When we decided to produce a special edition of the Tennis Podcast about Roger Federer, to tell his story from professional debut to now, mostly through my eyes, it was only meant to take an hour to put together.
Catherine Whitaker would ask me questions to jog my memory, and make me continue even when the name-dropping reached an excruciating level.
We ended up with a show just shy of an hour in length, but the process involved in getting there took dozens of hours of thought, reminiscence, editing and digging through my garage for old interviews. I found the one with Federer (recorded an hour after his first Wimbledon title win) on an old mini-disc at the bottom of a cardboard box. They don’t even make mini-discs any more. This one had spiders for company.
I didn’t really realise it before we started putting the Federer show together, but it would also involve digging into my own past as much as his.
July 1998. I was 24. Five months had passed since I’d joined the ATP as a communications manager, straight out of university. It was a month after I’d collapsed with exhaustion at Queen’s, ending up in hospital - turns out it’s quite a good idea to eat and sleep as well as work 16-hour days. The Swiss Open in Gstaad was my first tournament back. And it was two weeks before I would meet the woman that would become my wife.
It was also when, as detailed in the podcast, I met Roger Federer for the first time. Some year.
I won’t ruin the podcast by detailing everything that’s in the show, but I’ve realised since recording it that there are a few things I forgot to mention, and a few things I’ve found in that garage.
This is the 2000 ATP Media Guide - the first one Federer appeared in. I took his mug-shot on my pre-digital camera - one of those where you go to a lab to get the film developed. At least he looked his 18 years, whereas in the same publication, I looked closer to 15 than my 25.
I forgot the Marat Safin vs. Roger Federer match in Rome 2001, a contest in which Federer recovered from a set down to win 7-6 in the third. It was mostly memorable for the racquet-smashing montage that an Italian television director put together, and the hilarity that Federer found in watching it while waiting to attend his press conference. Have a watch. Afterwards, Safin was asked about Federer’s future prospects alongside those of himself and Gustavo Kuerten. ‘You can’t compare him to us,” said Safin at the time. “Sure he’s talented and a nice guy, but we’ve won a Grand Slam. He hasn’t done anything.’ Oops.
There was the three-day ATP University that Federer, and all players ranked inside the World’s Top 100 for the first time, attended at the end of 1999. They were told about ATP rules, how to look after their bodies, how to look after their finances, and how to deal with the media. I wasn’t always sure Federer was listening to me and the other speakers, but just when he looked like he couldn’t be less interested if he tried, he would put his hand up and ask a pertinent question. The fact that he has never retired from a single one of his 1,358 matches to-date, has an array of blue-chip companies sponsoring him, and did 22 interviews after his latest Wimbledon win, suggests that he was taking in the important bits.
*Excruciating, but unavoidable name-drop coming up…* - you’ll hear, in the podcast, about the interview I did with Federer in Biel, Switzerland in September 2001. I didn’t mention that I asked him to demonstrate a forehand that he had given a signature name to - The Cliffhanger - basically an absurdly top-spun forehand (this was pre-Nadal) that would drop at the last second as if it had fallen off a cliff. He hit three of them in my direction. I top-edged the first into the roof of the indoor centre. I swung and missed at the second - an actual air-shot. The third bounded up at me like a dog that hadn’t seen its owner for a month. It hit me in the face. Our rivalry ended at that point.
I forgot to mention his teenage ability to compose text messages quicker than anyone I had ever seen. I forgot his voicemail prank where the caller hears his voice: ‘Hello?’, you start speaking, and then a recording of his voice continues “haha, got you, leave a message’. And I didn’t mention the time I became the target for Federer’s anger when a Swiss football player, Bernt Haas (his actual name) who played for West Bromwich Albion (my team) was given a red card in a Euro 2004 match against England. ‘West Brom don’t teach discipline!’, he shouted at me, the following day.
This is the Federer I knew before he became the Federer we all know, I suppose, and although I mostly only see him on telly and to ask the odd question to in a press conference or interview these days, from what I’ve seen, he hasn’t changed much at all. Very nice, decent person, sharp as a tack, loads of energy, practical joker, good sense of humour. Oh, and with other-worldly tennis talent, nerve, athleticism, dedication, enthusiasm.
I hope this special edition of The Tennis Podcast, and these few extra notes, will tell you something you don’t already know.
Thanks to Patrick for his endless patience in editing the podcast each week, to all of our Kickstarter backers whose support enabled us to pay an editor this year and put so much of our time into producing these things, and to Roger Federer for giving us so much to talk about.
I hope you enjoy the show. If you do, please tell everyone you know.
Back in a couple of weeks. Thanks for listening.