The first question I asked Roger Federer at a press conference was at Indian Wells in 2008. Federer was carrying a 200-plus-week streak at ATP No. 1 into the event, but he had lost to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals in January and been upset by Andy Murray in Dubai in his first match after revealing he’d gone through mononucleosis in the first months of the year.
I was struck by his intensity as he answered questions, and by his level of concentration. He answered a lot of questions about his recent illness, his level of fitness, and his rivals, both established (Nadal) or up and coming (Djokovic and Murray).
Fast forward over 10 years, and Federer came into press at the Western & Southern Open in a dark blue Uniqlo tennis shirt after opening his summer hardcourt season with a straight-set win over Peter Gojowczyk (ATP No. 47).
Brad Gilbert on Twitter had called the match a light shootaround for Federer, but from the stands it hadn’t felt that way. Gojowczyk hit several first serves in the high 120s and varied his direction well. He also hugged the baseline, hit attacking first- and second-serve returns, and forced Federer to save a couple of break points in Federer’s first service game. Both players looked for opportunities to take time away from their opponent, and on a different night one of five break points for Gojowczyk might have been converted; the match might have gotten more complicated.
But this was not that night, and the Federer on stage in front of press in Mason, Ohio, was a lot more relaxed than his predecessor a decade ago. Some of this, I think, comes from 10 additional years of using English with press and sponsors: You can watch the evolution of Federer’s fluency in the language from early YouTube interviews through early dominant years to the present day. In 2008 he was having to think about how to answer the right way; in 2018, the focus is the nuance in the answer.
I have sat in on a number of press conferences in which Federer was asked questions about everything except tennis, and Tuesday a couple of questions about how nice it is to be in Mason fit right in. However, the last question got Federer talking about men’s tennis over the generations – as you know, something of an interest of mine:
Q.You have spoken about your rivalry and even friendship with Rafa and really how you made each other better over the course of time you have played. It appears that there is a new group kind of forming with Medvedev and Shapovalov and Zverev, Tsitsipas, several others. Do you sort of see that as well, and that there is a similar dynamic of that group possibly coming up together and sort of having another magical era?
ROGER FEDERER: I mean, look, Rafa’s era was extremely strong. You know, the amount of tournaments — did he win like 20 events by the time he was 19? So just give you a little bit something to think about there, how good he was, you know. Probably the best teenager we have ever seen in the game besides Björn Borg.
We are talking extremely high level. These guys unfortunately or fortunately are not; otherwise maybe I would not be ranked where I would be ranked right now. But what’s nice about this generation that’s coming up right now is that there is a bunch of them, and I think that’s, when I came up, also we had a lot of good players with Safin, Hewitt, Roddick, Ferrer, myself, Kiefer, Haas, Kiefer, you name it, Guga, there was a bunch of sort of very strong players, and you didn’t want to be the last guy, you know. Okay, preferably first but not the tenth guy.
And I think that helps that group of guys to not want to be that guy. So I think on that weekly basis they push each other. That’s what you see now. They make maybe faster improvements than if there was only three, because then three is, like, well, I’m the third best. Even though you’re the last, I’m still the third best, which is not bad.
I think it fuels the hunger to succeed, and that’s why it’s nice to see Tsitsipas or Shapo or other guys doing, you know, great, very big moves in the rankings, great results, slowly winning titles, going deep in 1000s, going deeper in hopefully slams, as well, because we need that on the tour. We cannot just have older guys on tour all the time.
We need that new story time and time again. I love seeing especially teenagers break through, because, I don’t know, it’s like the dream coming true, and I like to see how they react to that and what they say about it, because I saw a lot of guys come through and it was always super exciting, seeing them doing it.
He was also asked about the recent Uniqlo deal, and whether that changed his incentives to possibly play Davis Cup and ensure qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Federer said that hadn’t come up:
Well, what can I say? Well, No. 1, they never mentioned the Olympics, it being the No. 1 decision for them to sign with me, which has been great. It was more the person than the player, actually, which I thought was a major compliment to me, you know. I think it was also my team, my wife, my parents were extremely proud that it was more the person than the player, and they never mentioned the Olympics.
I don’t exactly know the rules about the Olympics, to be honest. So that’s how far away I have been, because I just don’t know if I’m still going to be playing. But you’re right; I should be more informed about it, but I just haven’t.
I don’t know what it takes. I don’t know what the ramifications are. I have to figure it out. I don’t think I will change my schedule regardless of what happens in Orlando. My career, my body is too important, you know. If I play Tokyo, great. If I don’t, I don’t. It’s not like the first Olympics you want to really be part of. I just haven’t thought that far.
But if I get a chance to ask a question, I typically want to get a deeper insight into a technical aspect of Federer’s game, or about the match itself – what it was like to play, what kind of adjustments the players were making that most people can’t see. Here’s our exchange:
Q.Could you contrast the first and the second sets today? So the first set, as you say, he was taking big cuts at the ball, playing quite close to the baseline, couple of games where he had several break points? Second set it felt like you were a bit more in control on your own serve, pushing him on his service games? Can you talk about the way the two sets played out?
ROGER FEDERER: I mean, I think you analyzed it well. I think he had some chances in that first set. I could have been broken, because, look, it’s the first round. If I don’t maybe get service winners or he gets one chance to kind of go for a forehand or a backhand, you know, maybe you can’t just dig your way out of trouble here so easily in Cincy.
It’s a dangerous situation to be facing break point early in a tournament when you just don’t know the conditions quite that well yet, you know, and you’re maybe a bit afraid to go super close to the lines because you’re not having got five matches under your belt yet.
So for that reason I was happy to get out of those games and sort of protect my lead. I think the second set maybe I started the games a bit better, had less, you know, little unforced errors and, you know, maybe also start to feel little better rhythm on my serve. But I think what I could be very happy about is I kept on pressing myself as well even on the return games when it was frustrating at times for him and me. There is a lot of games where you feel like, oh, which side should I pick on the return, and bang, there is another ace or another service winner. That can frustrate you and then you start to play safe over time.
I didn’t allow that to happen. I kept going forward, and I think that’s why I ended up also feeling good at the end to also serve it out really nicely with a couple of aces in the last service game.
Ten years ago I wasn’t sure I’d have the moxie to stick my hand up and ask Federer a question. Tuesday, he told me I’d analyzed his match well. Maybe we’re both making progress.