‘Where Was My Mind Wandering?’

Photo: Pari Dukovic

One night, at a hotel in Tokyo, Roger Federer woke up and had no idea where he was. He jumped out of bed, screaming and cursing, and started to move about the dark room. Earlier, Federer had admired the room’s wood-and-stone scheme (“I’m very interested in interior designing”) and toilet (“a spaceship”), but now in the dark, he banged his leg hard on the bed’s sharp-edged wooden frame. His leg was bruised. He had a match the following day. He needed ice.

Mirka, his girlfriend (now his wife), woke up and found him shaken. She hugged him, trying to calm him down. Federer was scared. He’d never woken up in shock like this before. He wondered why it was happening to him. “Mirka thinks I have been playing too much tennis,” Federer later recounted. He was in the midst of his invincible period, losing only five or so matches a year. He had different ideas about the roots of his nightmare. “I think it might have been the Sake Bomber I had during the shabu-shabu dinner.”

It’s been Roger Federer’s blessing to be saddled for most of the past decade with mastering an anxiety of a specific kind. He even has a name for it: “the monster.”

“I’ve had it for a long, long time,” he once said. “Winning every other week, you know, lose a set and people say I’m playing bad. So it’s my own mistake, I guess.” ­Federer dominated tennis for so long and with such authority that a loss could trigger bewilderment. After he failed to reach the Master’s Cup final in China in 2008, a reporter remarked, “I think this is not enough for you.” By then, Federer had broken so many records he’d stopped keeping track. “What’s enough for you?” he snapped back. “You tell me. I’ll do it next year. Win nine? I’ll do nine next year. Eight, whatever.”

Now, as he enters the twilight years of a historic career, Roger Federer has been wrestling with a different sort of anxiety. Many insist his problem is age (Federer turns 31 this August), and mental fatigue from playing just over 1,000 matches. But Federer’s problem lately is not only that he’s been losing big matches; it’s the way he’s been losing them.

His skid started with a drop shot. At the French Open last year, Federer had put an end to Novak Djokovic’s white-hot streak in the semifinals and was manhandling Rafael Nadal in the final, taking an early lead, only to end a dramatic rally by attempting a dazzling backhand slice drop shot to win the set. Walking to check the mark, the umpire ruled the ball out by less than an inch. Federer seemed flustered after missing the shot, and Nadal won the game, then the next six, and eventually the match. At Wimbledon—Federer’s favorite tournament, partly because the faster grass surface favors his aggressive style of play—he was up two sets against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but lost the match. This had never happened to Federer before; his record after having won the first two sets was 178-0.

Then it happened again. In the semi­finals of the U.S. Open last year, Federer was somehow in the same situation, up two sets against Djokovic, who was playing erratically—whereupon Federer lost his rhythm and Djokovic climbed back. In the fifth set, Federer fought his way to two match points. On the first of them, a Federer first serve wide to the forehand side, Djokovic rose up with a mixture of desperation and faith and appeared to hit the serve back harder than it came—a cold winner. Djokovic won the crowd with the shot, and the match was ­essentially over.

Afterward, Federer was annoyed with the shot, which he believed to be lucky given that Djokovic was “mentally out of it.” ­Federer wondered if that shot was somehow divine punishment from the tennis gods for all he’d achieved. “Maybe you’ve already won so much that it evens it out a bit sometimes,” he said at the time.

Now, at Wimbledon, Federer has a chance to atone for those disasters. In the third round, he almost lost to journeyman Julien Benneteau, losing the first two sets before clawing his way back—a near-death experience, one that revealed once again his tennis mortality. But even so, he’s had an impressive year. If he wins the title at Wimbledon, he will not only equal Pete Sampras’s record but could also reclaim the No. 1 ranking. And immediately following Wimbledon, there are the Olympics, and a chance to claim the one individual honor that’s eluded him: a gold medal in men’s singles. At the end of August, he’ll also come to New York for the U.S. Open.

Photo: Pari Dukovic

Knowing the limits of his own body, the competition against him, and the changing nature of the game, Federer believes this summer is his best chance to win another Slam and cement the argument that he’s the best player ever. Preparing for these big matches has not only been a physical grind. It’s also about self-­discovery. And like everything else with ­Federer, it’s not a science.

I met Federer during the Madrid Open in May. By the time his private jet landed, Federer was tanned and rested after a vacation on the beach in the Caribbean and a five-week break from the tour, one of the longest in his career. In Madrid, he’d been hitting lightly on the practice courts, testing out the controversial blue clay the tournament had experimented with. Nadal and Djokovic found the clay almost unplayable, and said so loudly; Federer, as he always has, took the obstacle in stride.

