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Interview with Roger Federer

Aired October 18, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL, CNN HOST (voice-over): It's a sunny afternoon in Shanghai and throngs of Chinese fans are gathering outside Qigong Stadium to catch a glimpse of one of the sport's enduring titans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger Federer serves (inaudible).

RAJPAL (voice-over): Widely recognized as one of the greatest tennis players ever, Roger Federer is known for his signature forehand and his arsenal of (inaudible). He became the first Swiss man to win a Grand Slam title in 2003 and went on to secure 16 more.

He currently holds the record for the most Grand Slam wins and career prize money. And while he's foregone the world number one spot that he held for a record 302 weeks, his career is still going strong.

He's considered by "Forbes" as one of the world's most powerful celebrities and ranks at number 2 on the magazine's list of highest-paid athletes, earning a cool $71 million annually.

This week on TALK ASIA, we're in China with Roger Federer as he doubles up with the nation's top tennis stars for the Shanghai Masters and discover what keeps the man driven after more than 15 years on the court.


RAJPAL: You've won 17 Grand Slam titles, but you still need to prove something?

ROGER FEDERER, FORMER WORLD NUMBER ONE: Yes, to myself, to my supporters, to Switzerland.




RAJPAL: Roger Federer, welcome to TALK ASIA.

FEDERER: Thanks a lot.

RAJPAL: And welcome to Shanghai. I mean, it's been, what, 12, 11 years since you first got here in 2002?

FEDERER: Exactly, for the World Tour finals back then.

RAJPAL: Yes, and a lot has happened.


FEDERER: (Inaudible), yes. It was my first time that I qualified for the top eight players at the end of the year and trying to win the world championship. So I lost at the semis against (inaudible). We were in a tough match. I remember.

I was out at the Expo Center and by now they have this most incredible Qigong Stadium built for the players. So I think it's a really nice place for us to play tennis. And I'm always excited coming back.

RAJPAL: Over here, in the Far East, there's been a definite shift in popularity when it comes to tennis. A lot more people are interested in it; there are even players that are coming from the region.

FEDERER: That's true.

RAJPAL: What are you noticing about the kind of focus and the talent that's being nurtured and harnessed from this part of the world? I mean, there was a time when tennis was dominated by the West.

FEDERER: Right. I mean, I think it's either a local hero is going to make a huge difference in the country itself, or then you need the best players to come in. And that's what's happened with Shanghai.

That's with China now, for instance, with the tournaments they're having in this country or in Asia in general. The best have come more and more to Asia and I think that has been very good for the growth of the game in this part of the world.

RAJPAL: There's, for players that come from here, especially, there's a lot of weight of expectation on them because you've got the pride of a nation. And you've had to deal with that as well in your career.

But it seems as though a lot of expectation's on you even now, despite the fact that you've achieved so much.

How do you deal with that?

FEDERER: Well, I mean, OK. Switzerland's not quite China in terms of pressure --


RAJPAL: Sure. But I think everyone feels that they have, you know --

FEDERER: -- absolutely. I've gone through it --

RAJPAL: -- interest in you, even whether they're Swiss or not.

FEDERER: Absolutely. And I -- I mean, it starts very locally and so forth. And you move on and on and on. And you have to prove yourself time and time again. And that pressure can definitely weigh on you.

You lose -- the fun goes away sometimes just because instead of now it being this lifelong dream you've had of wanting just to enjoy yourself and play tennis like your heroes used to. But now people are sort of expected to win, like losing in the quarterfinals, which was a dream five years ago, now is like a disaster.

It's -- it changes the mindset of you as a player and as a professional athlete. And that's where I always try to remember, well, you know what, as long as I enjoy what I'm doing, I train hard; I've no regrets. And all I can do is give my best. Then it's going to be fine regardless of the outcome.

RAJPAL: How did you get to a point where you could have that kind of perspective in your career?

FEDERER: Took me a while, to be honest. I was very emotional when I was younger. So I think by the age of 22, maybe, I thought -- 25, maybe, I'd say, even, as I go, OK, losing is fine, you know. But I think that only came because I have -- I won that much all of a sudden. So I knew that those wins, nobody could take away from me. That's sort of in the vault.

And that's good to have, good to know. And now you have to just prove yourself every single day and everything that comes is like a bonus. So I've been on this bonus trip since a long, long time and playing this way has been actually much more enjoyable, even though, you know, chasing records and playing against the other top guys and has also created its own pressure, you know.

But a different one than when you're up and coming and trying to make a breakthrough. It's quite challenging and especially you're young and you're emotional. It's quite difficult.

