Happy Birthday Roger Federer! The six-time Wimbledon champion – and new father – turns 28 Saturday, August 8 and will play his first tournament since his epic win over Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final from July 5 this week in Montreal. Rene Stauffer, the author of the acclaimed Federer biography “The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection” ($24.95, New Chapter Press, www.RogerFedererBook.com) takes a look at the time when Roger was only a glimmer in his parent’s eye and his very early years in this exclusive book excerpt entitled “From Kempton Park to Basel.”
The village of Berneck is situated in the northeastern corner of Switzerland in the St. Gall Rhine valley, where the Alpine foothills are kissed by the famed Foehn winds and the inhabitants speak a rough dialect of German. The people of this village feel a closer association to Austria and its Vorarlberg state—located just on the other side of the Rhine—than they do Switzerland’s major cities of Zurich, Bern or Geneva. A few kilometers to the north, the Rhine flows into Lake Constance, where the waters comprise the borders between Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Roger’s father, Robert, grew up in Berneck as son of a textile worker and a housewife. At the age of 20, he left the area and followed the course of the Rhine and arrived in Basel, a border city in the triangle between Switzerland, Germany and France and where the Rhine forms a knee joint and flows north out of the country. Basel is where some of the world’s most important chemical companies are headquartered and Robert Federer, a young chemical laboratory worker, found his first job at Ciba, one of the world’s leading chemical companies.
After four years in Basel, Robert Federer was seized by wanderlust, and in 1970, he decided to emigrate and pull up stakes from Switzerland. It was a coincidence that he chose South Africa, but also due to formalities. Among other things, he could get an emigration visa with relative ease in the country dominated by Apartheid. It was also a coincidence that he found a new job with the same employer he had in Switzerland, Ciba. The chemical company, along with several other foreign companies, was located in Kempton Park, an extended suburb of Johannesburg near the international airport.
It was in Kempton Park where he met Lynette Durand, who came to work for Ciba as a secretary. Afrikaan was the spoken language on her family’s farm—she had three siblings; her father was a foreman and her mother was a nurse—but Lynette went to an English school and her intention was to save money as quickly as possible and to travel to Europe. She preferred England, where her father was stationed during World War II.
Robert Federer is a modest and unpretentious man who usually remains in the background. He prefers to observe and listen quietly and then to steer things in the direction desired. He is small of stature with a prominent nose and he has a distinct mustache. He is athletic, strong, quick-witted, funny, cosmopolitan and easy-going. Nothing characterizes him better than his ringing laughter that draws his eyes into narrow slits and raises his bushy eyebrows. Despite his affability, he knows how to defend himself when crossed. He is realistic but decisive. A female portrait painter once described him as being “caustic, having the bite of a bear.”
Lynette, the charming 18-year-old secretary with the piercing eyes, instantly made a favorable impression on Robert Federer when he saw her in the company cafeteria in 1970. They met and eventually became a couple. Robert took Lynette to the Swiss Club in Johannesburg to introduce her to his new hobby—tennis. The young woman, who used to play field hockey, was instantly enthused about the sport and began to play regularly. The couple had a wonderful time in South Africa—Apartheid hardly affected them.
Robert Federer cannot really explain why they moved to Switzerland in 1973. “You had this feeling of being a migratory bird,” he said. Back in Basel, he often asked himself why they didn’t stay in Africa, especially because his consort admitted to having difficulty with the confines of Switzerland and the narrow mentality of its people. “But one learned quickly to adjust,” she said. The couple married and a daughter, Diana, was born in 1979. Twenty-months later, Lynette Federer then bore a son, on the morning of August 8, 1981 in Basel’s canton hospital. He was named Roger because it could also be pronounced easily in English. Roger’s parents, even in the first hours of his life, felt that one day it could be beneficial for their son to have a name that was easy to pronounce in English.
The name Federer was already familiar in Berneck before 1800, but it is actually an extremely uncommon clan name in Switzerland. The most famous Federer up to that point was Heinrich Federer, a priest turned poet who died in 1928. In 1966, on his 100th birthday, he was immortalized on a Swiss postage stamp.
