The King and His Court

Before Roger Federer became the champion that he is today, he was a lanky young journeyman who never thought of breaking records. Fresh off winning his 18 grand slam, he explains the change in mindset he had to become the GOAT.

by Jacs T. Sampayan

The year was 2009. Roger Federer was fresh off winning Roland Garros over Robin Soderling for a career grand slam, a feat only achieved by two other men at that point. (Federer’s nemesis Rafael Nadal went on to do the same a year later as would Serbian champion Novak Djokovic in 2016.) The Swiss world number one was on a high headed to London, poised to complete a rare European double of claiming both the French Open and Wimbledon as well as shattering Pete Sampras’s grand slam record.

Making history has become almost synonymous with the Swiss champion that it’s shocking to know that greatness wasn’t really on his mind. “Breaking records was never really important for me. My goals were very down to earth, very normal, hoping to be maybe be a top 100 player at some point, or a top 10,” claims the 35-year-old. “Eventually, I realized I could be the first Swiss to be world number one. That’s when I was reminded that everything that has not been done before, I could achieve it. And that’s what happened.

“So I embraced it and took inspiration and motivation out of rivalries, out of records that could be broken, out of tournaments that I loved playing.” He carried that mindset through that summer eight years ago, outlasting Andy Roddick in an epic five set final that saw him break the big serving American only in the final game. Much like how he has been throughout his prime, Federer’s resolve was so calm, so steely throughout the four-hour 17-minute contest, unfazed by the occasion nor his opponent’s high-powered arsenal; Roddick once remarked after their Wimbledon championship match five years prior that “I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got his tub.”

He lifted that trophy once again, his Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust II strapped on his wrist, a timepiece he has come to associate with the moment. “When I look at the watch, I remember that day very vividly. A lot of tennis legends were present. And when I walked out, they all came down the stairs to greet me and congratulate me for breaking the record,” he says. “Every time I put on my Rolex, it reminds me of those great moments.” That year remains one of the highlights of Federer’s life. Apart from his successes on court, he reached more milestones off of it. That same summer, his wife Mirka gave birth to twin girls, turning the multi-slam winner into a first time dad.

The highs have come few and far between for the Swiss champion in the past few years. Too many young and hungry players combined with the unrelenting demands of life on tour have taken a toll on Federer. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori rule the roost now; Federer wasn’t even seeded in the top 10 coming into this year’s Australian Open.

But that is why Federer’s win in Melbourne last month was particularly sweet for both his fans and admirer’s of the sport in general. That final against his old foe Nadal, another five setter, was an argument for never counting great players out, whatever the circumstance. It reminded everyone how champions have a way of summoning up magic from their fingertips despite the odds, the naysayers, and the years far removed from your peak.

For Federer, that reminder is tangible and ever present, strapped to wrist as he lifted a major trophy for the 18th time in his career, more than any man in history. “Every time I put on my Rolex, it reminds me of those great moments. It also reminds me that if you do not work hard, somebody else will, and they eventually will pass you,” says the record breaker and holder. “So you’ve got to be tough and even ruthless to some extent, but always be fair and play with style. I think that’s really important.”