RAJPAL: I read somewhere that you don't -- because you've won, you know, 17 Grand Slam titles, you've set broken -- and you've broken records -- that you don't need tennis per se, that you have an emotional detachment from it, that you don't feel that -- I mean, I don't know. Do you feel that you still need to prove something?

FEDERER: Yes, to myself, to my supporters, to Switzerland. I want to show them that I love to play and love to win and that I can still do it time and time again. I definitely have that drive, you know. But I always thought I had a good perspective like people ask me when, after I had kids, you know, that that's really give you perspective.

I didn't feel any -- I had kids for that. You know? I had kids because I love my wife and I wanted to create a family, you know, more than anything. And so for me, I've always been like if tennis ended tomorrow, I'm still happy because I'll be very proud of what I achieved.

But tennis is a very short part of my life, hopefully, you know, that you have to be able to live without it. So if you be injured or it were to be over the next day, you should be fine without it as well. And I think that has always been a mindset I've had. And that's helped me to actually stay more calm throughout my career.

RAJPAL: How do you deal with the constant global chatter about your career, about what you should be doing or should not being doing, when it becomes -- I mean, at the end of the day, us mere mortals will think about our career and what we want to do next, whether we want to do something or not. And yet for you, it's not personal anymore.

How do you deal with that?

FEDERER: Yes, it's a bit strange, you know, at times, everybody weighing in on everything you do and every match is overly judged. You know, it's like, ah, he's not playing so well. Something's wrong maybe mentally or physically or his game's off, what is it? Let's go dig a little bit. And that clearly can take its toll.

It's like it's quite challenging going into the press conference or (inaudible) read too much about myself just because you get influenced by it. The next thing you know, it's like is my forehand really that bad right now? Or is my foot (inaudible) not the same, what it used to be? That's why I try not to read into it too much.

But clearly what I've always done throughout my career is question myself, even in the best of times. And then also when things don't go so well, like maybe this year's going to be a bit more challenging, you know. And I've done it before.

So it's not like now, OK, my God, panic mode, what I'm going to do now to change it around. So it's just important to be always looking out for how you can improve as a player and then it's actually somehow you find a way, which is OK.



RAJPAL: Do you still get nervous when you get on court?

FEDERER: Yes. I mean, surprisingly, yes.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger Federer (inaudible).






RAJPAL: Do you still get nervous when you get on court?

FEDERER: Yes. I mean, surprisingly, yes, in the first round or second round or third round and sometimes not in the semis. You -- I can't predict when I'm going to be nervous because sometimes I sleep really well; I wake up and I feel like, wow, today's a great day. I feel good at practice.

Next thing you know is I woke up, I walk on court and I play really poorly or I'm super nervous or the other way around. You know, it's just like I felt horrible all day but then I played dream match. So there's no real secret to it.

RAJPAL: How do you separate what's going on up here with what's happening on court? Because mental strength, physical strength, are both - - need to be in tandem for any athlete.

FEDERER: Absolutely. They need to be connected and then that's where confidence can help in a big, big way, because you might be actually not feeling great physically or mentally; you're drained. But the confidence somehow gets you through.

And when you don't have confidence, that's then when you have to sort of trust all the hard work you've done and you have to keep on working hard. So success comes back.

So that's when it becomes tricky. I think when confidence sort of totally leaves you or you doubt your confidence, you know.

RAJPAL: Who have you enjoyed playing against? I mean, when you look at some of your opponents that you've had from the likes of, you know, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, you know, more recently Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, these are bigger name players I'm mentioned, who do you feel has challenged you so much that you've had to pull out every single bit of arsenal that you've got?

FEDERER: Right. Well, there's definitely a few of them, you know, and they go in phases. My favorite time, in a way, was when I was coming up and about, just because I was playing against a guy from TV and there's like, really, am I playing against Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi or, you know, those kind of guys, Carlos Moya, Tim Henman, you know? You name it.

And there's like, wow, this guy's got such beautiful volleys or his forehand's amazing or his serve is just outrageous. I've never seen a guy return like this. And that you're on the same court is like honor. And that is something that really marks you. And it's like that kid in a candy store feeling. And then all of a sudden the younger guys push through.

And that was a very strong generation was Rafa, Murray and Djokovic. And so playing against them in the beginning is honestly quite strange, because now here you are, sort of the older guy. And they kind of look up to you, but not quite. They -- and they want to beat you because I'm not 10 years apart with them, but sort of only five or six.

