Hubert Burda Media

The Artful Roger

With more grand slam titles than his boyhood heroes, tennis star Roger Federer is now shifting his focus to doing good.

Ten years ago in June, a young, pony-tailed Roger Federer outplayed Mark Philippoussis (the Australian nicknamed “The Scud”) at Wimbledon to win his first grand slam singles title. “Holding the trophy in my hands, I thought to myself: I did it! My career could end right now, and it’ll all be good,” he tells reporters during a recent stopover in Singapore at the invitation of sponsor Credit Suisse.
Of course, as we all know, Wimbledon was only the beginning. The Swiss went on to win 17 grand slams and two Olympic medals, besting Pete Sampras’s record of 14 grand slams to become the greatest tennis player of all time.
But the astonishing collection of metalware in his trophy case is only one part of the Federer legacy. What tennis fans appreciate is his on-court artistry and that effortless, one-handed backhand. To them, he is the embodiment of tennis form and beauty. And for him, they reserve the sort of adulation and reverence usually lavished upon practitioners of classical arts, not sports. One Wimbledon bus driver put it best when in 2006, he told the late American novelist and sportswriter David Foster Wallace that watching Federer was a “bloody near-religious experience”.
So heaven forbid that the Federer Express should ever fall short of greatness. But the cold hard fact is that he is only human. At just months shy of his 32nd birthday in August, he is the 15th oldest man in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) top 100. (Spain’s Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, at 35, is the oldest.)
Of the three tournaments Federer has played this year, he hasn’t once made it to the final round. At the Australian Open, he lost his semi-final match-up against Andy Murray. At the World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, he suffered a shock, three-set quarter-final defeat at the hands of Julien Benneteau, a Frenchman who has yet to lift a tour title in a 13-year career. And at the Dubai Championships, he was eclipsed by Tomas Berdych in the semis, making it five losses in eight matches against the Czech.
None of this is to say that Federer isn’t still the closest thing we have to a tennis god. Nothing will ever take away the fact that he has spent a record 302 weeks atop the sport world’s rankings, and his performance at this month’s BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells may very well silence critics who have ever dared utter the word “retirement”.
If anything, Federer is one of the sporting world’s great ambassadors, and not least for his tireless tenacity. “Everything has to fade away eventually. But I’m not 80 or 90 years old yet. I still feel very young. I really am feeling at my best. And if sometimes while playing against the best, I lose, that’s fine,” he tells us.
“Pressure is a privilege”, he likes to say, of the expectations and criticisms that come with the job. “The good thing about sports is that it is played in front of a live audience. You get that the message loud and clear if you are good or bad, and you are kept very honest at all times, which is a good thing.”
In a sporting climate marred by fallen idols and tiresome scandals — from match fixing and doping, to toxic team cultures and even murder allegations — Federer fancies himself a role model, and his unceasing do-good nature is genuine.
“I know not every athlete wants to be a role model for others, but for me it was important to have heroes like Michael Jordan, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker while growing up. Without them, I don’t know if I would have pushed so hard to become the player and person I am today. So for me, it was always clear that if I have the opportunity to be [a professional] player, I was going to live up to expectations,” he says. “It is important to represent the sport and my country well. And at the end of the day, who the people cheer for is not in my power, but I appreciate it if they do.”
Off court, he is heavily involved in the Roger Federer Foundation, a charity he established at age 22, and which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The foundation’s educational and sports initiatives benefit some 14,000 children in South Africa (where his mother Lynette is from), and a further 16,000 in Zimbabwe, 10,000 in Zambia, and thousands more in Ethiopia, Botswana and Malawi. In Switzerland, the foundation also supports talented young athletes from low-income families.
Even the global ambassadorship Federer inked with Credit Suisse in 2009 is one based on shared philanthropic values. The $1 million which the banking giant channels into the Roger Federer Foundation each year (until 2019) supports early childhood education in Malawi.
“I used to spend a lot of time in South Africa when I was younger and had been confronted by poverty to some degree,” Federer shares. “Once my parents saw that I was going to be able to make decent money, they told me right away that the only right thing to do is start up something and give back.”
As someone who has achieved all his goals, and achieved them young, Federer is now gunning for longevity, both on and off the court. “I never ever pictured myself playing the ATP Tour with kids. And I have two, which was a big surprise but so much fun. I want to be the best parent I can be and I want them to see how much I love the game after all these years,” he says. “[With the foundation], I hope it inspires people, starting with my kids, and I hope they will get involved too.”