Peter Carter died young, but that wasn't the only reason his death felt cruel. The Swiss Davis Cup coach had just emerged from a wrenching period: He had been married just more than a year but had never taken a honeymoon because his wife, Sylvia, had learned she had Hodgkin's disease five weeks after their wedding. Their world revolved around doctors, chemotherapy, hair falling out in clumps, and Peter was there for all of it. Then, in the summer of '02, Sylvia's tests came back clean. Federer's mother is from South Africa, and he had always pushed Peter to go there, go on a safari, so Sylvia and Peter made their plan. "The trip was a celebration," says Bob Carter, Peter's father. "To celebrate her becoming well again."
It was Aug. 1, the day after Sylvia's birthday. Peter was riding in a Land Rover with a guide in Kruger National Park. Police say a tire may have blown out; the driver lost control, and the vehicle plunged off a bridge into a stream and overturned. Both men were killed instantly. Sylvia was in another car, riding with the other man's wife. "It just destroyed her," Vavrinec says of Sylvia. "It cannot get any worse. Her birthday is now a nightmare to her." Nothing compares with the loss of a spouse or a child; Federer knows that his grief pales in comparison. But he was green enough to gain something priceless from that tragedy: the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed. Not happiness, not love and not, certainly, anything as flimsy as tennis greatness.
Carter knew that. He grew up in rural Australia, a graceful serve-and-volleyer but slight; "a waif," says his coach Peter Smith. Carter had just two big moments: beating Pat Cash when Cash was the world's No. 1 junior and then, in 1982, ranked 756th, stunning 34th-ranked John Alexander. But every year brought a new injury, and at some tournaments he played in constant pain. There was only one reason he accomplished the little he did. "He was so tough," Smith says. Later, when Smith began coaching Lleyton Hewitt, he gave the tenacious blond boy the best compliment he could imagine: "You look like a little Peter Carter out there."
By then, though, Carter had moved to Switzerland, playing club-team tennis and coaching, and washed up at the Old Boys Tennis Club in Basel. He met Federer as a 10year-old, and already people were talking about Federer's touch--and his attitude. The Basel youth tennis scene then was like Bollettieri's-on-the-Rhine, highly competitive and highly strung; smashed rackets and screechy tirades made every tournament a trial. In one match Federer was beating his opponent so badly the boy started crying. On the changeover Roger told him not to be so hard on himself; things would turn around. Then the boy started winning, and Roger cried. Federer never screamed at anyone but himself, tormented by mistakes, poor judgment, his inability to stay in control. "Everybody tried to calm me down," Federer says. "But I told them it eats me up from the inside. I knew I was over the top, but I just had to get it out."
Carter coached Federer until he was 14. The two traveled together, "father and son stuff," as Smith puts it. Federer credits Carter with teaching him his peerless technique, his backhand, a professional attitude, politeness--in many ways, how to be a man. It didn't all take, not then anyway. After seeing Hewitt play in Europe, Carter called Smith and said, "I saw your boy today. Pretty good, but I think mine's a bit better." One thing bothered him, though. "He thought Roger didn't have Lleyton's mental toughness," Smith says.
Federer may have been soft, but he didn't lack will. At 13 he announced it was time to leave home and attend the Swiss national training center in Ecublens. He came home on weekends and cried every Sunday night on the way to the train. But he always went back. After joining the coaching staff at the new training center in Biel, Carter began coaching Federer again at 16, guiding his rise to world No. 1 junior. It wasn't easy. Federer's talent gave him so many options on each ball that it was almost paralyzing. "You learn one new language quicker than four new languages," says Pierre Paganini, Federer's longtime trainer. "He plays 10 languages on the court." Federer knew how good he was supposed to be; he heard what everyone said. "I really felt I had to please the crowd: to hit the most difficult shot," Federer says. "But it made me lose."
Lundgren, a former coach of onetime No. 1 Marcelo R�os, joined the staff at Biel and began coaching Federer on a limited basis in 1997. Two years later, when Federer joined the tour full time, he stunned everyone--including Carter--by choosing Lundgren as his coach. It made sense; Lundgren, a former top 25 player, had tour experience that Carter lacked. It also demonstrated that Federer possessed a ruthless objectivity about his career. But he also made sure to consult constantly with Carter, and after helping oust Jakob Hlasek as Switzerland's Davis Cup captain in 2001, Federer used his clout as the No. 1 Swiss player to install his old coach in Hlasek's place. It wasn't a simple task; in fact, it was a bit like making Nick Faldo the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. The Swiss Tennis Federation insisted that Carter, an Australian, couldn't officially assume the captaincy and sit on-court with the team until he had gained Swiss citizenship. But Federer didn't have to feel guilty anymore. Everyone had a place now.
Federer and Carter had one Davis Cup tie together, in February 2002. Federer beat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Russia, but Switzerland lost 3--2. Then came the summer, Federer's first-round losses in Paris and London and Toronto, the phone calls, his first funeral. "Did it change anything in me?" Federer says. "I was playing quite badly, but it put everything in perspective. I fought a lot, and I came out stronger."
Not instantly. Federer's game collapsed at first; he lost in the first round in Cincinnati and the fourth round at the U.S. Open. Then came a late-September Davis Cup tie with Morocco, on clay, in Casablanca, with the loser to be knocked out of the world group. Federer rose to the moment, avenging the loss at the French Open by beating Hicham Arazi in straight sets, pairing up with George Bastl to win the doubles, then beating Younes El-Aynaoui to win the tie single-handedly. His rampage continued deep into the 2003 season, 10 straight wins, and he won Wimbledon for the first time. Everyone around him says it: Carter's death gave Federer the inspiration he had always lacked. But he had soft spots still. Federer lost in the first round of the '03 French Open in straight sets to Luis Horna.
In September of that year Switzerland traveled to Melbourne for the Davis Cup semifinal against Australia. For the first time the two teams would play for the Peter Carter Memorial Trophy--awarded now at every Davis Cup meeting between the two nations. Bob Carter and his wife, Diana, and Peter Smith all came in from their houses near Adelaide. Federer won his first match on Friday but, with Switzerland down 2--1, needed to beat Hewitt on Sunday to keep the tie alive. He glided to an easy two-set lead, then to 5--3, 30--all in the third: two points from the win. Hewitt dropped a tricky return on the back of the line, and Federer swiped at it lamely, hoping for a call that never came. He had choked, and instantly knew it; when Federer looked up, his eyes were as wide and shiny as quarters. Hewitt came back, of course. He screamed, "Come on!" revved the crowd up, and clawed his way into his opponent's head. Federer buckled, went down 6--1 in the fifth and ran off the court sobbing.