The following is the Prologue for the book “THE ROGER FEDERER STORY, QUEST FOR PERFECTION” ($24.95, New Chapter Press, www.rogerfedererbook.com) written by Swiss tennis journalist Rene Stauffer, which documents Stauffer’s “Encounter with a 15-year-old” who would go on to become who many consider the greatest tennis player of all-time. THE ROGER FEDERER STORY, QUEST FOR PERFECTION makes for an ideal gift for the Holidays. To order the book, go to www.tennistomes.com.
It was September 11, 1996. I was on assignment for the Tages-Anzeiger and was supposed to write a story about the World Youth Cup, a sort of Davis Cup for juniors that was being played in Zurich, the location of our editorial office. I was skeptical. A story about a team tournament involving obscure 15 and 16-year-old tennis players-who would be interested in that? I viewed this assignment as a tiresome task, thanks to the Swiss Tennis Federation since they had charitably taken on the tournament for its 100-year anniversary. No, this certainly would not be an interesting assignment.
On this day, I met Roger Federer for the first time. He played on a far away court surrounded by wire mesh at a tennis and recreation facility called Guggach. Officials from the Swiss Tennis Federation told me that Federer was a pretty good player and that there was little to criticize except that he was sometimes very temperamental. He just turned 15 and was actually too young for this tournament, but his credentials were impressive-he had already won five Swiss national junior championship titles, was the best Swiss player in the 16-and-under age bracket and was already ranked No. 88 nationally.
On this day, he played against an Italian named Nohuel Fracassi, who since this encounter with Federer, I never heard from again. Fracassi was more than a year older, bigger and stronger than Federer and he had already won the first set when I arrived. The mood was reminiscent of an insignificant club tournament. There were three or four spectators, a referee and no ball boys. The players fetched the balls themselves. However, I was instantly fascinated by Federer’s elegant style. I had already seen some players come and go in my fifteen years as a tennis journalist but it appeared to me that an extraordinary talent was coming of age here in front of me. He effortlessly put spins on balls so that the Italian-even on this slow clay court-would often just watch the ball fly past him for winners. With hardly a sound, he stroked winning shots from his black racquet, moved fast and gracefully. His strokes were harmonious and technically brilliant.
His tactics were also quite unusual. There were no similarities to the safe and consistent “Swedish School” of baseline tennis that was very common back then and usually resulted in promised success on clay courts. Federer would have nothing of that. He looked to end points quickly at every opportunity. He appeared to have mastered every stroke, which was quite unusual for juniors in his age group. He dominated with his serve and his forehand, but his powerful one-handed backhand and the occasional volley also looked like something taken from a tennis textbook.
Roger Federer was a diamond in the rough, no doubt. I was astonished and wondered why nobody had yet seen him or written about him. Was it perhaps because the media had so often prematurely written in superlatives about talented young players only to discover later that they did not measure up to the task of international tennis? Not every Swiss tennis player could be a new Heinz Günthardt, Jakob Hlasek or a Marc Rosset, perhaps the three best Swiss men’s players ever. Perhaps because hardly anybody was scouting for new talent in Switzerland since our little country was already over-proportionately well-represented in professional tennis with Rosset, the 1992 Olympic champion, and the up-and-coming 15-year-old Martina Hingis, already a Wimbledon doubles champion and a semifinalist in singles at the US Open.
But perhaps the reason was also that Federer’s athletic maturity stood in stark contrast to his behavior. He was a hot-head. On this September afternoon, his temper exploded even from the smallest mistakes. On several occasions, he threw his racquet across the court in anger and disgust. He constantly berated himself. “Duubel!” or “Idiot!” he exclaimed when one of his balls narrowly missed the line. He sometimes even criticized himself aloud when he actually won points but was dissatisfied with his stroke.
