Dubai: A leopard never forgets the fundamentals of a classic hunt — it exercises its primal instinct in the fullest manner possible. The kill, if it can be described in one word, can be characterised as elegant. The prey is tracked down and disposed off in the smoothest manner possible: with a modicum of fuss, maximum skill and panache that few other predators in the jungle can emulate.
Like the leopard, Roger Federer is held to a higher standard while fashioning his kills in the world of professional tennis. He is still too strong, too fast and too blessed with silken, predatory competencies to stumble. He comprehends the value of a win and appreciates it more than ever before.
In a period when the landscape in men’s tennis seems to be changing, since he unleashed his indomitable, stylish force on the Tour, Federer is still held accountable for every word spoken, every tweet posted, every quote offered, before and after games. There are other role models as well, some of whom are of equal stature to him, but the Swiss master’s identity is stronger than ever. It is because he offers a certain promise, a guarantee in whatever he does. This is why he remains a timeless favourite.
“Everybody has different opinions,” admitted Federer, explaining the halo over his head in an interview to Gulf News. “This may be your opinion now. I think that it could be because I have been in the game for so long, I have had this platform for so long. I have done a lot of talking because I have been asked a lot of questions as well. So maybe people attach a degree of importance to what I say.
“I give honest and thoughtful answers. I try the best to improve the standard of the game and ensure that it moves in the right direction. That has been a number one priority. Sometimes I suck everything out of the sport, but I also give time back to make sure that the Tour runs as well as it can. I aim to create a better platform for the future, because we are living out our dream anyway. So maybe that’s where I have a sentimental attachment with the people. There is also a bond between me and the previous generation, because of the classical way I play my tennis, my love for the history of the game. There are many reasons.”
The pressures of being Federer will never fade. It might be an affliction that he has been appointed to carry as long as he steps on to the courts to play a match. It fashions his majestic personality among the other megastars but, at the same time, keeps him modest. He is a one-man stimulus package designed to infuse life and relief into the ATP Tour. He embraces this responsibility and puts the balance into perspective.
“Maybe this is true,” he admitted. “You know, I have always managed to stay out of trouble, not because I have been trying to, but it’s just the way I live my life. Maybe these are values that people can relate to. I have a family today, while most of the top players do not, so that’s something. You can’t just make up a family. You have to plan: to be a certain age, because on the Tour it can be difficult to balance a life and career. You also need to have the right girlfriend – this is an advantage for me, but you would think that it makes competing at the top level more difficult. So I think I have a big demographic of people’s lives that I touch on so many levels. I try to be a good role model, one that can inspire. Many kids like me, but they also like the other top guys. There are other great characters today that are also great for the game. But I’ve been there and so I think I touch lives.”
The ultimate goal, however, is to serve up a delectable game of tennis. This is Federer’s factory, where he constantly toils to fix the nuts and bolts in the manufacturing of a polished product. His sublime abilities attract the casual fan and the tennis junkie. It keeps him relevant. This is where he is the Hollywood blockbuster with art-house appeal.
There needs to be a meaning, however, an ultimate goal to all this.
“It can’t just be restricted to playing as long as possible,” he admitted. “There needs to be accomplishments to go along with other priorities as well. I am here to continue achieving. It could be the rankings, winning tournaments, or improving as a player. So then you have all the little things that come into play; the rivalries, the new generation that is coming in and playing for records. But that feeling of ‘game, set and match, Federer’, where you can throw your hands up in the air and feel like you’ve just realised another dream, those are the moments that you can re-live because those are the best moments for an athlete. This is because after all the hard work you have come out on top and that’s the best moment.”
Professional athletes have egos. It is an important prerequisite. The attribute keeps them ticking, like a pacemaker attached to an enlarged heart with an irregular rhythm. It snubs the defeats and welcomes the triumphs. At a time when his career is delicately poised, Federer is growing accustomed to fending off sticky questions, like whether a certain amount of rust has crept into his well-oiled machinery. He defends himself with facts and arguments. He argues that he is still a potent all-round threat in men’s tennis. Everything revolves around him. He has taken his potential, coupled it with his performances and dragged himself to a very distant, unimaginable place in the realms of men’s tennis. More often than not, he can go out and impose his will on a tennis match.
“I am basically as successful as before,” he argued. “I won six titles last year. The priority is to replicate that every time. But the body can only play that many matches. I would love to play 150 matches in a season, but it’s not possible. You have to stay hungry and motivated as long as possible but importantly, you must love what you do – accept the losses and try everything to ensure that you don’t lose. If you do lose, you take what’s positive out of those losses. I always question myself at the best of times and also when things don’t go well. So I don’t panic when I lose from time to time.”
The process of examining every situation minutely has also changed since Federer made the switch from being over-analytical to practical. He had grasped the benefits of this insight early in his career. “I realised at the age of 22 that tennis is not everything,” he said.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t always sure if I did everything possible to put myself in the best position. Did I get enough sleep? Did I warm up at the right time? Maybe I underestimated my opponent? Today I know that every time I walk on court, I am giving myself the best possible chance to compete. That way there are no regrets. So when you lose, you can give more credit to your opponent and have fewer excuses to make. I don’t want to have defences when I lose. I want to be able to give credit to my opponent who beat me fair and square.
“I work as hard as ever. My game has always been a fine line. When I lose, people think ‘what the hell is wrong?’, but when I win, they say ‘It’s super smooth. It’s so easy. It’s so natural.’ It makes so much sense. But when I lose, people have a harder time pinpointing the problem.
“That’s been the story of my life,” he added. “Before it was ‘he doesn’t try hard enough, he doesn’t show enough’, or, ‘he’s too negative’. Critics are always going to come up with funny things.
“You can’t have a good day every single day,” he reasoned. “This goes through my head. But the secret of being successful is winning when you are not playing so well. More often than not, believe it or not, you don’t always play so good. It’s about managing those expectations with the hopes of the people and handling your opponent’s game because some playing styles suit you best and some don’t. That’s what it’s about.”
He then leans forward and whispers as if scheming with a co-conspirator. “I want the game to be better off. To have been present when things looked up in the sport. To hope that players can learn from the top guys in the game today: how to behave on the courts; how thankful they should be to the fans and sponsors. If people say they had a good role to play in tennis, then that’s great, because tennis is always bigger than any athlete and I am aware of that.
“My responsibility is to ensure that I have many more wonderful moments in my career. Things play out the way they do. All of a sudden you are less successful and then suddenly you are winning again. I am open for anything that happens.”
The law of the jungle favours no animal. It is based on the reality of each moment and plays out according to the odds. It is balanced and cruel, but objective. The leopard, as a predator, is aware of this law and operates within its framework. On some days there will be a magnificent kill. On other days the hunt will be ineffective. It lives and stalks as a matter of habit. This keeps the senses sharp.
Federer knows that, like the leopard, if he wants things to be as they are, then things will have to change. The basic principle seems like a contradiction of sorts, but it is highly appropriate. Despite his lofty status, he, too, must submit to the alterations in his environment. It ensures his longevity. More essentially, it keeps him in the hunt.