Wimbledon 2013: Federer on fast grass, single-handers – and Murray
Wimbledon 2013: Roger Federer's news conference is as special as this tournament is to the seven-times SW19 champion
Ever the professional when it comes to off-court duties, Roger Federer’s news conferences are informed, but also informative; courteous, but invariably with a critical twinkle in the eye; lengthy, but played out through three languages.
And so his pre-tournament appearance, to the fullest interview room of the weekend, proved once again: 35 minutes on the clock, five pages on the transcript.
This one was long even by the standards of the defending champion, for as the headlines have proclaimed since the French Open closed its doors, this is special Wimbledon for the seven-title champion: It is 10 years since Federer won his first Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam.
And the statements surrounding the Swiss man’s extraordinary relationship with Wimbledon come thick and fast in the event’s preview.
…is bidding to become the second man to win eight titles at any Grand Slam—Rafael Nadal became the first at Roland Garros earlier this month;
…is bidding for his 18th Major, and targets the records of the five women who have won more singles titles—Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are joint fourth with 18 apiece;
…has won a Grand Slam every year since his first one here in 2003 except 2011;
…is the leading active player, ahead of Lleyton Hewitt, in grass match-wins—121 for just 17 lost—and the two men are the only ones in the Wimbledon draw to make 15 appearances;
…is competing in his 55th consecutive Major, second only to Wayne Ferreira’s 56.
So the questions and answers reflected a strong theme.
“Yes, it’s been an unbelievable 10 years. I can’t believe it’s been this successful and this nice in the process. I really enjoyed myself on tour. I made many friends. I started a foundation. I’ve continued to be successful. I’ve played so many matches where I went through so many incredible moments. I’m forever grateful to this first Wimbledon title I was able to achieve here.”
Sound-bites every one—and yes, he is happy to be back.
“You know, it’s always a privilege and with big pleasure I come back here, especially with the memories I have from this place—not just from last year but the last 15 years. I’m excited the tournament’s about to start. I’m happy to be playing. I’m fit. That’s really what matters now.”
How is he different this year from that first title 10 years ago?
“Well, 10 years ago I was incredibly scared to lose again in the first round because I lost in 2002 in the first round here. I lost in the first round of the French Open, as well. So I came in with a lot of pressure and having to prove myself. So every year that has gone by and every year I did well here, my nerves calmed down. I knew that actually grass is my best surface or one of my best surfaces, where early on in your career you’re not sure.
“I do believe grass, the more you play on it, the more you learn about it. That’s why I was very excited for our entire generation of players, that we had the opportunity to play the Olympics here last year.
“The excitement is the same: Still hungry and wanting to win and wanting to prove how good I can play. Then you want to relive those incredible moments you’ve had 10 years ago, nine years ago, eight years ago, where you have that honour to play on Centre Court…It’s something that means the world to me.”
It is, of course, all gold: Wimbledon loves it, London loves it, tennis loves it. As for his legions of fans—a community that grows as new generations of tennis enthusiasts arrive on the scene—he can do no wrong.
And contrary to what Ernests Gulbis may think—recently accusing Federer and fellow top players of boring press conferences—Federer is happy to express an opinion, too. Asked which of the top four posed the biggest challenge at Wimbledon, it was a crowd-pleasing answer that may nevertheless prick the pride of his rivals.
“I think Murray played great last year throughout Wimbledon and the Olympics, and now again at Queen’s. So for me he seems like maybe most natural on this surface. But then the other guys are already Wimbledon champions, Rafa and Novak. Ferrer’s in the top four: He’s also very good on grass. But to me, Andy sort of stands out a little bit over the others.”
As for the draw, which could pitch the No5 seed and arch rival Rafael Nadal against him in the quarters, with Murray in the semis and Novak Djokovic in the final.
“For me, it’s not even worth the talk because it is what it is. It’s not like [Nadal] is unseeded…Quarter-finals are still a long way away.
“It was never supposed to be easy winning Grand Slams. I’m ready for the challenge. I like tough draws. I don’t shy away from them…I have a very difficult draw with Rafa in my quarter [but] my focus is on the first round. If you want to win the tournament here, you anyway have to beat the best: That’s what I’m here for.”
But what about the game of tennis itself, its style, its variety—even its beauty? These are the unquantifiables, where every eye sees and appreciates something different in the same match, the same shot. And here, it would seem, this correspondent—with a memory of tennis, and of Wimbledon in particular, that can even recall the pre-Open era—has an ally in Federer.
Things have, you see, slowed down on the fastest, the slickest, the original tennis surface. Djokovic mentioned it without prompting at his own news conference.
“Grass courts nowadays are slower compared with maybe 15, 20 years ago when we had serve-and-volley players. Today it’s slower and it’s more suitable to baseliners.”
Which for some traditionalists—and for Federer—is something to regret.
“I regret it more across the board at many tournaments. It’s not just here. It’s happened all around. I also believe playing styles have changed in the process. But they were, anyway, about to change. There were more and more baseliners in the game 10 or 15 years ago, I thought, than ever before.
“And then the tournaments started slowing down conditions, as well, significantly. Then that really doesn’t give you a big incentive to move forward anymore. It becomes a bit more predictable.
“I think it’s a bit of a pity, yes, because I think it would be nice to see more players out of their comfort zone more often, as well. Now you can just play the same game on clay, on grass, on hard courts. That was not really the idea about having different surfaces in the first place.”
“Now, you always feel physically or with consistency you can still get to the goal; whereas before it was a return here, it was one passing shot there that would decide the outcome of the match. I would probably be a different player, as well. I would be probably serve and volleying more often today or at all times.
“But I realised rather quickly that serve and volleying against great return players on a regular basis was just too hard, so I had to improve my baseline game. Today it’s hard to pick any guy within the top 20 where you say, ‘this guy cannot play on grass at all.’ You feel like everybody can.”
And allied to that transition in tennis has been the demise of that most lovely of shots, the single-handed backhand. And yet, of late, it has flourished more openly than in many a year. Only last week, all the semi-finalists in Halle used the one-hander, and this weekend, in Nicolas Mahut and Feliciano Lopez, two more have won titles.
And as Federer was quick to point out, it is not simply down to grass:
“I think we had eight of 16 one-handers as well at the French, so we can also play on clay, believe it or not smiling.” Time for that twinkle.
Believe me, Roger, I know it only too well—and celebrated it not for the first time. But sadly, the most famous exponent of the elegant backhand does not see this as a renaissance.
“I think it’s a good time for one-handed backhands [but] I don’t know how many are really up-and-coming. One I think is clearly Grigor Dimitrov, but there’s not that many coming up. I don’t think that’s going to be the trend, to be quite honest.
“It’s nice to see that we can still win and compete at the highest of levels. I always prefer to watch a one-handed backhand over a two-handed backhand somehow, even though two-handed backhands have much more incredible technique. They’re more comfortable hitting a slice, hitting a volley. Ten, 15 years ago, double-handed backhands didn’t know how to play that shot.
“Today they’re much more natural and much better. We’ll see what the future holds, but I do believe the future is a double-handed backhand.”
So perhaps we must learn to enjoy the backhand sported by Laver and Edberg, by McEnroe and Rafter, by Sampras and Navratilova while we can. After all, many of those exponents so successful in recent weeks are, like Federer, on the wrong side of 30.
One more reason, then, to celebrate the defending champion on the 10th anniversary of his first Wimbledon win.