He didn’t seem to notice what was going on around him. It was only him, the ball, the racquet-and his fuming temper-nothing else. Being so high-strung, he had to fight more with himself than with his opponent across the net this day. This dual struggle pushed him to the limit and I assumed he would lose despite his technical superiority. I was wrong. Federer won the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
I found out later that Federer already won a hard-fought, three-set match the day before against a tenacious young Australian player by the name of Lleyton Hewitt, with Federer fighting off a match point to win by a 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 margin. This Federer-Hewitt match occurred in front of a crowd of 30 people who purchased tickets for the day-plus the four people who bought a tournament series ticket for all sessions. Nobody could have known that these two players would become two of the greatest players-both earning the No. 1 ranking and going on to compete on the greatest stages of the sport in packed
stadiums and in front of millions of television viewers around the world.
I wanted to know more about Federer and asked him for an interview. He surprised me once again as he sat across from me at a wooden table in the gym locker room. I feared that the young man would be reserved and taciturn in the presence of an unfamiliar reporter from a national newspaper and he would hardly be able to say anything useful or quotable. But this was not the case. Federer spoke flowingly and confidently with a mischievous smile. He explained that his idol was Pete Sampras and that he had been training for a year at the Swiss National Tennis Center at Ecublens on Lake Geneva. He
also said that he probably was among the 30 or 40 best in his age class in the world and that he wanted to become a top professional but still had to improve his game-and his attitude.
“I know that I can’t always complain and shout because that hurts me and makes me play worse,” he said. “I hardly forgive myself on any mistakes although they’re normal.” He looked in the distance and said almost to himself-”One should just be able to play a perfect game.”
Playing a perfect game-that’s what motivated him. He didn’t want to just defeat opponents and win trophies, even if he liked the idea of becoming rich and famous or both, as he admitted. For him, instinctively, the journey was the reward and the journey involved hitting and placing balls with his racquet as perfectly as possible. He seemed to be obsessed with this, which would explain why he could become frustrated even after winning points. He didn’t want to dominate his opponent in this rectangle with the net that fascinated him-he wanted to dominate the ball that he both hated and loved.
Federer had great expectations-too many at that time that he would have been able to achieve them. His emotions carried him away in this conflict between expectations and reality. He seemed to sense his great potential and that he was capable of doing great things-but he was not yet able to transform his talents into reality.
His unusual attitude towards perfection had a positive side effect in that he did not consider his opponents as rivals who wanted to rob the butter from his bread, as the sometimes reclusive Jimmy Connors used to say. His opponents were more companions on a common path. This attitude made him a popular and well-liked person in the locker room. He was social and someone you could joke around with. For Federer, tennis was not an individual sport with opponents who needed to be intimidated, but a common leisure activity with like-minded colleagues who, as part of a big team, were pursuing the same goal.
He became terribly annoyed at his own mistakes but he had the capacity to question things, to observe things from a distance and to put them in the correct perspective after his emotions had abated. He was also willing to admit weaknesses. “I don’t like to train and I also always play badly in training,” he casually observed during this interview. “I’m twice as good in the matches.”
This sentence surprised me as well. While many players choked under pressure, he apparently maintained a winning mentality. This strength that abounded in the most important matches and game situations really drove many opponents to distraction and enabled Federer to escape from apparently hopeless situations. It also helped Federer establish one of the most unbelievable records in sports history-24 consecutive victories in professional singles finals between July of 2003 and November of 2005-double the record held by John McEnroe and Björn Borg.
Federer’s triumphs at this World Youth Cup were in vain. The Swiss team, lacking a strong second singles player and an experienced doubles team, finished the tournament in defeat in 15th place. Roger Federer won but the Swiss lost-a scenario that was to repeat itself many times over years later at the actual Davis Cup. The hot-head nonetheless received a compliment from the coach of the Australian team at the World Youth Cup, Darren Cahill, the former US Open semifinalist, who was in charge of Lleyton Hewitt at the time. “He’s got everything he needs to succeed on tour later,” said Cahill.
I was able to return to the office with enough material for a nice story. It was to be my first about Roger Federer-but it would not be the last. The story’s title was “One Should Be Able To Play A Perfect Game.”