But it is like a new generation. And that's mentally for me was quite a challenge, just getting over that hurdle and I think Rafa, for that matter, because of the way he plays, which is left-handed topspin and so forth, he has really maybe, you know, think through my game again, what do I need to change to actually complete and beat him.

And he's been the most challenging for me probably overall combined with late (inaudible) in the beginning of my career to play against.

RAJPAL: I read this really interesting article -- I think it was called "Federer as a Religious Experience," it was written by the novelist, David Foster Wallace (ph). And for me, I think, I actually felt that, when it was the 2007 Wimbledon final between you and Nadal.

And that game was -- you could see the two very different styles of tennis, you know, battling it out against each other. It was a beautiful, beautiful game. You've got muscle, power, strength, finesse and style, all in one game.

What point do you think you felt comfortable within your own skin and your own game to be able to produce the thing of beauty?

FEDERER: Yes, I mean, there's some matches in your career that you look back on and you go like, you're so happy and proud that you were part of it. And I think -- I think it was actually the 2008 finals in seven, we played a best -- a five-setter as well in 2008 I lost that epic 9-7 I think in the 5th.

And I think that's the match that everybody sort of still talks about as being that -- one of the greatest matches of all time.

And it's just special being part of that. And you start to feel that once you enter like an epic fourth or fifth set and you realize that sort of the world has, you know, is standing still around you, that everybody's not just maybe glued to the TV, even though people are doing their own thing on the other side of the planet or elsewhere.

But it felt like that and maybe the match should have been in like interrupted at the end of the match, because of darkness. But you cannot interrupt that kind of match right then because people want to see this epic finish and that's what happened, you know, Rafa, the way he won, it was unbelievable.

But to me it was cool really to be part of it. And I don't look back at that and think this was the most crushing loss in my life. I don't see it that way. I see it as something more positive, actually, because I already had one five- or six-set (ph) -- I don't remember; Wimbledons before that. So I was naturally super disappointed in that.

But thankfully I've had some of those incredible matches, not only against Rafa but other players, too, which sort of connect you forever with that player or with the venue, with the Centre Court, with the fans.

And that's what's so beautiful about sports in general, you just don't know the outcome and you see that, you know, the different styles against each other, the fairness, hopefully, as well, which was the case in that match, though it was a very, very special to be part of that.


FEDERER: It's one of those moments you look back on as a -- as a player and a father and a husband. You're like, God, that's like the perfect moment. Can we like freeze that one forever?



FEDERER: The Roger Federer Foundation supports this particular project because it's in the poorest neighborhood in South Africa, so and that reason, we really feel that these kids need the most help to succeed later on in life.

Let me show you how I play a bit of tennis.

Like that.



FEDERER: One, two, three.


RAJPAL: You're very supportive of young people, especially with your foundation, the Roger Federer Foundation. Tell me about why it was important for you to start that. I believe it began that after you won the 2007 Wimbledon.

FEDERER: It's been going on for a while now and I still feel like I'm learning every day. You know, I'm doing it with so much passion but I need, you know, some help, some expertise help to exactly how to set it all up and go through it all because it's a lot of work, you know, and it's a lot of responsibility.

So for me, it's something I really, really enjoy to make a difference in people's lives and the idea of the Roger Federer Foundation early was in education because we felt that's something you cannot take away from any child. It's in the continent of Africa. It was started in South Africa because that's where my mom's from.

That was something very personal and I felt very comfortable doing that and it was my mom who also always told me, if you have an opportunity, give back, Roger. Don't wait too long.

RAJPAL: Speaking of your mom, she's been quoted as saying that you get your serenity from her, discipline from your father.

FEDERER: Really (inaudible) --

RAJPAL: Interestingly enough, Roger Federer, I read that you weren't always a cool, calm, nice guy on the court.

FEDERER: I was a nice guy. But I'm not nice against myself.


RAJPAL: You weren't always a cool, calm guy, always smiling on the court.

FEDERER: That's true.

RAJPAL: What was that about?

FEDERER: Just struggling to keep my temper, you know --

RAJPAL: See, this is -- I can't believe that you even had a temper.

FEDERER: But it's so funny, because actually I was -- I had all the temperament, even on the tour, on the main tour. But the problem was it had -- it was all before I really broke through, when I beat Sampras at Wimbledon.

I literally decided a month before I beat Sampras at Wimbledon 2001, I'm just going to be quiet now. And I'm going to get so angry if I'm not going to be quiet at myself that I just -- I pulled it through. You can ask all my generation players how I used to be in the juniors up until about 20, 21 years old.

