I never thought I’d be that good: Federer
It’s hard to believe Roger Federer, wrestling with self-doubts and burdened by expectations, once wondered if he’d ever make the world’s tennis top 100.
Nothing like the unflappable force he is today, Federer the prodigiously gifted junior also battled a volatile temper that threatened to bring him undone before his professional career even began.
Little more than a decade on and the elegant Federer, the most successful player in tennis history, is now being hailed as one of sport’s all-time greatest athletes.
He is the Pele of the court, a global superstar earning an estimated $50 million a year from prize money and sponsorships with Nike, Rolex, Wilson and Credit Suisse.
With 17 grand slam singles titles, six season-ending championship trophies and 286 weeks atop the rankings, his mind-boggling numbers can’t be matched.
“I never thought I’d be that good. I really never thought that,” Federer confessed this week as he savoured his record-equalling seventh Wimbledon triumph and his remarkable return to world No.1.
“When I won in 2003, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I was going to win Wimbledon and have my kids seeing me lift the trophy.
“I was considered a big talent. I was considered good in Switzerland first and then at 16, 17 internationally I was making a few dents so I thought ‘ooh, maybe something is possible here, maybe I can make the top 100′.
“But I was never like ‘I’m going to be world No.1′. That was more like a fantasy, a dream, an idea like that.”
A Wimbledon junior champion, Federer entered the pro ranks alongside Lleyton Hewitt and even debuted in the doubles with the South Australian at the All England Club in 1999.
But while Hewitt rapidly climbed the rankings to become the youngest-ever year-end world No.1 at 20, Federer took longer to flourish.
“We had an extremely strong generation of players when I was coming along with Hewitt and Safin and Roddick and Ferrero and Tommy Haas,” Federer said.
“You name it, there were so many good players that it think pushed me to just hang with them first of all, not even be the best of that group because I was clearly not.
“So I think that really paved the way for me to always strive for more, push for more, keep working hard at myself in practise and then finally become a true professional, which finally I did understand in my early 20s.
“I still think that’s a bit late, unfortunately, but the way my life worked I think it all happened at the right time and then it really unlocked something for me winning my first grand slam.”
Federer’s breakthrough 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 7-6 (7-3) final victory over Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon in 2003 launched his amazing grand slam career.
“That absolutely took a lot of pressure off me, particularly from the media side,” he said.
“Obviously there were the doubts, the questions: Is he ever going to achieve something or is he going to be one of those endless talents who is never going to win a grand slam?
“But I was able to do it then and things then completely changed for me and I was able to take one after the other then in my stride.”
Ironically, it was a shattering defeat to Hewitt later in 2003 which Federer credits for sparking one of the most extraordinary streaks in tennis – and, for Hewitt, also one of his most painful losing sequences.
It was during Federer’s loss from two sets to love and 5-2 up against Hewitt in the Davis Cup semi-finals at Melbourne Park that the penny dropped.
Only then did Swiss maestro realise he could actually beat Hewitt at his own game – from the baseline.
Until then, believing he needed to relentlessly attack the net to break down Australia’s dual grand slam champion, Federer had lost seven of his first seven senior meetings with his career-long rival.
Following that fateful encounter in Melbourne, Federer embarked on a 15-match, seven-year winning streak against Hewitt – and two months later his success at the 2003 Masters Cup marked the start of an incredible 22 consecutive ATP finals triumphs.
With newfound belief garnered from a pair of pivotal wins over Australians, Federer had transformed into an unstoppable force.
“That I was able to maintain such a long spell of wins, that’s what I was famous for not doing. I was famous for not being consistent,” Federer said.
“In this respect, my attitude towards the game and how everything has changed, I’m very proud that I was able to work on my weaknesses, make them almost strengths.
“I’m just very proud of my mental and physical abilities that I’ve been able to unlock the key and make the most out of my potential.”
Having usurped Novak Djokovic, Federer, who turns 31 next month, is the second-oldest man to reach No.1 after Andre Agassi.
But having proven Agassi and a raft of other all-time greats including John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Martina Navratilova wrong with his Wimbledon final win over Andy Murray, the ageless master is vowing to continue to defy the odds for many years to come.
Forget the London Games, Federer is already planning his schedule through to a fifth Olympics in Rio De Janeiro in 2016.
“There’s many other things I’d like to achieve,” he said.
“But I don’t only play for the record books. It would be silly to say that. I play with so much joy and love life on tour.”
Good friend Tim Henman, though, is convinced the records will continue to come.
“He’s 30, but he’s in phenomenal shape. His hunger and desire is as great as anyone’s,” Henman said.
“Andre Agassi made the final of the US Open at 35, and he was nothing like as natural an athlete as Roger.
“He’s the best player that’s ever lived, so let’s enjoy him while he’s here.”© AAP 2013
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