Celebrating more than Fed's birthday
TORONTO -- Roger Federer's list of accomplishments is among the most impressive and well-chronicled in sport -- 16 Grand Slams, 285 weeks at No. 1, 67 titles, $63,653,278 in prize money.
But for all that he has done on the court, it's perhaps his impact on the game off the court that bears the most celebrating as the great Swiss turns 30 -- and given his career, that may be the most impressive accomplishment of all.
Ask Federer what he wants to be known for, and he doesn't mention titles or victories. "I just hope I'm remembered as one of the good guys, fair, kind of an idol to kids, because that's what I needed to get started," he once reflected. "I don't know what it takes to be remembered for all these things. This will only be answered once my career is over."
He has also said, "I try to be good for the game, leave it better off than when I arrived, even though that's hard. I'm very thankful to the legends of the game who created this great platform for us."
Over the years, Federer's popularity with fans has become legendary -- a combination of his graceful game, record-breaking success and pleasant personality conveyed in three languages. His popularity is not universal: His matter-of-fact statements are sometimes seen as arrogant, some object to his wardrobe choices and some simply get put off by the Mr. Perfect image. Yet there is a discernible "Federer effect" on ticket sales, TV ratings and Internet traffic. Although Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are fast catching up, they have yet to surpass the Swiss as they have in the rankings. The money has slowly followed the numbers -- despite being from a small country like Switzerland and playing a sport without strong geographical concentration, Forbes calculates he is now the world's most highly paid international athlete.
But to appreciate the true quality of what Federer has been to the sport requires looking not just between the lines or in the stands, but also in the locker room.
Federer came up during the era of Pete Sampras, when the very top players generally kept to themselves and rarely got involved in the running of the tour. Things have changed on both fronts, and Federer's role has been significant both collectively and individually. After establishing himself as No. 1 in 2004, and particularly after the retirement of elder statesman Andre Agassi in 2006, he embraced the role of ambassador. Rather like his game, he has managed to strike a rare balance between the spirit of the amateur days and the professionalism of the modern era and redefined what it means to be No. 1.
In 2007 and 2008, when major changes were proposed to the format of the men's tour and when the ATP became embroiled in a tournament lawsuit that threatened its future, the top players' joint focus on the running of the tour was notably high, and the top three -- Federer, Nadal and Djokovic -- were all serving on the player council for the first time.
In an interview during that tense and heated summer, former player council president Jonas Bjorkman offered an unsolicited comment about why. "I've never seen anything like it in the 18 years that I've been around," he said. "Full credit to Roger Federer. I've always said you couldn't ask for a better No. 1.
"He does so many things, and he is the one getting the guys to finally come together."
But day to day, it's smaller things that have had an influence. "I think Roger, and even his parents as well, are really nice people," Marion Bartoli said in an interview last month. "I saw him after my quarterfinal match at the French Open, and he congratulate me for my win and everything. He doesn't have to do it, and he still does it."
It seems like almost every player has a Federer story. Marsel Ilhan's surprise was evident when he saw Federer walking up and congratulating him for becoming the first Turkish man to win a match in a Grand Slam. Not everyone even knew that Ashley Harkleroad had undergone ovarian surgery a few years ago, but Federer did, and he asked her about after her health when she returned to tour. Sam Querrey received a note after falling through a glass table and suffering bad cuts to his leg. "It made my day. It was almost worth it," Querrey happily said. Nor is it just PR. Federer contacted Tiger Woods when Woods was plunged into scandal in 2009, a time when most celebrities would have wanted to avoid contact with the star golfer.
In turn, his fellow players have rewarded him with astonishing loyalty given the sport's competitive nature. The ATP's Stefan Edberg award, given annually to the player voted the fairest on the tour, has been won by Federer six times -- one more than Edberg himself. Once again, the sentiment is probably not universal, but still widespread. Bartoli cried when Federer lost the 2008 Wimbledon final to Nadal. In 2009, with Nadal out and Federer tottering toward an elusive French Open victory, Leander Paes said he would give up one of his Grand Slam doubles titles for Federer to win. When Federer did win, Tommy Haas, who was up two sets and had break point in the third set of their quarterfinal meeting, found he didn't mind losing so much. "When I watched him celebrate yesterday and saw all the historic moments and him now probably being the greatest ever, I don't really have any regrets," Haas said.
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Perhaps more significantly, they have also followed suit. When James Blake ran into a netpost in Rome and was badly injured, he noted that the only player to send him a get-well message in hospital that week was Federer. When Milos Raonic fell and hurt his hip at Wimbledon this year, he got messages from Federer, Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych. "Everyone was very supportive, asking how I'm doing," Raonic said. "It makes it that much more enjoyable, when you compete against these guys, but they're also very supportive of you when you do get hurt."
The tone should not change any time soon. The warm-natured Nadal has carried on the role after ascending to No. 1, and the fun-loving Djokovic also enjoys a good relationship with the guys in the locker room and being in the spotlight. Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray were among the thirty players who wrote birthday messages to Federer in the latest issue of Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte. "Keep inspiring all the world of sport," wrote Djokovic.
Federer plans to do just that, insisting that turning 30 does not signal a ride into the sunset. "I'd rather be 30 than 20, to be honest. To me it's a nice time," said the married father of two 2-year-old twin girls last week. "At that age, I was trying to win my first title. I had no idea how my career would turn out. Do you listen to your body more? Yes, you do. Are you more wise? Yes, you are. Are you more experienced? Yes. Do you have a thousand matches in your body? Yes, you do. You just go with what you have. The important thing is I work hard, I'm professional, I enjoy my time on tour, and I have that going for me. I'm very happy about that."
And so too is the sport.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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