From being a casual Grand Slam tennis fan with a liking for Roger Federer, I turned into a daily follower of tennis with an inexplicable craze for everything Roger Federer, thanks to the man himself, as he traversed one of the most intriguing and fascinating years of his illustrious career.
I still remember that day – Wimbledon Finals 2012. I was rooting for Roger to win against Andy Murray. After the loss of the first set, the turning point was the set point in the second, when Roger hit a ridiculous drop shot, stealing that set right under Andy’s nose. The rain added to that drama, but that match defined the beginning of my craze for Roger Federer. In the following years, I would see Roger going through ups and many many downs. The back caused problems in 2013. Roger appeared refreshed in 2014 after the racquet change and having Stefan Edberg in his corner. He came tantalisingly close to regaining World No. 1 ranking and winning Grand Slams in 2014 and 2015 with three finals. Novak was there in his way all three times, refusing to lose in Wimbledon 2014 and imposing himself on Roger in 2015. 2016 started off with knee problems and after the loss at Australian Open, Roger wouldn’t be himself. He chose to take that six-month break – in hindsight, one of the best all-time decisions of taking breaks in sports – and came back in 2017 rejuvenated, refreshed and with his game honed with hours and hours of quiet practice. He conquered Nadal in a Grand Slam after a decade and would go on to win three more important matches against him. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and would come back in 2018 as the favourite to win Australian Open and do it in style.
As Roger chooses to take a second voluntary break from the clay season, I pause to reflect on the inspiration that he has been through the most challenging times in my life.
1. Never stop believing.
You may lose a match today due to many reasons. You may win a match tomorrow due to many reasons. Instead of reacting to the small successes and failures of each day, never stop believing in yourself. That can go a long way. This belief is what led to his incredible run in 2011-2012, culminating in being crowned the Wimbledon 2012 champion and World No.1 after a (then) long stretch of not winning any Slams. That belief then fuelled the sheer hard work and the grit required to reinvent himself after the back issues of 2013 by switching to a larger racquet and committing to net play like never before.
It is hard not to be disheartened when things don’t go our way, but belief is something that nobody can take away from us despite all external things.
2. Practice is key and there is a purpose to practice.
As Roger has grown older, his practice sessions are supposed to be so much more focussed so that he can bring in the quality that is required rather than putting in a lot of hours on the practice court. Edberg added the element of playing sets during practice instead of only points. There is nothing like practice for honing a skill and muscle memory requires constant practice.
3. Set goals for yourself.
Roger’s career is certainly one of the best in tennis history. Yet, after achieving so much, he still sets goals for himself. Be it getting to top 8 ranking by Wimbledon last year (which he overachieved and attained so much earlier than that), and now the quest to get to 100 titles (and simply winning as many titles as he can) and playing at the professional level as long as possible. Setting goals helps us focus on the actions that would take us to those goals, so practice gets tuned towards those specific goals.
4. Question yourself at the best of times.
Losses are crushing and makes one question what went wrong, but Roger has always questioned himself at the best of times – at his peak even when he won over 90% of the matches that he played. He is constantly on the lookout to improve himself and that shows why and how he has reinvented himself towards these later stages of his career – pretty much unseen in tennis history.
5. Health is more important than anything else.
Roger learnt it the hard way in 2013 when constant back issues thwarted his play. He persisted through it all, combined with an attempt to switch to a larger racquet. When again, in 2016, he had to undergo knee surgery, he finally decided to take a six-month break after some attempts to continue to play after a short rehab. And that paid off and how!
6. Take breaks, often.
Roger takes his vacation seriously. That time off, away from everything, visibly gives him the energy to come back and soak in it all. Even at the peak of his career, when he could have chosen to play so many more tournaments, he chose to take those critical breaks of few weeks between different parts of the tennis calendar. And that pretty much explains his longevity.
7. Celebrate your successes – more importantly, your efforts that went into them.
Roger celebrates his successes and more importantly the efforts that go into those. The definition of success itself varies depending on the stage of his career and what he encounters. At the time when Novak was on his peak, going on his invincible match-winning streak, the win against him at French Open was worth celebrating, even though the Finals was yet to be played.
8. Never forget your roots.
Roger remains a Swiss at heart. One of the most apparent gestures is having a pizza party with the ball kids after the Finals (even if he loses in the Finals) at his home tournament at Basel every year. He was once a ball boy at this same tournament and he never forgets to do his bit whenever he is back there.
