Getting to know Roger
Off the court, the world No. 1 is weirdly down to earth
Posted: Tuesday January 22, 2008 10:56AM; Updated: Tuesday January 22, 2008 11:28AM
MELBOURNE, Australia -- I snuck out to the indoor practice facility at Melbourne Park Tuesday during a break in my commentating responsibilities for the Tennis Channel when, of all people, Roger Federer was finishing up on my court. Typically, the greatest player of all-time was using his off-day to hit tennis balls.
But unlike most superstar players, he was without the normal entourage of coaches, hitting partners, publicists and agents. Federer isn't traveling with a coach, either, and on Tuesday was relying on Frenchman Arnaud Clément -- still competing here in doubles -- to prepare him for his quarterfinal clash with James Blake on Wednesday.
But today, Federer was his usual relaxed self, and my practice partner, two-time Australian Open champion Jim Courier (who is Down Under commentating for local TV), and I were laughing at the lack of stress Roger exudes, even at the height of Grand Slam competition.
Federer and I ended up congregating at the net post and spoke for about 10 minutes on topics ranging from his affinity to vacationing in the Maldives, the current Rolex watch he's sporting and his host of exhibition matches with the guy whose all-time Slam-victory record he will surely overtake, Pete Sampras.
The one topic we didn't discuss was his quest for his third straight (and fourth total) Australian Open title. That's what's so great about Roger: his ability to compartmentalize tennis into the specific time frame from when a match starts until it ends.
While watching him finish his practice, Courier and I both marveled at not only the ease in which he plays but also the ease in which he simply exists. Federer is seemingly impervious to the pressure surrounding Grand Slam competition.
When I pressed on how he felt after his marathon third-round encounter against Janko Tipsarevic, he seemed genuine: "It's nice for the crowd to see me pushed so far in the early rounds." And with a wry smile he added, "Plus, I got to improve my fifth-set record."
On the quarterfinal match I had just finished commentating, a straight-set victory by Rafael Nadal over Jarkko Nieminen, he said, "It's nearly impossible to beat Rafa unless you get free points on your serve, and since Nieminen doesn't get a lot of them, I never thought he had a chance to upset him. In Grand Slams, there is a big difference between winning one set and a match, especially against Rafa."
But Federer really lit up when the topic turned to Sampras. He seemed to have had a great time traveling around Asia for their three matches last fall with his former idol. "It seems like he has relaxed a lot since his playing days," Roger noted. "It was great spending some time with him, and he still plays unbelievably well. I couldn't read his serve. The last match in Macau, the court was so fast that it was impossible to break him.
"I'm really looking forward to playing him at Madison Square Garden," Sampras said of their upcoming rematch in March. "I hear they have already sold out all 15,000 tickets! He is so difficult to play against because he doesn't give you any rhythm. He got better and better as the matches went on. I am looking forward to extracting a little revenge in New York -- I have to win!"
Whenever I see Roger we always trade information on our vacation spots, too -- I favor Hawaii, he's partial to the Maldives. "I always try a different resort when I go there," he said. "I love it there. It's the perfect place to relax and unwind after a long year."
When I was looking for a Rolex watch last summer, Roger spent 10 minutes giving me recommendations and model numbers to help my search. (Full disclosure: Federer is a paid Rolex endorser.) So naturally, we discussed the one on which I settled and the latest masterpiece on his wrist (he gets his for free as part of his sponsorship -- I don't have that luxury!)
This guy is too good to be true. Federer is the rare superstar who doesn't define himself by his talent, but still feels a constant responsibility and gratitude for it. For 10 minutes on Tuesday, I was as close to perfection as I will ever get.
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob will be reporting periodically from the Australian Open.