In the 1970s, the Ciba Company that Robert and Lynette Federer continued to work for in Switzerland sponsored a tennis club in Allschwil, a suburb of Basel, and the Federer family soon became regular players. Lynette displayed a great talent for the sport with her greatest triumph coming when she was a member of the Swiss Inter-club senior championship team in 1995. She loved tennis so much that she soon became a junior tennis coach at the club. She later became involved in the tournament organization at the Swiss Indoors, the ATP tournament in Basel, working in the credential office.
Robert Federer was also a committed tennis enthusiast and was a regionally-ranked player. He and his wife would later more frequently hit the golf course, but at the time, tennis still came first. Lynette often took her son to the tennis courts. Young Roger was fascinated by balls at a very young age. “He wanted to play ball for hours on end—even at one-and-a-half years old,” his mother recollected. His skill was plainly apparent: He could hardly walk but he managed to catch larger balls. Little Roger hit his first tennis ball over the net at three-and-a-half years old. At four, he could already hit twenty or thirty balls in a row. “He was unbelievably coordinated,” his father gushed.
The Federer family was neither rich nor poor, just solid Swiss middle class. Roger grew up in a townhouse with a yard in a quiet neighborhood in Wasserhaus in Münchenstein, a suburb of Basel. Impulsive and ambitious, he was not an easy child. “Defeats were total disasters for him, even at board games,” his father remembered. He was “a nice guy” in general “but when he didn’t like something, he could get pretty aggressive.” Dice and game board pieces sometimes flew through the living room.
Even as a little boy, his mother said, he always did as he pleased and attempted to push limits, whether it involved teachers at school or his parents at home or with sports. “He was very vibrant, a bundle of energy, and was sometimes very difficult,” said Lynette. When forced to do something he didn’t like, Roger reacted strongly. When bored, he questioned it or ignored it. When his father gave him instruction on the tennis court, Roger would not even look at him.
Roger was a popular boy, always friendly, not arrogant, well-behaved—and very athletic. He tried skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding but it was sports that involved balls that especially fascinated him. He played soccer, handball, basketball, table tennis, tennis and, at home, he even played badminton over the neighbor’s fence. He always had a ball with him, even on the way to school. One of his idols was Michael Jordan of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. He was outdoors every free minute he could muster. Work in the classroom that required concentration and sitting still wasn’t his thing. He was not an ambitious student at school and his grades were mediocre.
Robert and Lynette were the ideal parents for a sports fanatic like Roger. They let him run free when he wanted to but didn’t force him. “He had to keep moving, otherwise he became unbearable,” Lynette said. She and her husband emphasized taking up various kinds of sports. They took him to a local soccer club called Concordia Basel at an early age so that he would learn to interact with teammates and become a team player.
His mother, however, declined giving her son tennis lessons. “I considered myself not to be competent enough and he would have just upset me anyway,” she said. “He was very playful. He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned a ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother.”
For hours, Roger hit tennis balls against a wall, a garage door, in his room against a wall or even against the cupboard in the house. Pictures and dishes were not safe and his sister’s room wasn’t spared either. “Things would sometimes break,” Roger admits today. Diana didn’t have an easy time with her brother and was forced to put up with the antics of her rambunctious younger brother. “He would always come around shouting when I was with my friends or he would pick up the receiver when I was on the phone,” Diana said. “He really was a little devil.”
As is the case for siblings of the highly-talented, it wasn’t easy for Diana to stand in her brother’s shadow. Whenever the family went out together, Roger became more and more frequently the center of attention. Lynette took her aside once: “Diana, it’s no different for you than for your mother,” she told her daughter. “Many people talk to me but the topic is always your brother.”
Diana, an aspiring nurse, only occasionally watched her brother’s matches. For example, at the 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai, she and her mother left the stadium in mid-match to go on a vacation to South Africa. Diana is proud of her brother but prefers not being in the limelight and doesn’t assiduously follow every detail of his career. For example, when she watched Roger play Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic at the Swiss Indoors in Basel in 2005, she had no idea that Berdych had surprisingly defeated her brother at the Athens Olympics one year earlier, dashing his dreams of an Olympic medal.