The Artful Roger

"One good thing about me is that I forget matches, even bad matches very quickly," says Roger Federer.-Pic. REUTERS

Don't be fooled. Switzerland's Roger Federer is a polite, introspective young man, but he plays a flamboyant, aggressive game that could carry him to the very top of the sport. By CINDY SHMERLER.

ALTHOUGH it was late August and sweltering in New York City, the players' dining room at the U.S. Open looked like a terminal at O'Hare during a blizzard. Bodies and gear were strewn everywhere, every available seat was taken, and all the tables were occupied by players, coaches, and camp followers. Everyone was swept up in the buzz of the last major championship of the 2002 season.

Everyone, that is, but the No. 13 seed, Roger Federer. The 21-year-old Swiss sensation and Grand Slam champion-in-waiting sat slumped in an oversized chair at a big wooden dining table in a remote corner, oblivious to the chaos. All he was waiting for at the moment was the bowl of pasta with which his Swedish coach, Peter Lundgren, had finally appeared. Lundgren slid it across the table to his prot�g�.

Federer, fresh from a post-practice shower, wore his shoulder-length brown hair pulled into a ponytail, enhancing the already marked prominence of his nose. He has thick eyebrows, a la Pete Sampras, and hints of adolescence acne. But his imperfections seem inconsequential when he smiles. And Federer smiles often, even as he tried to assess how a year that began with so much promise — he won an Australian Open tune-up and came within a point of making the quarterfinals in Melbourne before losing to Tommy Hass 8-6 in the fifth — had spiralled out of control, leaving him winless in his last two Grand Slam appearances. Once again, pundits had started questioning if he would ever realise his potential.

"One good thing about me," Federer said, without a trace of irony, "is that I forget matches, even bad matches, very quickly, I get sad about not having played well, but I don't really get pissed off. By the time I get back to the hotel, it's completely forgotten and I'm fine again."

Unfortunately, neither Federer's fans nor his critics forget quite so readily. They've been conditioned to expect the best ever since Federer's striking, silky-smooth game earned him the International Tennis Federation's No. 1 junior ranking in 1998 and, by extension, billing as the game's next star. Instead, they've watched Federer's halting progress with frustration, especially in his native, star-starved Switzerland.

As Rene Stauffer, tennis correspondent for the Zurich-based newspaper Tages Anzeiger, says, "Roger is different from Martina Hingis (a native of the Slovak Republic). He really is ours, he's the guy from next door — he was even a ball boy at the Basel tournament. Roger can become a national hero, but not if he just stays in the Top Fifteen (he ended 2002 ranked No. 6). They want him to win Grand Slams. And this may be a problem, because he doesn't have (Lleyton) Hewitt's fighting spirit. We haven't seen him put his heart down there on the court."

That Federer can be so highly touted and still trigger so many questions about his competitive makeup is a tribute to his pure talent. He moves like Sampras and strikes the ball with comparably clean strokes, seemingly generating power at his leisure. An inventive all-court player, Federer has every shot in the book, including a reflex volley reminiscent of John McEnroe at his best.

Federer has shown flashes of greatness. He almost single-handedly knocked the United States out of the first round of the Davis Cup in 2001, and almost five months later he snapped Sampras' 31-match Wimbledon win streak. Early last year, he upset Hewitt en route to the final at Key Biscayne (where he lost to Andre Agassi). That May, Federer, who lost his first 11 pro matches on clay, beat Gustavo Kuerten and Marat Safin on that surface, in the same week, to win his first Tennis Masters Series title, in Hamburg, Germany.

"This guy is the real deal, and his game is the whole package," says U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "He can hit from anywhere on the court and he moves with elegance. His volleys are impressive. He knows every angle out there. Sampras may have more serving firepower, but Roger strikes the shot in the same effortless way."

Agassi adds, "He's young and explosive and has a powerful game. He has some of the best hand speed on the tour and he knows how to put pressure on you. There are a lot of things he does well."

Still, Federer has fallen from the high wire at the Slams (he didn't reach a quarter-final until the eighth major of his career), showing an infuriating talent for following up his biggest success with inexplicable losses. For instance, the week after his triumph in Hamburg, he was ushered out of Roland Garros on opening day by Moroccan journeyman Hicham Arazi. Worse yet, a few weeks later at Wimbledon, Federer was upset by Mario Ancic — ranked No. 154 in the world — in straight sets.

"I never really felt I was playing well on grass," Federer said of that debacle." I never felt comfortable. I practised with Tim Henman the day before and I got my butt kicked. Maybe that was on my mind a little, too."

Those comments may be more noteworthy for what they reveal about Federer's fragile psyche than his game. As Lundgren admits, "Roger just panicked at Wimbledon. For the first time ever, he started to feel the pressure and he got very uncomfortable on the court. After, he felt sad and empty."

