The question was, I asked, how had he found time in his tennis schedule to make a trip to Cape Town—especially given that it involved Rafael Nadal, too?
“It took me two years to find a date—but we have it!”
He paused, laughed, and went on:
“I was trying to be as little as possible annoying to the guy as I could have been. But still I had to force the issue at some stage. It was like, Rafa, please give me a date…”
They have been here before, these great tennis adversaries who have become, in the course of 39 matches and 15 years on the tennis road, friends as well as rivals. Nadal it was who joined Federer for the very first Match of Africa in 2010, with the Swiss returning the favour a day later in Madrid.
But finding a slot in the packed tennis calendar that begins before New Year’s Day and continues until the middle of November is a nightmare, and all the more so for an elite player who has to fine-tune his season with precision—the right tournaments on the right surfaces, with the right amount of recuperation and training blocks, and with an eye on titles, ranking points, and what everyone else is up to. And dovetailing the schedules of two such players is nigh on impossible.
Take the third in Federer’s series of exhibition events, when he and Andy Murray announced they would be joining forces for their respective charities—the Swiss player’s own Foundation, which supports the education of children in Africa and Switzerland, and Murray’s for Young People’s Futures, and UNICEF.
Their problem was made all the more difficult by unforeseen injuries. The original November 2016 date was postponed to the following April after Federer needed surgery on his knee earlier in the season. And then there were concerns around Murray’s event as first elbow and then hip woes hit the Briton.
In Dubai, two months before they at last managed to convene in Zurich, Murray explained:
“It’s hard for sure [to fit in these events] because, to make it work, you need to have ideally one of the top players. You need to work with both your schedules, so you have ask quite a long way in advance. And Roger spoke to me about it the first time during the French Open last year.
“I spoke to him on the phone, and then my team spoke to his about potentially coming to Scotland, and that was agreed about a month ago.”
Murray went on to win the Dubai title, withdrew from the Miami Masters with an elbow injury, but got back into training just in time to make Zurich for what was their first meeting since the summer of 2015, and the first since Murray had become No1.
Through the remainder of 2017, Federer continued to stack up titles but slotted in another Match for Africa, MfA4, straight after his Miami victory, with philanthropist Bill Gates.
Meanwhile, the ‘Andy Murray Live’ event scheduled for November had sold out its 10,800 tickets, so despite being unable to play a single match after Wimbledon, and still with a pronounced limp, Murray still went ahead with the show.
The scheduling was far from perfect in other ways too. Federer had flown to Glasgow in the middle of his ATP Finals preparations in London, and was flying back the same night.
Then it was revealed that Murray’s wife had just given birth to their second daughter. Even the most organised players can’t get it right all the time.
But judging from Federer’s revelation this week about MfA6, he was already on the case with Nadal for one of his most ambitious yet. It will take place on 7 February at the Cape Town Stadium, South Africa, where the two men will attempt to set a world record for the most attendees at a tennis match. The stadium has a capacity of 50,000.
And the destination fulfils a particular dream for Federer, who told me back in Zurich two years ago, of his hopes to take a fundraiser to the birthplace of his mother.
“Yes, I still have family there, but unfortunately I don’t go enough. Thing is, it’s not just around the corner. And I miss it, to be quite honest—and when I do return, it’s a wonderful feeling because…”
He paused for a moment…
“You know, it reminds me a lot of my childhood. On vacation, we used to go always in the summer time, we had six weeks off, and we used to always go. So in a way, I miss it, but at the same time, look, I’m trying as hard as I can to get there, and trying to handle the family, trying to handle the tour. It’s busy…”
And had he, I asked, managed to take his children to see any of his Foundation’s projects?
“No, not yet. I wanted to take the girls [who were then almost eight years old], and then the boys were born—and that called a halt to that idea. But the boys are growing, and hopefully we can go in a couple of years.”
That couple of years is up, and true to his word, this will be a family trip—as he continued to explain at Wimbledon this weekend:
“For me, it’s a huge priority. It’s always one thing I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to play in South Africa. I’ve hardly played tennis because I’ve barely been on vacation to South Africa. So for me to play there now, it’s a proper thrill.
“My dream has been reached to have a match there with Rafa in that country. It’s going to be great. Can’t wait for it to come around. I’m sure it’s going to be very emotional for me.
“Obviously will take the family. Looking forward to do also a trip to one of the projects while I’m down there. Love to do a safari, as well. We’ll just have to see what I can fit in, depending on the Australian Open, as well.”
Ah, that tennis calendar, the unrelenting tour around the globe, the battle to win titles, and to stay fit and healthy. The first Major of the year in Melbourne ends on 2 February, and Cape Town, in the European time-zone, is eight hours behind Australia, and a 13-hour plus flight away. If Federer or Nadal should be involved in the final, recovery time will be short.
But as Federer added, with a shrug of the shoulders:
“Yeah, I mean, it’s not easy. But you know how it is in life: when something is a priority, you find time.”
Last spring, Federer followed victory at the Australian Open with a last-minute decision to play Rotterdam when the No1 ranking came within reach. Having achieved that, he made the final in Indian Wells, fitted in a trip to Monte-Carlo to pick up two Laureus Awards, made a detour to San Jose for MfA5, and then a 24-hour hop to Chicago to launch the Laver Cup.
Not much time for anything else, one might think. Yet asked in Rotterdam whether he would be able to visit Africa to see the work of his Foundation, he told me:
“Yes, I’m planning to go there probably after Miami, I’m planning to do a trip to Zambia.”
And sure enough, he did.
So get ready, South Africa: A couple of tennis players have cleared their schedules for a few days next February, and it will take something pretty momentous to stop them.
· The last 15 years have seen the establishment of 18 programmes to support early years education in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Switzerland.
· So far, $44 million have been invested in the programmes.
· The Match for Africa (MfA) series has raised over $10 million.
o MfA1 vs Nadal, Zurich, plus reciprocal event in Madrid played on consecutive days, December 2010
o MfA2 vs Stan Wawrinka, Zurich December 2014
o MfA3 vs Murray, Zurich, April 2017, plus reciprocal event, Glasgow, November 2017
o MfA4 vs John Isner, plus doubles with Bill Gates, Seattle, April 2017
o MfA5 vs Jack Sock, plus doubles with Bill Gates, San Jose, March 2018
o MfA6 vs Nadal, plus doubles with Bill Gates, Cape Town, February 2020
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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