Wimbledon 2015: Roger Federer and his favourite tournament prepare for turf wars

Roger Federer is back at Wimbledon for the 17th time to try and win again his favourite tournament

To the casual observer, it could have been a regular chat at the end of a regular club knock-about between some folk in regular tennis whites.

Just a small cluster of adults and children, a few rackets propped against seats, and neither crush of spectators nor uniformed security hovering just out of sight.

Such have been countless scenes around the pristine grass courts at a sparsely populated All England Club in the green-and-pleasant days before the most famous tennis tournament in the world throws open its impressive black and gold gates to fans from all corners of the globe.

Young men and women, dressed in the Club’s green and purple, dust down the backdrops and fences, and a few extra pots of palms and petunias lie waiting to be fitted into the burgeoning borders of this English country garden. Is there room for any more? It hardly looks possible—but come Monday, one last purple bloom will have found its place, to be tended every single morning for a fortnight.

Meanwhile, these are the tranquil days when the deep green walkways are still immaculate, the benches glisten just a little brighter from a last coat of varnish, the white lines that mark out the courts are at their sharpest on the still springy, still lush, still uniformly emerald turf.

These are the tranquil days beloved of the fortunate few who arrive in a steady stream to play, to coach, to sign the paperwork or book the practice courts, to mow the grass or tutor the groundstaff in the art of covering those precious courts should the rains come.

These are the days when players can amble from locker room to training session to interviews and back to court without a care in the world, without fans in hot pursuit, without bodyguards edging them through the crowded pathways.

It’s probably been the best preparation I’ve ever had for Wimbledon

Roger Federer

These are, then, the days when even the most hotly-pursued can bide a while to chat with some awestruck young visitors who have watched them practise from courtside.

For the less-than-casual observer would have spotted that this was not a regular knock-about but a finely-tuned one between two of the best tennis players in the world: On one side, No6 seed Tomas Berdych, Wimbledon finalist in 2010, and on the other, the man he beat in the quarters that year, the seven-time champion Roger Federer.

They sweated up a storm through an hour of practice sets, now serious, now not so serious. Was that first serve in or out? Not sure: “Need Hawkeye! Say it was in.”

Headshakes accompany missed lines, grins accompany a fly of chalk. There’s not much these two don’t know about each other’s game, an understanding that began with Berdych’s victory over Federer at the Athens Olympics more than a decade ago, that grew through matches at every Grand Slam, in Davis Cup and again at the Olympics.

But these intense preparations, especially so soon after a long clay swing, are more about honing their own games, ‘feeling’ the grass, getting match sharp, than about sizing up the opponent. So they allow their off-court personalities to come to the fore, especially when the work is done and they clasp each other’s hands in thanks.

Federer sat a while with mentor and coach Stefan Edberg, then greeted Sabine Lisicki and Lucie Safarova like old mates, before turning to leave—though not immediately. A couple of very young fans quietly took it all in, and were duly rewarded.

“Do you play tennis? Where do you play? How often to you play? Really, that’s more than me! Are you coming to see some matches here?”

Then some encouraging words, a few selfies and, long deserted by his team, Federer sprinted off into the distance.

Because, as it turned out, he was late for other off-court duties. A first live Periscope tour of the grounds for the tournament website, a session with this year’s ball kids, formally opening their new centre, not to mention another practice with a big new ‘kid’ on the block, Taylor Fritz.

All in a day’s work for one of the most sought-after men in tennis—and make no mistake, this is serious work. Federer is back for the 17th time to try and win again his favourite tournament, the one where he lifted the first of a record 17 Majors and set a joint record—with Pete Sampras—of seven Wimbledon titles.

He made his ambitions very clear after losing in the quarters of the French Open: “Wimbledon is going to be a big goal for the season. That’s where I want to play my best. I want to win it and I feel like my game is good.”

It was the same message when Federer talked to the media ahead of his opening match on Tuesday: “The game’s good, you know. I’ve been playing well for a year now.”

It’s hard to disagree. Aside from a blip during last year’s clay swing that coincided with the birth of his second set of twins, he played more matches than anyone on the tour, won five titles—two Masters, three 500s—and reached the finals of six more, including three Masters, the World Tour Finals and Wimbledon itself. And so far this year, he has four titles and two Masters finals among his 34 match-wins.

“Practice has been good, so the body’s fine, too. It’s probably been the best preparation I’ve ever had for Wimbledon, for obvious reasons—because we have a week more on the grass.

“[That extra week] has changed everything, to be honest. The good thing is you can heal problems you might have carried over from the French rather than taking chances right away running onto the grass, or not playing a warm-up event.

“Winning Halle has given me the extra confidence I guess it’s going to take me to win this title here… Wimbledon comes around very quickly. I could rest and relax and then really train and prepare properly. Just the moving on grass takes some adjustment. [But] I could go early to Halle, train a lot, rest again.

“Same here. Arrived two days after the finals, trained for three days, off today. I can totally pace myself, which is huge in an athlete’s career and life.”

But in what may seem a remarkably gilded career and life, he is quick to jump on any suggestion that he has not felt disappointment along the way: “Lost 250 matches. Where do you want to start?”

It is just 233, against 1,030 wins, and one suspects he remembers each one. Last year’s loss here was one of the toughest, a five-set thriller against Novak Djokovic, but with his famed ‘glass half full’ hat on, Federer has been able to put that into perspective.

“I did end up playing a great tournament. I played some really good tennis. I didn’t expect myself to right away make the finals. To be honest, I was still somewhat on the way back. But things went faster than I thought they would. Whereas this year I feel my game is better. I’ve gotten used to the racket. The work I’ve put in with Severin I could really aim for Wimbledon this year… If I do look at last year, I see more the positives than actually the heartbreaking loss in the final.”

It’s a gift almost as big as his tennis talent, the ability to draw on the negatives and find the positives, a gift he has in common with his biggest challengers to winning that much-hoped-for eighth title in a fortnight’s time.

He is drawn, as luck would have it, to again meet Berdych in the quarters, with the 2013 champion Andy Murray or the two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the semis, and then world No1 Djokovic should he reach a 10th Wimbledon final.

Win or lose, though, there are two very much younger players who will long remember this Wimbledon and their chat with a champion.

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