US Open 2005. Roger Federer takes on Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, ranked 76e world, in the second round. Everyone expects a walk in the park for the Swiss, undisputed world number one. But the “magician”, as Pete Sampras nicknamed him, delighted the New York public that evening by offering fierce resistance to the boss of the circuit (victory 7-5, 7-5, 7-6 for Federer). “Of the eleven games played against him, I remember two, my defeat in New York in 2005 and my victory in Madrid in 2002. [7-5, 6-3] », said Santoro, as the Swiss bid farewell to the circuit.
How to sum up the singularity of Roger Federer?
He had an extremely rare, unique elegance, he was by far the most elegant on a tennis court. It felt like a dancer flying across the court, barely touching the ground, moving extremely well, which is very rare in a sport as violent as tennis. You can’t find a « dirty » photo of Roger Federer, the bust is always straight, balanced, even in full effort it seems that the shirt is well put on.
Was it innate or worked?
On the videos of him as a kid, he already had a rather singular ease and carriage of his head, it was a bit of his trademark. Afterwards, it was worked on, developed. The fact that he also had a dissociation between the upper and lower body, that made him a bit unique. When you saw him moving, it almost looked like there were two people.
We always tried to compare him to Rafa [Nadal] Where Novak [Djokovic], but Federer belongs to a category where he will remain alone, he is the world champion of elegance in all categories.
Today, if we were to list the most famous people on the planet, Federer would be very high and probably ahead of all his competitors. In relation to this style, to the fact that it touches a lot of people, enthusiasts of our sport, but also young people, less young people, who do not follow tennis. Today, Federer is a brand.
He was a « globalized » player, who brought tennis into another economic dimension…
It’s not the first, there was Björn Borg in the 1980s, and if we made a good living afterwards, it’s thanks to him. There have been [André] Agassi then, which had an impact in terms of sponsorship. And so, indeed, Federer. Above all, it is the only one which was « inhabited » by the integrality [des routines] of the profession, where you have to train a lot, chain tournaments, travel, meet fans, respond to a multitude of media, etc. It is very rare and it was sincere with him. You just had to see how happy he was to be in a locker room, at the hotel, in training…
His charisma was impressive, he knew perfectly well what he represented in sport and in the world, but he had the freshness of a teenager.
Among his technical palette, what impressed you the most?
The placement of the feet, the striking platforms, always positioned in front, a sliced backhand that gave the impression that he was holding the racquet with two fingers, a volley that was always perfect… The general public realized this, so we, in the locker room, we appreciated it a thousand times more. We can try to imitate him for a few minutes in training, but otherwise it’s inimitable.
“If I had to go to clubs to meet children, I would show them videos of Federer”
Today, if I had to go to clubs to meet children, I would show them videos of Federer, but especially those of a David Ferrer [ex-n° 3 mondial], by a Roberto Bautista Agut [ex-n° 9] or a Daniil Medvedev [actuel n° 4 mondial], players who were much more laborious, but who nevertheless succeeded. Federer is discouraging somewhere.
Wasn’t there a desire among some players to imitate him and to restrain themselves emotionally, as he had done, at the risk of making the locker room too sanitized?
I find this comment exaggerated, there are still strong characters in the locker room. Afterwards, Federer never communicated on this, but I think he was doing important mental work, that he was followed and supported in order to be the most efficient on this side as well. But when you saw the emotion in his eyes after a match point, you realized that, even if he didn’t show anything, inside he was a pressure cooker.
Which moments of his career will you particularly keep in mind?
I remember his victory at Roland-Garros in 2009, because there weren’t many shooting windows. [au regard de la domination de Rafael Nadal] and that it had to be seized that year. I also remember memorable finals at Wimbledon, especially against Andy Roddick [en 2009, remportée par le Suisse 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14]and against Nadal [surtout celle de 2008, gagnée par l’Espagnol 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7].
His masterpiece, or maybe the time he wowed me the most, was against Nadal in 2017 in Melbourne. He is 36 years old, he is coming back from injury and, for his first tournament, he imposes himself and recovers the place of world number one a month later… It was monumental. No one would have put a coin on him, probably he didn’t believe it either.
He seems to have been the first to have programmed his longevity…
He has always managed his calendar to last, Pierre Paganini [son préparateur physique] is a monster in its field. There are three key people in his career: Mirka [sa femme]Paganini and Severin Lüthi [son co-entraîneur]. Roger has often worked with two coaches, Séverin has always remained.
This internal organization nevertheless had an extremely secret aspect…
Every time someone talks about Roger, it gets people talking. Everyone wants to know how they live, what they eat, where they sleep and go on vacation. Inevitably, the people who are in his bubble have, contractually, certain obligations. But all this is in everyone’s interest, to protect him. Today, he’s perhaps the only one among the sport’s biggest stars with zero gray areas or slippages.