We sat in the corner of an austere conference room. In person, Federer appears bigger than his six-foot-one-inch frame. He sat in a small plastic chair, one leg crossed over the other just so, his arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t squirm around in the chair to get more comfortable, or gesture with his hands.

Even though he’d been off for weeks, sleep was on his mind. “I did sleep in the last couple of days,” he said. “For me that’s a big part of the puzzle: to be coming rested into these tournaments.” Federer likes to sleep ten hours a night, more if he can get it, so that his muscles have time to relax and recover. “There’s nothing worse than feeling great for 90 percent of the time but then not when it counts the most—the last 10 percent when you’re like, Ugh. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to feel that way. I want to feel like so excited, like I want to jump out of my skin.”

He’s already had an amazing year, winning six of nine tournaments since the U.S. Open, a romp that’s felt like revenge for that crushing loss to Djokovic. “I knew it was tight,” he said of that match. “I broke him [in the fifth set]. I couldn’t believe it. I was in the situation all of a sudden. Even though we should maybe go back a set or two. I was up two sets to love, so it should never have been me being in such a tussle.”

With distance, Federer has more understanding of that loss. “He had confidence on his side,” he said. “Confidence is sometimes forgotten. When you have confidence like I have now, you don’t second-guess yourself. You just do it. And you’re like, ‘That was normal.’ And then you look back and you’re like, I can’t believe I just did that. I think that’s kind of what happened to him—which was an unfortunate situation for me.”

Paul Annacone, Federer’s coach (he also coached Sampras and Federer’s friend Tim Henman), thought that loss at the Open last fall wasn’t emblematic of a real problem with Federer. The slap-shot winner from Djokovic was “cliché,” Annacone told me, considering how reckless Djokovic can play and how dangerous Federer still is. “He’s pretty damn good in the big moments, and when you’re on the wrong end of it, it sucks. But that’s sports. These kinds of losses happen.”

Federer was more introspective. “I definitely did go back to the drawing board,” he said in Madrid. “I was like, How come I lose these tight matches? Because I did lose a tough one at Wimbledon, I did lose a tough one at the French, and I did lose a couple of other tough ones. Was it mental? Was it physical? Was it a preparations thing? Where was my mind wandering?”

On court, Federer has been known for his focus, that emotionless gaze that is often mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm or intensity. He seems in his own world, making his shots for himself alone, so watching him seems like a privilege. But the gaze is really more like a mask he puts on to dam the torrents of rage that destroyed his ability to win matches early in his career. Federer jokes now about how he used to throw racquets and lace into himself in self-loathing monologues, but his inability to control his emotions were a serious issue for him. Early on, he was once sentenced to wake up early, which he hated, and clean the bathrooms as punishment for throwing his racquet and destroying a curtain. He was once fined for not playing a match hard enough. Crowds sometimes booed him; his parents refused to speak with him. “I was never this mega­talent like a Tiger Woods or a Martina Hingis,” ­Federer told me. “I was famous for being talented, but you never knew where the ­talent was going to take me.”

As a young teenager, he moved away from home to train at the Swiss National Tennis Center. It was located in the French-speaking part of the country, and Federer, who grew up speaking Swiss German and some English, struggled to communicate with other boys his age. He spent a lot of time in his room eating cereal, waiting for weekends, and crying on the way to the train that would take him back to his host family.

Counterintuitively, part of what nourished the artistry of Federer’s game in his youth was his work ethic. He hated training. “Not too much of a practice guy,” he once said. Federer’s hand-eye coordination and feel for the ball were good enough for him to cut corners yet stay competitive. “I always knew I had it in my hand,” he said years ago. “The question is, do I have it in my mind and my legs?”

When he was a teenager, Federer’s mind was his biggest liability. His angry outbursts consumed energy, distracted him, and led to losses, which only added to the weight. “I always used to cry after I lost every single match when I was sort of from 8 to basically 15,” he once said.

As a young player, Federer could be a challenge to travel with. He was a vegetarian as a kid, and a picky eater.

“Gnocchi with Gorgonzola, and pasta and tomato sauce,” Peter Lundgren recalled of the two dishes that Federer used to order. “I had to get him to eat meat.” Over the years, few people have spent more time with Federer than Lundgren. A former pro from Sweden who beat the likes of Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi, Lund­gren was an easy face to spot in Federer’s old box. With his goatee and long shaggy hair, Lundgren looked more like the bass player of a heavy-metal band than a tennis coach. When he first met Federer in 1997, Lundgren had been hired by the Swiss Tennis Federation to help develop the country’s talent. When Federer decided to leave the federation and go on his own as a pro, he hired Lundgren to be his coach and started to bankroll his own career.

