Roger Federer's irrepressible grace shines through his public appearances, on-court wizardry

"Hello, Roger. You're one of the best athletes of all time. You're elegant in your playing style. You receive an award and when you go up on stage, you give credit to your biggest rival. I have to go back home tomorrow and try and convince my wife that you're not perfect. Please confess a flaw that I can talk to her about. Please."

It's a request, nay question, that has the hoard of journalists at the press conference in splits. Roger Federer breaks into a smile too before launching into a plethora of reasons why he's far from perfect.

Not that anyone's buying it. But Federer tries his best.

 Roger Federers irrepressible grace shines through his public appearances, on-court wizardry

Roger Federer poses with his Laureus trophies. AFP

The question to Federer seems to come out of the blue. Almost an indicator that journalists have run out of queries to throw at Federer. But here's some context behind the query.

On a heady Tuesday evening in Monaco, after winning the Comeback of the Year and the Sportsman of the Year Award — his fifth and sixth Laureus trophies — at a star-studded ceremony, Federer had paid tribute to Rafael Nadal, his eternal rival and also one of the contenders for the Sportsman of the Year Award.

"I just wanted to just give a shout out to my rival Rafa. He had an unbelievable year himself. We had a great battle and it's because of a guy like him, I feel like I've become a better player as well," Federer had said during his winning speech.

You'd expect any athlete to stop there. This is after all, Federer's parade.

But Federer goes on, turning the spotlight in the direction of his rival. "Rafa could very well be here as well and standing here with this award. He's an incredible player, an incredible friend, and an incredible athlete."

Federer's words come on a day when Nadal has pulled out of the Mexican Open after suffering a setback in his recovery from a hip injury, which he sustained at the Australian Open earlier this year. The pullout also put Nadal's chances of toppling Federer in the world rankings on hold.

Throughout the day, during Federer's media commitments, questions keep popping up about Nadal, as they invariably do when Federer's in the room. But throughout the day he's also asked about his views on other players. At a media roundtable with select journalists from around the world, a British journalist wants to know about Andy Murray and what advice Federer would give the British tennis ace, currently out injured. A South African journalist wants to know his opinion on Kevin Anderson. A Portuguese journalist wants to know his take on Joao Sousa. He's even asked a question about the media scrutiny over Boris Becker's marriage and his financial issues.
Federer has kind words for everyone and everything. He refuses to discuss Becker's personal life. But only after a minute's speech on what a great icon, coach and athlete Becker has been.

On the court, he mesmerises with his tennis. Off it — in press conferences, and in public appearances — he charms with his words. Saying the right thing is difficult. Doing so with a thousand eyes on you, even more so. But this is Federer, a man who time and again does the impossible on the tennis court with the weight of the world's expectations on his shoulders. Day in, day out.

Of course, he's learnt the art of giving an interview in his two-decade long career. Of course, he's polished enough to know how to navigate tricky questions. Or even awkward interactions, like the Will Ferell interview at this year's Australian Open where he was asked if he would "describe his game as a silky gazelle?" But there are plenty of unguarded, raw moments as well. Like when he sobbed after winning his 20th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open earlier this year. You know that David Foster Wallace piece written 12 years ago where he compares watching Federer play to a religious experience? There should be pieces written on the Federer public appearance and the Federer press conference as a human experience. The Federer charm offensive has made him the one of most universally likeable athletes on the planet.

Eventually on Tuesday, he's asked why people like him so much. Federer launches into a two-and-a-half minute reply.

"I wish I knew why I'm so popular. I guess it helps when you have played the game for 20 years, people get to know you. I've had the chance to talk to the people through the media so people don't think this is some stranger talking to them. I feel like there's an affiliation through that.

"Maybe it's because of my elegant play? Maybe my play reminds people of the older days which is why they are attracted to it.

"Maybe some people enjoy my honesty. They know that if you ask me a question, I'll give you something in return —it won't just be a yes or a no answer. I don't know what else it could be, you know.

"Success could be a thing. People like success. I think maybe me going through tougher moments, ones that I have gone through after 2010 when I didn't win so much and people saw me struggling a little bit more. And that made me a bit more human. I think since then my popularity has gone up a long way. Even more so now since the comeback.

"Maybe because I'm a family man. People feel like I have the right values, I'm not sure. I do mention a lot that without my wife it would not be possible and I was brought up with a very normal family. My parents are amazing and I love my kids. People like to hear that maybe, that for a sportsman it's not only about tennis. For me, it's been like this for a long time to be quite honest.

"Maybe all these things resonate with different people. I don't want to be liked by each and every individual. There's Rafa and there are others that people can like. I don't want to please everybody. But I am proud to be an idol to some kids. When parents come up to me and say that I am their kids' favourite player and that I behave well and that they tell their kids to look at what I do and hear what I say, it makes me feel really special."

Unfortunately Roger, try as you might to deny it, it's those exact things that make you perfect.


The author is in Monaco at the invitation of Laureus

Updated Date: Feb 28, 2018 17:36:09 IST