While in Canada a month later, Federer had his first brush with a different kind of sadness when he learned that his mentor, 37-year-old Australian coach and Swiss Davis Cup captain Peter Carter, had been killed in a car accident in South Africa. Federer says. "Peter wasn't my first coach but he was my real coach. I made trips with him. He knew me and my game, and he was always thinking of what was good for me."

The one-two punch of frustration in tennis and Carter's death bewildered Federer, who still wasn't far removed from the warm cocoon provided by his family and life in decidedly low-key Basel.

The first junior match Roger Federer ever played in Basel, turned out to be against a fellow named Reto Schmidli, and it was a 6-0, 6-0 rubout. Federer describes that match as "special" because it is the only double-bagel of his career. The remarkable thing about this revelation is that Federer actually lost the match.

It is typical of the easygoing Federer to give a rival his due — other top pros would have deleted the word "Schmidli" from their mental hard drives. But as fellow pro Jonas Bjorkman, among others, has observed. "Roger, he's a really great guy. He respects people."

In turn, nearly everyone holds Federer in high esteem from his peer to the game's young fans, for whom he signs nearly every piece of paper or giant tennis ball thrust toward him. As Rene Stauffer says, "Roger lives that saying, `It's nice to be important but it's important to be nice.' This is a guy who buys drinks for photographers and thanks reporters who show up to his press conferences."

This sort of thing flies well with the civil Swiss, for whom Federer is a perfect antidote to the outspoken, tart Hingis. OK, Federer may have a borderline-alarming passion for American professional wrestling, and he's neither a teetotaller nor a shut-in while on the road (on one notable occasion, Dominik Hrbaty and two hockey-playing buddies, one being L. A. Kings' star Ziggy Palffy, showed the impressionable Federer the ropes of L.A.'s nightlife). But in the ways that really matter, Federer is a solid, well-mannered young man, modest and friendly — a good burgher.

Although Basel is a commercial centre with a rich, 2000-year history, the oldest university in Switzerland, cathedrals, more than 30 museums, and the internationally renowned Theater Basel, Federer finds it "non-descript." In fact, he describes Basel as a place of "no's" — as in "no lakes, no mountains, just a big river (the Rhine) that flows through the middle of the city."

Federer grew up 10 minutes from Basel proper, in suburban Munchenstein. His father, Robert, met Roger's South-African-born mother, Lynette, while on a business trip for Ciba-Geigy, South Africa (they both still work for the pharmaceutical giant.) Roger has a 23-year-old sister, Diana, who is a nursing student.

The only thing about the area that seems to tug at Federer's heartstrings is his family and friends. While most people of his age — and financial wherewithal — lust for their own digs, Federer recently invested fifty-fifty with his parents in a new, bigger home in the nearby hillside town of Bottmingen. (He also shares an apartment near the Swiss national training centre in Biel).

"My family is the thing I miss most on the tour," Federer admits. "What should I have my own place? Who is going to clean it for me?"

Given those priorities, it's easy to understand how Federer ended up dating a fair approximation of the girl next door, WTA, pro Miroslava Vavrinec, who is Swiss (by way of the Slovak Republic). They met during the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Those Olympics, in which Federer narrowly missed winning a bronze medal, provide such sweet memories for him that a lot of wall space in his bedroom is eaten up by a giant framed photograph of the Opening ceremony. "My parents and girlfriend want to put up pictures of me in the house, but I'm not ready for that," he says. "But I do ask photographers for pictures of the nice places I play, like the U.S. Open. I prefer that."

Federer was introduced to the game by parents who at best were weekend hackers. His earliest tennis-related memory is of watching his idol, Boris Becker, battle Stefan Edberg on television in the 1988 Wimbledon final. When Becker lost, Federer wept. His boyhood friends encouraged Federer to switch allegiances to Edberg on the grounds that Becker was "kind of weird," but Federer stayed the course. "Over time, though," he says, "I learned to appreciate Edberg."

As a youth, Federer was far more like the fiery German than the cool Swede. "I was hotheaded, always acting bad on the court, throwing my racquets like ten metres from me, or into the curtain," Federer says sheepishly. "My parents hated it. When I acted badly and lost, they would say nothing during the car ride home, which was the worst. But I just couldn't keep my emotions under control."

It's hard to imagine the calm, soft-spoken Federer of today broadcasting his woes and throwing tantrums. But he remained a brat until Carter and, later, Lundgren convinced him that emotional outbursts were a waste of energy.

Carter, the Swiss Davis Cup coach at the time of his death, worked with Federer from ages 10 to 14, and then off and on until early 1999, when Lundgren took over. At 15, Federer was tucked under the wing of the Swiss federation and farmed out for two full years to a national training centre, then at Ecublens, near Lausanne. The facility was more than two hours by train from Basel, and in the French (as opposed to Basel's German) region of the nation. That complicated young Roger's life in more ways than one.

"I never liked school to begin with," Federer says. "But it was the worst at Ecublens because I couldn't speak the language and I didn't know anybody. And of course, they were making fun of me."