“When he had to pay for everything himself, that’s when he really grew up,” Lundgren told me.

Lundgren works in Houston now, helping to run a tennis facility on top of the Galleria mall. I met him for lunch there in the spring. It’s been almost a decade since he coached Federer. His former pupil went on to win so many titles that he travels the tour in his own private jet—Forbes recently declared Federer the fifth wealthiest athlete in the world, with earnings of over $50 million a year, mostly from “the most impressive endorsement portfolio in sports.” Another part of Federer’s genius has been positioning himself within his own global luxury brand. He also had his own fragrance (“Feel the Touch”) and is known on tour for his fashion sense, keeping close company with Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

“He loves it!” Wintour told me about Federer’s interest in fashion. “He likes the creativity of it; he likes the humor of it; he likes the personality of it.” He shares ideas with her for some of the outlandish outfits he’s worn, like his white sports jacket with gold trim, and a belt he once wore on his tennis trunks. They’ve even traveled together. “I remember years ago I took him to some of the fashion shows in Milan and was able to introduce him to some of the very well-known designers over there and he was just awestruck,” Wintour said. “They were completely over-the-moon to meet Roger, but he was just equally as thrilled to meet them.”

That Federer even knows who Anna Wintour is fascinates Lundgren, who remembers Federer’s old wardrobe.

“He had like two pairs of jeans in the closet,” Lundgren said.

On tour, Federer and Lundgren spent so much time together they began to look alike. Federer had the same long hair in the same moppy cut, the same three-day stubble. They stayed in hotel rooms all over the world, and had plenty of time to kill. Back then, Federer would review his own matches with admiration. “He loved to watch himself on video,” ­Lundgren said.

As a teenager, Federer also liked to listen to the Backstreet Boys and watch pro wrestling. (“I always liked the Undertaker a little bit—now I like the Rock a lot,” ­Federer said in 2002.) Lundgren wasn’t a wrestling fan, but he loved to play video games with ­Federer. They had epic duels. Lundgren rarely beat him, but when he did, Federer would get so furious he would rip the video console out from the television and throw it across the room, Lundgren recalled. “He’d tell me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll just buy another one.’ ”

One of Federer’s favorite games to play was a James Bond game. “He’d call me from his room and he’d say, ‘Come help me, I can’t get past this door.’ I was like, ‘Roger, if there’s anyone that can get past this door, you can.’ Sure enough, he’d call me an hour later and be like, ‘You’re right. I got in.’ 

“Every time he got a new game, he’d beat it in like two days,” Lundgren said. “He just had the kind of mind—he could figure anything out.”

To win on the professional tennis tour, Federer had to figure out his mind. At first, he couldn’t win. In one stretch early on, he lost in the first round in six straight tournaments. He came to New York to qualify for the U.S. Open and lost again, unable to get himself in the draw of a Slam he would go on to win five times in a row.

His ego took on a very singular form. “My dream was always not to be recognized as someone else,” Federer told me. He recalled the questions he used to get from fans.“ ‘Are you Carlos Moya?’ ‘Are you Tommy Haas?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no. I’m not that guy.’ You want to be famous for who you are, right? You don’t want to play like someone else. You want to be famous as your own person, right?”

One breakthrough came in Rome, in 2001, against the tempestuous Marat Safin. It was a close match. Afterward, Federer was in the locker room and saw the highlights on a television there. The commentators were not discussing his Houdini shot-making or the way Federer managed to edge out the higher-ranked Safin in a third-set tiebreaker. Instead, the post-match analysis was of the techniques both Federer and Safin had displayed in shattering their racquets. Federer was so embarrassed at the way he looked on the screen that he decided to stop acting out on court. Instead of releasing his emotions, he would conceal them. He was criticized for it. Some found his casual game face boring.

“When it’s going to be a full stadium, I will show more emotions,” he said back in 2002, as if trying to play the part. But acting up didn’t work. “I need to keep my emotions under control,” he told a reporter before winning Wimbledon for the first time in 2003. “I have the feeling if I show too much, you know, it might hurt me for the next match. The emotions left. I want to keep everything till the end.”

Winning with nonchalance was working for Federer, part of his winning formula. He eliminated other players from the equation, turning away from them after each point to focus. His calmness, or the veneer of it, was intimidating to other players: How could Federer play such artistic tennis and not show any emotion?
“I think it’s an advantage,” he once said. “[My opponents] don’t know if I can pull off maybe a shot ten times in a row. Maybe it was the luckiest shot, you know? I don’t need to show them it was.”

