David Remnick: For anyone who cares about the sport of tennis, it's been a rough couple of weeks. Two of the all-time greats have retired, leaving a hole in the game the size of I don't know what. Serena Williams has played what's likely her last tournament, the US Open, and Roger Federer is playing his last match at a tournament in London. When I talked with Federer a few years ago, he was 38 and already contemplating what his exit would look like, but he was still playing like a champion at that time. He spent 310 weeks ranked number one in the world and won a staggering 20 Grand Slam singles titles.
Watching him was to watch a magician. Over a long career, he demonstrated an unmatchable court intelligence and temperament. I spoke with Roger Federer in our studio in 2019 when he was here for the US Open. Some fans may not know that when you were a kid, you had a pretty volcanic temper on the court and you willed that away. When you watched John McEnroe play or now Nick Kyrgios or somebody like that, you see them lose it on the court, how do you relate to that kind of temperament on the court, which is so alien to you?
Roger Federer: I laugh about it because I think it's actually good. It's good that guys are showing their temper. I can totally relate to it because that's how I felt when I was younger and it's nice to see it still exists. I'm also [crosstalk] more like this--
David Remnick: [chuckles] You used to smash rackets.
Roger Federer: I used to smash rackets, throw rackets, but very clever, so I wouldn't break the racket. I would throw it into the fence or I would throw it over the fence or into the tree or I don't know what I would do, but not onto the ground where I would break and I would have to explain myself to my parents and my sponsor maybe and ask for another racket because I smashed it. I don't know. I understand that people get upset because it happens to me still in practice nowadays.
When nobody's watching, I get super frustrated as well sometimes because tennis is just a sport where you're going to make mistakes. I don't care who you are. They just happen. I just didn't want to be that kind of player with that attitude because I just felt like so drained. Once, I was midway through a tournament. I was so tired from getting upset from shouting, commentating, every ball I missed. For the sake of winning, I changed my attitude. I think basically that's what I did.
David Remnick: Athletes who have a long career change. Muhammad Ali, when he started off as a professional fighter was just unbelievably fast. He had the speed of a lightweight and the power of a heavyweight. Later on, he changed his tactics. He became more of a-- he paced himself differently. As a tennis player and somebody who's 38, what is it that you cannot do anymore? What have you had to give up?
Roger Federer: For me, it's been not sad, but a bit unfortunate. I had to give up, in my spare time, going to do other sports. When I was younger, I remember I used to go play squash with my friends for hours after a game, or I would go play ping pong even before a match, or I used to go skiing after the Australian Open back in Switzerland. All of a sudden, you're like, "Well, maybe I should stop that just because I don't want to end my career that way. I don't want to break my knee." Then, you give it up and actually you realize, "Well, I can find something else that's a lot of fun," because you organize your life differently.
All of a sudden, you have children. Instead of going, I don't know, where we're going to play squash? Now, you maybe go run around in the park and play hide and seek and play catch. Also, I don't know, it becomes a totally different life that you're living, but I do miss the years where I was a teenager, too. I just did anything just because I could and I was still trying to understand what does professionalism really mean.
David Remnick: I noticed sometimes at a tournament you'll drop a set and pretty decisively in the very beginning. You're almost getting warmed up and you start to think, "Well, maybe the difference between Federer and this other guy is playing is not so significant." Then, the tide just completely turns, which leads me to think that maybe the biggest difference between somebody who's at your level or Djokovic's level or Nadal's, and then the next layer down is more mental than physical. Do you see that that's the case?
Roger Federer: Not so much, to be honest, I think actually margins are much slimmer than people think they are. If you win 53% or 55% of the points, you are winning the match, and actually dominating if you're winning %55 or 60% of the points played. If I'd ask you now, "How much do you think I win of all the points played?", you would think maybe 70%, if you're winning 6-4, 6-3, but actually it's much less than that.
I think what you want to try to create as a player is that you're not playing at the limit of things, that you base is so high, that you can always rely on it. That you have several strengths in your game, that if one also goes away, that you still can absorb it with a different shot, let's say. I think that's what separates the absolute great and the best of our game to the other players, is that we can rely on several things to keep us alive in a match.
David Remnick: What drives your obsession for tennis right now? Is it records? Do you need the thrill of winning a tournament over and over again? Is it money? What is it?
Roger Federer: Sometimes the motivation can be records. Sometimes it is beating the new generation. Sometimes it is proving to myself that I can do it again. Just in my heart, I just like playing tennis. It may be practice or matches, I like being out there. As long as I'm really enjoying myself and I feel that way, I think it's nice to keep on playing and really squeezing that last drop of lemon out of it, and not leaving the game of tennis feeling, "I could have or should have stayed longer on the tour because I feel like I've missed out."
David Remnick: Now, when you're playing, you've got a life of activity and busy-ness and upheaval and attention and press and all the rest. Then, when you stop, you stop. When you think ahead to that point, whatever it is, when you're 40, when you're 45, God knows, what will life be like, and are you looking forward to that?
Roger Federer: It will be different [laughs]. It will be different, for sure. I don't think I will have a major struggle being away from the game of tennis that I love so much, because I feel like I was able to keep really great friendships throughout my career. I think that's going to catch me in a nice way, coming back to a more normal life, a more structured life. I think I'd be in business in some shape or form. I hope to be in tennis also, just at least a little bit.
I could see myself in a mentoring role. I don't see myself commentating or coaching per se, but helping and giving tips and advice. Totally, I can see that. Philanthropy, of course. My foundation is super important to me. I know I will be doing that in the future. I know I will be living in Switzerland, my home where all my friends are. I love my country so much.
David Remnick: Now, David Foster Wallace, we remember best as a novelist, also wrote a lot about tennis and he was a big tennis player and he was a fan of yours, and that's putting it lightly. In a piece in the New York Times, he said that watching you play tennis was like a religious experience, and that on the court that you looked like, and I'm quoting here, "A creature whose body is both flesh and somehow light." How do you respond when somebody writes something like that about you? Is it thrilling or embarrassing or what?
Roger Federer: A bit embarrassing. I remember the interview with him and I walked away from the interview thinking like, "I don't know if this piece is going to be a most incredible piece or the worst piece." It was really hard to tell, and he wrote this most unbelievable piece about me that almost got me definitely a bit embarrassed, because at the end of the day I'm just a tennis player. I know that tennis in the theater, the feeling we have. We can hear a pin drop.
It can be quite a magical feeling for somebody who's not a tennis player. Even for us, it's a great reminder sometimes playing in these great arenas around the world, what people think and feel watching sports. I get it, too, because I'm also a sports fan and I also watch it and I get maybe more nervous watching other sports than actually playing it myself.
David Remnick: Roger Federer. We spoke in 2019. This weekend's Laver Cup in London will be his final tournament.
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