” That was just an illusion.
Giving Langer a runaround, winning 6-0, 6-2, Federer then breezed his way to the title without dropping a set. His Wimbledon story had begun. But far from thundering to greatness, Federer stumbled when he returned the following year. “After winning the juniors in '98, I got the wild card in 1999 [as is tradition at Wimbledon]. I think I played on Court 6 or Court 8 against Jiri Novak and I lost in five sets after being up two sets to one. It isn’t the best memory,” he said, looking rather put out. The following year Federer was drawn against fifth seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round and lost in straight sets.
In 2001, sporting a ponytail, he was seeded for the first time, and powered his way to the quarter-finals, beating the indomitable Pete Sampras in the fourth round. His five-set victory was the only time the two ever met in competition. “A lot of friends and players told me: 'This year I think you can really beat him’,” Federer said at the time. “It felt unbelievable.” However, in the quarter-finals, he came unstuck against a number six seed who seemed to be going places, Tim Henman.
The following year he returned as the seventh seed, and this time with a bit more expectation, only for qualifier Mario Ancic to see him off in straight sets in the first round. “I got completely surprised,” Federer said of Ancic. “What it taught me was not to underestimate any opponent, no matter where they’re from, what technique they have, what ranking they have.” It was an important lesson and, after working so hard to crack Wimbledon, one he has not forgotten.
Federer dropped just one set on his way to beating Mark Phillipousis the following year and, after that Ancic defeat, didn’t lose at The Championships again for six years.
While the grounds of the All England Club changed around him, Federer embarked on the most successful run of form at Wimbledon since Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, winning five consecutive titles, before adding a sixth two years later.
Federer enjoys remembering the little details of his time here just as much as the victories themselves. “It’s obviously changed over the years. Back in 1998 there was no Millennium Building, and my locker room was under the old No2 Court, which today doesn’t exist any more.
“When I got my first trophy I was in a holding room in the old Championships locker room, under Centre Court, which today also has been redone.” Some things stayed the same, however. Like Federer winning titles.
“I never thought I would get on the run I did. But each one of them is very personal and very different to one another,” he says.
“The first one is, you don’t know if you’re going to win anything again after that, you could be just a one slam wonder, you could have an injury and never play again.
“Your life as a tennis player is complete if you win Wimbledon in my opinion, and that’s what I was able to do in 2003.” So, that one must be a bit more special than the others, then?
Not necessarily. “That I was able then to defend it was quite extraordinary. But the first one and the last one have been very special no doubt about it.” Perhaps the last one is a bit more special because of what Wimbledon did for Federer.
“I did get the net of my 15th grand slam victory, they [the Club] gave it to me as a present, for beating the all-time Grand Slam record of Pete Sampras. “Hopefully one day I can put it against a wall, it could look quite cool. So those are plenty of memories, besides all the Wimbledon trophies in my trophy cupboard which I look at once in a while.”
The modesty, the gentle smile, his politeness. It’s all so English.
That’s why the immaculately turned-out champ took time out of his clay court schedule in Madrid last month, amid all the kerfuffle over the blue clay, to discuss his latest mission for a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon singles title.
And why, 14 years on from his debut at Wimbledon, Federer is as enthralled with the place as a 16 year-old kid. His advice for any 16 year-olds in the boys’ competition this year?
“Just enjoy it. You never know if you’re going to have another chance, you probably will, but it’s just the importance of sucking it all in. Because it’s the most extraordinary event, not just to attend, but to play in. It’s much more than you could dream it would be.”
- Roger Federer will be appearing on Live @Wimbledon, a new TV and radio channel, available from 9am to close of play on Wimbledon.com during The Championships