After he figured out how to win, Federer had to figure out life. Months after winning Wimbledon, he decided to leave Lundgren and play without a coach. It was a curious decision to make then, considering he’d just won tennis’s most coveted prize and was playing better than ever. In hindsight, going without a coach was crucial for his self-confidence. There was nobody to look to for help, no face in his box to turn to. He was becoming a superstar, and he often booked his practice courts himself.

“I was in control really,” Federer said. “I think that was very important for me to actually learn about life, you know, how it is on the tour without somebody always telling you what to do.”

It’s not only age Federer has been fighting. It’s tennis itself. Over the years, he’s had to face increasingly challenging playing conditions, ones that favor his most dangerous opponents. (Nadal and Andy Murray have winning records against him, and Djokovic has beaten him six of the last seven times they’ve played.) With all the improvements in technology, tennis has become like a new video game Federer has been forced to adjust to. For all his élan and variety, Federer’s game is defined by relentless aggression. He prefers to catch balls early, on the rise, end points fast with winners, hold early leads with his reliable serve, and conserve energy. The modern game in which he now plays celebrates the opposite qualities: athleticism over talent, endurance over finesse.

“It’s really a whole lot harder,” he told me. “You neutralize the opponent and you sort of wear him down. Eventually someone is going to miss.” The game has become a war of attrition, gladiatorial tennis.

One enemy is the court surface. As celebrated a player as Sampras was, his game could be predictable and boring. Big serve, winner. Big serve, volley, winner. Next point. Tennis executives began to look for ways to make the game more thrilling and marketable for mainstream audiences. To do this, they began to slow down the speed of the courts (and also to make it more fair for returners, who struggled to fend off fast serves). At Wimbledon, for instance, the type of grass was changed to create more bounce and less skid. The hard courts at the U.S. Open and other tournaments are another source of controversy. Court manufacturers now have more sophisticated ways of shaping the size and amount of the sand particles that are mixed into the paint that’s used on the courts. The result is a sandpaperlike feel, so the ball stays in play longer, leading to more dramatic rallies.

Racquets are also changing. The design of the frames and the materials manufacturers are using in them—“magic dust,” insiders call it—are so advanced that it’s easier for players to hit powerful first and second serves. Most important, players use a new kind of polyester string that makes it easier to return heavy serves and allows them to generate more spin. One manufacturer of the string, Luxilon, is based in Belgium and also specializes in bra straps and medical sutures. Once they were introduced on tour, Luxilon strings radically altered the way tennis was played.

Before polyester strings, players strung their racquets with natural gut, which is processed from the sterilized intestines of cows. Gut strings are lively to play with, meaning there’s a speedy bounce after you strike or return a ball. Polyester strings create the opposite reaction: The feeling has been described as “dead,” though the secret to the strings is that they are actually slippery, so when a ball hits them, they slide with the impact and then snap back into place, giving the ball an extra kick. When a ball looks like it’s going long yet drops in, it’s what players call “a Luxilon shot.” These strings have taken away the advantage of big servers (Sampras reportedly called them “Cheatalon”) and rewarded the new breed of baseline warriors like Nadal. Not only is Nadal a prolific talent, but he’s been able to use these technological advances in the game to his advantage. For instance, he uses a polyester string that is shaped like an octagon. The ridges of the string are designed to bite into the ball to impart even more spin. His forehand generates an average of 3,200 revolutions per minute, the highest of any top player. Federer’s forehand hits an average of 2,700 revolutions per minute.

Federer is a Luddite in the new-technology department. He stubbornly plays with a racquet that has a head size of 90 inches, the smallest on tour. He still strings his racquet partly with natural gut.

He refuses to bend to the demands of the modern game, which have pushed the players farther apart from one another and expanded the dimensions of the court. Instead, Federer has tried to find ways to win (or lose) on his own terms. “He never backs up,” Tsonga told me.

Federer views all these changes as part of tennis’s evolution. “You definitely see changes in a game every five years or so,” he told me. “It might be strings, might be racquet technology, might be balls they’re using, might be Wimbledon—all of a sudden the grass is a bit different, or they open the ball cans a bit earlier.” These small details have led to big changes on the court. “Back in the day, the philosophy was when I came up and played Sampras and all these guys, I was like, Okay, well, I’d rather hit a volley myself than having to pass Pete, right? So you’d come in yourself, too. So then you had this dynamic of court position, whoever got to the net first was in a bit of a better position. Today, you’d say, ‘I’d almost rather hit a pass than hit a volley.’ ” Now he has to cover more ground. “You go further away from each other and the court becomes bigger, the balls become heavier, they fluff up more because we can hit the ball harder.”