But Federer flourished at tennis, slashing his way through the junior ranks. In 1998, his last year as a junior, Federer won the Wimbledon singles and doubles and the prestigious Orange Bowl title. A year later, he had cracked the ATP Top 100, and he won his first title as a pro, at Milan, in 2001. The FEDERER EXPRESS headlines were too tempting to resist, even though they didn't exactly represent truth in advertising: Delivery was — and still is — pending.

It was a beastly day of near triple-digit heat and humidity on Florida's Key Biscayne last spring, and Federer's sweat was flying off the end of his nose, his thick brows, and his hair as he danced between bright orange discs placed strategically around the court.

Oh, and Federer, who had already hit with Carlos Moya an hour earlier, was wearing sand-filled ankle braces and — this is the scary part — grinning at the men inflicting this torture on him, Lundgren and trainer Pierre Paganini.

It's easy to question Federer's toughness, but his daylight work ethic is above reproach. Few players to whom the game comes so naturally work as hard. As his occasional doubles partner Max Mirnyi says, "Roger is flawless in his tennis, and he seems to enjoy it more and more. He's got the game and he enjoys competing."

Lundgren certainly appreciates Federer's willingness to work. After all, the former Top 25 player coached a similarly talented player who was flat-out lazy, Marcelo Rios.

<147,4,0>Federer has a motive beyond the sheer love of the game for embracing a strenuous workout programme. He knows that developing maximum fitness will enable him to remain clear-minded and steady-handed during the enervating matches for which the Slams are known. Lundgren believes that wavering focus is still a weakness in Federer's game: "Sometimes, Roger gets too comfortable in a match and he starts to let down. He begins to play a little cat and mouse with the other guy. Suddenly, the guy is back in the match and Roger gets down so the whole momentum has changed in seconds.

"The thing is, Roger can get a little blocked on the court. Then he doesn't know what he's doing and he just stands there. But that's something he can overcome. He has to be relaxed about the fact that in your career you cannot go straight up all the time. You hit walls. You take them one step at a time, and when you get past it you're a better player."

Patrick McEnroe puts it more bluntly: "All Federer needs to do now is get rid of those mental lapses."

It's clear, though, that Federer can't be hustled to maturity. Despite that explosive game, he's plodding forward with the storied caution of the Swiss. When the brutal workout on Key Biscayne ended, Federer peeled off his soaked shirt to reveal the smooth, virtually hairless chest of a man still in the making.

"It's getting a little bit easier, I have a good ranking now," he said. "Before, I wondered if I was that good, to be in the Top One Hundred. Now I know what I'm capable of."

Early last August, while Federer was out knocking around with some other players following a performance of Cirque du Soleil in Toronto, Lundgren learned of Carter's death. He repeatedly tried to get Federer on his cell phone, but he wouldn't answer — his player was afraid Lundgren was going to chastise him for being out late. Lundgren finally got another pro, Wayne Ferreira, to call.

"When I heard the news, I just started running (back to the hotel)", says Federer, who stayed up much of that night reminiscing about Carter with Lundgren, Ferreira, and another Swedish coach and friend, Sven Groeneveld. "The first minute I didn't quite get it. But then I started thinking that I'll never see Peter again, and that's when the pain came."

Within a month of Carter's death, Federer turned a corner. After winning just one of six matches from mid-June through late August, he reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. From there, he went to Casablanca for a Davis Cup relegation match against Morocco and, dedicating his efforts to the memory of Carter (and with Lundgren filling in for Carter as team captain), he was overpowering. He beat both Arazi and Younes El Aynaoui by identical 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 scores and teamed with George Bastl to win the doubles and ensure Switzerland's re-entry into this year's World Group.

Earlier in the year, Federer had declared a goal for 2002: to qualify for one of the eight spots in the Tennis Masters Cup, an honour that had barely eluded him the year before. Although that ambition seemed doomed as late as July, Federer achieved it with a late-season surge. He then surpassed expectations by winning his round-robin group at the Masters Cup and coming within a hair's breadth of reaching the final before being eliminated by the eventual World Champion Hewitt. Their 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 slugfest left an indelible impression on many, including Patrick McEnroe.

"That match was a treasure." McEnroe says, "It was telling to see how far Roger had come, maturity-wise."

It seems that just growing up has played a major role in halving Federer's ranking (he was No. 13 at the start of 2002). The hobegoblins of anxiety may not vanish overnight, but he has worked hard to banish them and has newfound reason to feel confident as the critical part of the year approaches.

The boy from the place of "no's" finally might be ready to answer the question of whether he has a champion's heart with a resounding "Yes!"

At a Glance Age: 21. Born: Basel, Switzerland. Resides: Bottmingen, Switzerland. Height: 6-foot-1. Weight: 177. 2002 record: 58-22. 2001 record: 49-21. Career singles titles: 4.

With a 10-5 singles record in Davis Cup, Federer is on track to become an all-time performer in the international team competition.