He is, of course, the most successful man in modern times to play on this sport’s original surface. When it comes to grass, he has won more titles—14—and more matches—125—than anyone in the Open era.
He is embarking, at Wimbledon, on his 59th consecutive Grand Slam—again, a record in the Open era. And he has the biggest tally of Grand Slam match wins.
Only Lleyton Hewitt has competed in as many Wimbledons—both are about to play their 16th—and only Pete Sampras has won as many singles titles at the All England Club.
So when Federer arrives in London, when he takes to a practice court, even when he cuts a finger—as he did when out playing with his daughters—it all becomes grist to the media mill.
But lovers of tennis have, from the first, been drawn to his particular brand of tennis: elegant power married to fluid movement, bold in tactics and shot-making, understated around the court yet oozing in passion for a sport that is simultaneously graceful and gladiatorial.
Yet the range and reach of the Federer popularity is drawn from a deeper well, one that comes not simply from the compelling choreography of his game but from the added value he has brought to tennis itself.
For Federer worked out, many years ago, that good PR is a great tool in the right hands, and he began to set standards that are now taken for granted throughout the profession. In whatever medium, and however many the obligations to sponsors, tournaments and press, he has been articulate, patient and generous—though he must rue the day he agreed always to hold press conferences in English, French and German.
These same qualities have ensured his influence across other boundaries too. Take the end-of-year ATP Awards. At the end of 2013, Federer won three of them, one from each voting constituency: The ATP itself, fellow players, and fans.
Not content with winning the plaudits of his colleagues with a ninth Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award—and how appropriate that he has been joined on court by his childhood hero, Edberg, as coach this year—he took the Fans’ Favourite Award as well.
Overall I think we’ve done quite well, you know. I think I’m proud that I was able to lead by example
Some may point to the 32-year-old’s longevity and durability as a reason for the win, except that Federer won his first Fan’s Award in 2003, before he even reached the No1 ranking… and he has won the Fans’ Award every year since, a total of 11 times.
That kind of support only comes from years of cultivation, from putting himself at the coalface, from being accessible, win or lose. Those who doubt the effort need only watch him circle the packed ranks after a practice session, signing whatever fans put under his nose, exchanging a friendly word and—a further demand he could not have foreseen when he embarked on his mission to convert the world to tennis—posing for endless ‘selfies’.
Such support undoubtedly gives him a warm glow, but those other two ATP awards must give Federer great personal satisfaction. He has won the vote of fellow players for his sportsmanship every year but one since 2004. And completing his set was the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award—for a second time.
In Federer, though, tennis has been fortunate in both message and messenger. From early on, he involved himself in the sport from the inside, helped not a little by a Swiss gift for negotiation and diplomacy. In 2008, at the peak of his powers and with more media and sponsor obligations than his colleagues could shake a stick at, he joined tennis’s ‘union’, the Players Council, and was immediately elected President by his fellow players. And he has served on the Council, re-elected every two years, until this summer.
The six-year Federer reign has been mighty productive too, and I asked him whether he was proud of one particular achievement. His answer was, rather, a call to arms: “Look, number one, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I told this to the Council and the Board yesterday.
“The last six years have been a lot of fun. It’s been tough at times, you know, just the debates, the talks, the meetings, everything that surrounds it.
“Overall I think we’ve done quite well, you know. I think I’m proud that I was able to lead by example. I mean, I have a very busy life, probably one of the busiest lives of a tennis player, with the family, media, sponsors, you name it, and I still found time to do it. So that should show any other tennis player—if I can do it, they should also be able to find the time for this. If they’re not interested, I respect that, too, but if you are interested, take an active role. That’s why I’m happy.”
But the Council, in recent years, has managed to make real headway where it matters.
One of the toughest negotiating roles has been to bring change at the Grand Slams, which are not part of the ATP calendar.
After the US Open was delayed by rain for a fourth straight year, Federer was forthright: “This is the fourth year in a row I think we’re playing a Monday final. Might as well make it a Monday final, right? Or you have to change up a few things. I think “Super Saturday” is not feasible without the roof any longer.”
The USTA subsequently agreed to change the schedule, move to a Monday final.
On dope testing, he commented at the World Tour Finals in London: “I feel I’m being less tested now than six, seven, eight years ago… I think it’s important to have enough tests out there.”
He added last February: “I didn’t get tested after the semi-final in Australia, which I told the people: To me that is a big surprise… we should be doing biological blood passports, I think we should store things away.”
Bio-passports were announced in March.
Perhaps the most important change to happen under his chairmanship is one that will affect the biggest number of players: increasing the financial rewards from the Grand Slams, with a focus on the early losers—the journeyman who struggle to earn enough to pay their way in this individual, globe-circling sport. Every one of the Majors has injected substantial funding into its prize money, with the biggest boosts coming to the lower ranks.
It was to this that Federer made a fleeting reference in talking of his legacy.
“The group of guys was very interesting, we had good debates. Clearly we made big strides in prize money over the last six years.
“I also think we were able to calm things down a little bit, because things were quite hectic, you know, when I came onto the Council. I think we’ve had the same Board for six straight years. The stability has been very important for the tournaments, for the players, for the Council, for the Board. It’s just been nicer to work this way.”
In truth, the Council has been on borrowed time as far as Federer is concerned, and the strides made between the ATP and the Grand Slams in the last 12 months must have helped him draw the line under his tenure.
The arrival of twin baby boys into a family equation that already holds twin daughters approaching their fifth birthday must also have made Federer’s decision more pressing. Add into the melting pot a determination for more tennis success in the autumn of his career—taking on a new coach, a new racket and an intense training schedule speak volumes for his intent—and it is time to let new names take the strain.
“I feel my time is a good to go now. Because I feel if I can’t put in 100 percent effort every single time when I go to the meetings, if I start missing meetings, that’s not the way I’ll do it. So I think it’s a good time for someone else to lead, for someone else who is super excited to step in and do it now. I actually saw there were a lot of people that wanted to do it, which is great.”
But lest anyone think he will cease to be involved, he concluded: “Anyway, I’ll be around. If they need my opinions or help in any way, I’m still there. But I think it’s a good time to move on for me for now… yeah.”
He’ll be a hard act to follow.
Members elected by their peers to serve on the ATP Player Council through June 2016:
1-50 Singles: Kevin Anderson, John Isner, Gilles Simon, Stan Wawrinka; 51-100 Singles: Jurgen Melzer, Sergiy Stakhovsky; 1-100 Doubles: Raven Klaasen, Bruno Soares; At-Large: Eric Butorac, Andre Sa; Alumni: Yves Allegro; Coach: Claudio Pistolesi.
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