Federer prefers the older game. “What I liked about it is you had to half-volley back at the back leg and you just try to flick it, or you lob,” he said. “There’s much more sort of excitement around it for me back then than to hit a winner now.”

The modern game has its advantages, he conceded, even though they don’t favor him. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly athletic. We’ve never seen the game be so athletic. If you look at the flair of what the top guys have, it’s something special. It’s always going to be fun to watch.”

In Madrid, Federer revealed the conclusions of his tennis soul-searching. After analyzing all the elements, he found there wasn’t much wrong with him. “That wasn’t a bad tournament,” he said. “I played great. I could’ve been in the finals and had a shot at the title.” So he didn’t change much.

“Just little things,” he said; so little he can’t describe them, even when pressed. “I don’t even know what they are … Sometimes it’s just a mind-set.”

I asked Federer about his greatest weakness. He seemed confused by the question.

“I mean, I can’t cook or anything,” he said. He pondered the admission. “I guess if I would learn it then I could cook, you know? So it’s not even a weakness, it’s just something I can’t do.

“Do I have weaknesses?” he went on. “Sure. Many of them.”

I pushed him to name one, anything.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, I think you also have to be happy sometimes with what you have instead of always trying to look for more. I’m [more] a believer in working on your strengths than actually working on your weaknesses.”

In Madrid, Federer was in rhythm, seizing control of early leads, holding on and winning the tournament. His next stop was Rome, where he arrived with a niggling injury and clashed again with Djokovic. Despite Djokovic’s amazing ascent to the No. 1 ranking, Federer has been more effective against him than against Murray or Nadal. One reason is that Djokovic’s game is easier for Federer to read. He plays with a similar aggression, and for years Federer had a mental edge over him. Djokovic once retired against Federer because of a sore throat and dizziness. (“It’s not the guy who’s never given up in his career,” Federer once said.)

But in Rome, Djokovic beat Federer again, as he did weeks later in the semifinals of the French Open—Federer had been leading in the first and second sets but lost the match without putting up much of a fight. He then went on to a Wimbledon warm-up tournament in Halle, Germany, and made it to the finals, where he faded again, losing to a player who was older, not even ranked in the top 50, and who hadn’t beaten Federer in the past decade. How could Roger Federer lose a final on grass to Tommy Haas?

“He was maybe the more inspired player out there,” Federer said after the match.

When Federer first lost his No. 1 ranking to Nadal in 2008, the transition was not easy. “I just don’t like the ring of it when I’m being introduced on Centre Court saying, ‘and this is the No. 2 in the world,’ ” Federer said then. “It just sounds wrong. Either I’m No. 1 or I’m a Grand Slam champion, but I’m not No. 2.” At the Australian Open a few years later, he also noticed a change in the way he was introduced. Normally, the announcer Craig Willis would introduce Federer by reeling off his titles there. (He is the 2004 champion. He is the 2006 champion. He is the 2007 champion. He is the 2010 champion. He is … Rogerrr Federerrrr!!!) But one time Willis shortened the dramatic windup, introducing Federer as “four-time champion.”

Afterward, Willis told me Federer approached him.

“Hey, what happened to all the years?” Federer joked.

“Roger, it’s only the first week,” Willis said.

There’s more to life—even Roger Federer’s life—than tennis. Some have pointed out that Federer’s failure to close out tough matches has coincided with the arrival of Charlene Riva and Myla Rose, his twin daughters—he hasn’t won a Grand Slam tournament since they were infants.

And fatherhood has presented its own challenges. When his kids get sick on tour, he does, too. “I take the germs and I give them cuddles and I try to make them feel better,” he said earlier this year. “If I get sick as well, that’s too bad.”

The best in the world, for almost a decade, was who Roger Federer was. “I’m in this incredible situation where I achieved so much more than I ever thought I would,” he told me in Madrid. “Whatever I achieve now is just, you know, bonus.”

He does not mention more Slam titles, or regaining the No. 1 ranking. He talks about the big venues he plays in, the crowds that come to see him play his artful game. He likes signing autographs at 1:30 a.m. after a match. Annacone says Federer’s attitude toward fame is unique: “He enjoys who he’s become.”

“I think everyone likes to be popular,” Federer said. “I always play on Centre Court. They never bump me … All these things are something I’ve worked so hard for and to now say, ‘Okay, that’s fine, I’ve had enough,’ walk away, it’s so hard, because I love it so much.” He remembered the early years. “I know how hard it is to play on Court 25 with ten people at the fence. It’s not the same. That would be hard for me to go and play there now.”

‘Where Was My Mind Wandering?’