And then I became this super quiet guy that now everybody knows. But people who really know me remember that crazy guy who used to comment on every shot I missed, cried after matches, broke racquets, threw racquets in the fence. I wouldn't break the racquets, and just be so emotional and torn, you know, on the court.

And not argue ever with my opponent or the umpire decisions at all, just with myself, you know, that trying to be too perfect too soon. It was very much part of me, and I think it was good for me to get it all out when I was between sort of, I'd say, I don't know, 8 and 20. And then now I can play with that serenity that my mom is maybe saying, you know.

RAJPAL: You've got a lot of support around you. I mean, you talk about with your family, travel with your family often as well. And also the support that you have from your wife. I mean, I think maybe a lot of people don't know that she was a champion in her own right, a junior champion as well.

Tell me about the kind of influence that she has had on you.

FEDERER: Yes, friends and family for me are -- I mean, that's the top of the priorities. But Mirka has been incredibly supportive throughout. We got to know each other better at the Sydney Olympics back in 2000 and started dating right sort of shortly after that. And then had kids in 2009, also got married that year.

And so for me, it's been an amazing experience and just seeing that she totally understands being with tennis, because she played herself on tours as well. She was herself top 100 on the WPA tour and that actually she doesn't sort of pull me away from the game of tennis and says, you know, why do you have to go practice again?

Like, you know, she's like, shouldn't you practice more or shouldn't you go to bed earlier? She reminds me of the things so without her approval we wouldn't have had success I've had.

And she's seen, I mean, I'd say 80-90 percent of all my matches, more than any coach I've ever had and so forth. So she's been incredibly good for my tennis career, but also for me personally, just growing up. She's always been there and she's been wonderful.

RAJPAL: Because she didn't continue with her professional tennis career, she -- I remember reading somewhere that she said once that when you win, she feels like she wins, too.

Do you ever feel that when you're actually playing and perhaps even winning, is that you're -- there's a little bit part of you that is doing it for her as well?

I mean, that's a romantic (inaudible).


FEDERER: I know. It's very romantic. I don't think -- I don't think of it. I just like to see her like be happy. So if it makes her happy that I win, it's good for me winning, right? Because if I lose, she's in a bad mood. It's not good for me. So --

RAJPAL: Does she ever question you, if you lose, like do you ever say what were you doing?

FEDERER: Oh, yes, like -- oh, yes, she'll tell me, that was an awful match. What's wrong with you? You know, like absolutely. She can -- (inaudible) family they'll tell you the truth.

RAJPAL: They're the worst critics.

FEDERER: Absolutely. But that's why we love them the most. And clearly we talk about matches. We've gone through phases where we talk so much about tennis, especially in the beginning of my career. There was even a time where I didn't have a coach. So I don't want to say she took the coaching role, but clearly then we talked about it.

RAJPAL: I saw somewhere that you said that you wanted to become number one because you wanted to have a child early enough so that they could see you play. And I think everyone remembers the 2012 Wimbledon last year and it was in Britain, of course, home crowd of Andy Murray.

But I think everyone saw those faces of those two little girls cheering. But they didn't know what they were cheering for. They just saw their daddy and they were very happy. But seeing those faces means more than anything than any trophy that you could get.

FEDERER: I think there was a particular dream of me, (inaudible) of my wife, that she said it would be so, so nice if you could -- that your kids or our kids see you play still, because at a young age, they don't know what's going on. They (inaudible) can barely tell the difference between practice and matches.

And they get the winning and losing part, all of that now slowly, so for her it was really like a dream to once we had kids that hopefully can still keep on playing so they actually get to really see you. So at the -- at the Wimbledon 2012 in the finals, they didn't come to see the match. They came for the trophy ceremony.

I didn't know that they were going to be there. Mirka sort of brought them in and it's one of those moments you look back on as a -- as a player and a father and a husband. You're like, oh, my God, that's like the perfect moment for me, like freeze that one forever or just for a longer time. And then just seeing them happy and clapping and seeing their happy faces, it's a beautiful feeling.

RAJPAL: What do you want your legacy to be?

FEDERER: That I was maybe good for the game, not bad, really.


FEDERER: People enjoyed watching me play, that I put the game into the right direction, that I was maybe somebody you could look up to.

And I just want to be part of the great game of tennis, that -- who was part of it, because tennis is always bigger than any athlete we've ever had and tennis will keep on going, will be successful, will be good because right now we live in sort of a golden era, people call it. And I'm very proud to be playing right now.

RAJPAL: Roger Federer, it's been a pleasure.

Thank you so much.

FEDERER: Thank you.