9. Choose your goals intelligently depending on the stage of life you are in.
At the peak of his career, getting to No. 1 (and staying at No. 1) was always a big goal. Even as he reached No. 1 a few weeks ago (and he went out and played Rotterdam to reach there), his goals clearly have changed. Titles and playing at tournaments he enjoys playing and has best chances of winning are his current goals and more than all, simply expressing his love for tennis.
10. It’s all about love (for tennis).
At the end of the day, Roger loves tennis too much to easily walk away from the game. It is this love that drives him to work hard, to set high goals for himself, to manage being not just a tennis player, but a family man, ambassador for many brands worldwide and work on his Foundation to give back to underprivileged children in Africa and Switzerland.
11. Make sport a part of your life.
Roger recently talked of how he encourages his children to play tennis/sport – not to push them into becoming professional players but simply to lead a healthy life style, have fun, make friends and experience the feelings of winning and losing and thereby learning how to deal with them.
12. Family first
Roger’s priorities in life are always dictated by the well-being of his family. It is a privilege that he is able to travel on tour with his family. Yet, given the logistics and having to deal with four small children, it requires much more than just a will to be able to do it. Staying with his family and keeping his family together is far more important to him than participating in many tournaments staying away from his family.
13. Fans are people. Support staff are people. Ball kids are people. Journalists are people.
There are countless accounts of Roger staying back for so long after each of his practice sessions and matches to sign autographs and allow fans to take selfies with him. His dad talks of how much time he spends signing cards to be sent to his fans (based on the fan requests sent to him by mail and on his website). The way he seems to ‘care’ for people around him makes him the special person that he is. One of his favourite quotes is ‘It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice’. And he walks that talk.
14. Give back (to the society, to tennis, to fans, to juniors).
Tennis has given Roger so much in his life and he feels that responsibility to give back in so many ways. Be it the work through his foundation, taking up administrative positions on the tennis tour, or taking the time out to help juniors who start off new on the tennis tour.
15. Be an ambassador for what you stand for.
Roger is a true ambassador of tennis. He believes that he has a role to play in the evolution of tennis. He goes out of his way to promote tennis – playing in many non-competition events, kids’ clinics and defending tennis for what it stands for. He believes that he should leave the sport in a better place than it was when he started out and he took up the responsibility of being the players’ representative for 8 years during the peak of his career. He even endorses the brands he is sponsored by with such passion.
16. Every little detail matters.
Starting from the colour of his outfits to the designs on them, Roger is involved personally. He pays attention to every little detail because he cares and believes that each little thing has an importance of its own. During an interview at this year’s Australian Open, he said that it was an opportunity to tell stories about yourself through the designs that you put on your outfit.
17. Manage your time by focussing on the task at hand.
Roger has this incredible ability to focus on whatever he does at that moment. This automatically improves the quality of time he spends on different tasks – practice, family time, attending social events. He says how when he goes back to his family after a match, he should play with them and spend time with them in the exact same way, irrespective of whether he lost or won a match. This ability to switch off and switch on not only makes him so much more efficient but also helps him enjoy each task fully.
18. Think positively.
Roger is an incredibly positive person. He is able to put things in perspective after every loss. In fact, all I have to do to cheer up after one of his losses is to hear his post-match press conference. The way he rebounds from every loss (he has won the following tournament he participates in after so many of his crushing losses) shows his incredible positive view on his tennis and his life.
19. Have fun.
Though he appears to be this cool and calm person on court, the Roger we see off court is super-fun. The joy inside him is very much visible and he makes sure he has fun – be it on the practice court, in interviews (which he doesn’t consider a terrible obligation, but an opportunity to tell his story), and in all his public appearances. Sample this.
20. Keep reinventing yourself.
Even in his upcoming years, it took a lot of time for Roger to round up his game and attain invincible heights, given the many tricks he had in his bag. Yet, that was not enough. The game kept changing and so did Roger. He could have said enough and walked off the game at any point – the success he had from 2004 to 2008 was unprecedented. Yet, he would not hesitate to change his game, try out different strategies, take the big step of changing his racquet after 11 years of playing with the same one that suited him the best, hire his childhood idol Stefan Edberg to be his ‘inspiring’ super-coach and embrace the net courageously. All these have culminated into the last one and a half years of late-career success, crowning him with the No. 1 ranking and three Grand Slam titles and numerous other titles at places he loves to play in.
The grass season is around the corner. The GOAT must be getting ready to graze in his beloved lawns. I can’t wait to see his magic and artistry once more, as he dances on the green grass, moving his feet light as an elf, waving his racquet like a wand in the hands of a wizard and conceiving strategies that would take the game to the next level and hitting out-of-the world shots that would leave his opponents shaking their heads.