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He did what little boys do when faced with something huge and dark: He ran. He rushed out into the warm Toronto night; he was alone and the street was unfamiliar, and there were no taxis anywhere and he had to find someone to explain how this nightmare could've happened, but ... where was his hotel? Where were the cabs? He ran and ran, past storefronts and doors and lights. No, he thought. He ran through the strange city, gasping, trying not to believe what he'd just heard. God, no.... � He had been in a bar. It was near midnight. His cellphone rang, but he ignored it, thinking, What does he want now? It rang again, he ignored it again. Why? Because he was 20 and had lived half his life being told he was special, and he had become rich too early; because Roger Federer was a boy still. He didn't want to deal with responsibility that August night. He didn't want to hear his coach, Peter Lundgren, telling him to get some sleep, or think about the next day's doubles match or about how great he was supposed to be. Hadn't he already bombed out in his singles match three days before? He lifted his glass. He didn't have to answer if he didn't want to.
Federer had, by then, shed his more brattish ways. He didn't weep during matches anymore, or throw rackets or scream so loudly after mistakes that even his father, Robert, would yell down from the stands, "Can you please just stop?" Roger was years past the point of howling back at his dad, "Go have a drink and leave me alone!" embarrassing the man to the point that father and son would make the long drive home in silence, the trip ending once with Robert shoving his son's face into a snowbank. But it still took Roger a half hour to stop crying in the locker room after losses, and he still flung rackets in practice. When going to sleep, he often needed to lie on his stomach and slam his face over and over into the pillow--"head-banging," he called it--searching like a troubled child for the rhythm that would send him into slumber.
He was soft. Everyone knew it. The year before, at Wimbledon in 2001, Federer seemed to make his long-predicted breakthrough when he snapped Pete Sampras's 31-match winning streak there, but he lost in the next round. His game could be breathtaking, and that hurt him. He got lost in trying to play beautifully, to create astonishing points, and anytime he climbed into the cage with someone who could stretch a match to the place where talent and beauty aren't enough, he was in trouble. He won minor titles but lost too early, too often, on the game's biggest stages. By the summer of '02, Federer had cracked the top 10 but cemented a reputation. "The word on me was, Mentally he's not the strongest," Federer says. "People would hang on, thinking, If the match goes on over two hours, I will get him."
Some people are middle-aged at 30; some remain children forever. Here was Roger Federer on Aug. 1, 2002: callow and unfinished. His cellphone rang, and he didn't answer. He checked his messages, though, then called his coach at last. That's when Lundgren told him: There'd been a car crash. Federer's mentor, the 37year-old man who had traveled with him for years, who had shaped him more than anyone into the player and person he'd become, who was more brother than coach, was dead. He had been en route to a safari, a trip Federer had long pushed him to take. Guilt coursed through Federer like poison. The cabs had vanished and Federer ran a mile, maybe more, searching for a ride back to his hotel. "I was going crazy," he says. "It was horrible."
Back at the hotel he went from being the recipient of bad news to the bearer of it, sobbing as he called friends. He was, as someone who spoke to him that night says, "destroyed. You cannot describe how he was at that moment: You had to hear it, feel it."
Now experience and age came together for Federer, like hands of a clock lining up at midnight. How many of us can point to the moment they crossed into adulthood? When his friend's body arrived in Federer's hometown of Basel, Switzerland, a week later, Federer had to grow up. It was his birthday. He was 21.
On a rainy afternoon in October, Roger Federer strolled to the dais in the council chamber at Basel's city hall, taking both the applause and the setting easily in stride. Paintings depicting scenes from Swiss history covered the ceiling. The benches were only half-filled with officials and journalists, most wearing jackets and tightly knotted ties, and from the wood-paneled walls and the middle-aged men rose the scent of order, history, law and money. Ostensibly, all had come for the official draw of the 2004 Swiss indoor tournament set to open in Basel the next day, but it was more a celebration of the city's favorite son. For the first time, Federer had come home as the No. 1 player in the world, the first Swiss man to reach that height and--unlike his often mouthy compatriot Martina Hingis--now seemingly incapable of making the Swiss establishment cringe.
The old like Federer. He plays a classic game, never upbraids umpires or linespeople and, though he spent 2004 on one of the most spectacular rolls in tennis history, shows little sign of conceit. After being named the tour's most popular player, Federer thanked everyone and finished with a catchphrase prized by grandmothers the world over: "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."
It's no wonder that Basel tournament president Roger Brennwald, noticing Federer posing for a photographer before the oversized draw sheet, bolted in mid-sentence and darted across the room to throw an arm around his neck. Ten years ago Federer had been a ball boy at this tournament, and his mother had made name tags in the press office. This all fits nicely with Basel's homey self-image; the town sits just minutes from both the French and the German borders, and in his multilingual openness, Federer is, as provincial president J�rg Schild puts it, "typically Basel."
"Roger's easy," Brennwald said. "We are down-to-earth people. In Zurich they are a little ..."--and here he lifted his nose in the air--"... like the French. Basel is not like that. You can talk to Roger like a simple man on the street."