Ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis tournament, Vision caught up with this year’s champion, Roger Federer, to find out why he considers this a ‘home event’, and how his boyhood hero is helping to change his game…
“In an era of specialists, you are either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist... Or you’re Roger Federer.” That’s how US tennis legend Jimmy Connors summed up his admiration for the man who’s celebrating a decade at the very top of his game.
Roger Federer once again proved him-self a master on all surfaces, claiming his sixth Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title in early March, when he defeated Tomas Berdych 3-6 6-4 6-3.
The player said of his win, “I’m really happy with my game tonight and for the week. It was a tough match and Tomas had the advantage... I guess I got a little lucky at times out here tonight, but I fought well and I couldn’t be more happy with the outcome.
Federer’s versatility has seen him dominate the Emirates ATP World Tour for 10 years. The defeat of Marat Safin at the Australian Open in February 2004 marked his first hard-court grand slam title and propelled him to World Number One.
Federer has now won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships singles crown more than any other player. But far from tiring of this dominance Federer’s success, his love of life in the emirate and his contribution to the growth in popularity of tennis in the region actually spur him on to continue winning it. “I have been coming back to Dubai for so many years, I have seen the tournament grow and establish itself as one of the most important events on the ATP World Tour,” he told Vision on the eve of this year’s competition.
“I am always determined to win every event I enter and I consider Dubai as sort of my ‘home’ event as I spend a lot of time here.”
Home from home
Along with his home in Bottmingen, Switzerland, Federer has a residence in Dubai which enables him to train in the warm weather and enjoy family life with his wife, former WTA player Mirka and their twin daughters.
“I really enjoy spending time in Dubai – both to train and relax,” he reveals. “I like the fact that I can be anonymous here and at the same time it is such an easy lifestyle. It has been exciting to see Dubai grow so much since I first came here more than 10 years ago. It is now one of the most important crossroads in the world.”
His unique combination of grace, power, determination, and that much-vaunted versatility, saw him stay at the number one spot for a record 237 consecutive weeks. He secured the ATP top spot twice more, in 2010 and 2012, as well as winning a total of 78 singles titles in a career that has also seen him amass a legion of fans within and beyond the game of tennis.
But while Dubai audiences and the tennis world were witness to a stellar rise on the court back in 2003, away from the circuit that year Federer was excused national service in the Swiss Army due to a back problem. He recovered to become one of world sport’s greatest champions – winning more Grand Slam titles than any man in tennis history – although the injury flared-up once again during the 2013 Swiss Open, the same tournament that he made his ATP tour debut in as a wild card in 1998. The back complaint compounded an already disappointing year in 2013 in which he failed to defend his 7th Wimbledon title and suffered a series of defeats that saw him drop out of the top four for the first time in a decade.
But as he marked the 10th Anniversary of his first Emirates ATP World No.1 ranking by preparing for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships he remained full of optimism and stoic determination, especially having started 2014 in blistering form at the Australian Open. “The back isn’t bothering me anymore,” he told Vision. “I’m looking forward to a great 2014. It started well in Australia and I am hungry for more success.”
Federer, now 32, began 2014 by reaching the final of the Emirates ATP Tour Brisbane International – losing to Lleyton Hewitt, before succumbing to the current world champion, Rafa Nadal, at the semi-final stage of the Melbourne Open. His focus then turned to a tournament that he has made his own.
The 2014 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships once again pitted Federer against his rival, Novak Djokovic, whom he defeated in the semi-final. Recent contests between the two have captured the imagination of fans worldwide. So what is it about the Serb’s style of play that brings out the best in Federer?
“Novak and I have had so many great battles over the years,” he says. “I have won some and he has won some. He is such a determined competitor, he never gives up so I have to be on top of my game to beat him.”
Top of the game
In order to rejuvenate his push for the top spot Federer recently shocked the tennis world by parting company with his coach of three-and-a-half years Paul Annacone, to team up with his childhood idol the former World No 1 Stefan Edberg.
“I grew up admiring Becker and Edberg, so to work with Stefan is incredible for me,” he announced to the media in Dubai. “We have a chance to share our opinions and talk about it [tennis] together.”
The forthcoming year looks set to be an eventful one once more. At Christmas he told fans, via Twitter, of an impending new arrival at the Federer family home: “Mirka and I are very happy to share the news that Myla and Charlene will be big sisters in 2014!”
An avid football fan, he’ll also have one eye on the events taking place in Brazil this summer too. “I will follow the World Cup and I admire a lot of footballers – it was nice shooting a Gillette commercial recently with Lionel Messi!” Federer was also a talented footballer himself as a teenager. “I would have loved to be a centre forward,” he admits.
And the gruelling demands of the ATP tour – including the physical and mental strain of the game itself along with life lived out of a suitcase for the past 15 years have done little to curtail his appetite for the sport.
”I still like to travel,” he says. “I am lucky enough to be able to travel most of the time with my wife and my twin daughters. I have a great balance when I am on the road and I still enjoy competing as much as in my first year on the ATP World Tour.”
But even such a player as Federer couldn’t have envisaged what he has achieved when he first took that number one spot all those years ago. “I won more than I ever thought I could, but I feel like I am not done, I still have a lot to give before I say goodbye to this sport. I love tennis, I love sport and I will play as long as my body will permit it.”