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By Chris Bowers
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Chris Bowers
All rights reserved.
THE YOUTH OF A CHAMPION
The story of Roger Federer is no 'Williams story'. In fact, to those who hanker after an egalitarian tennis world where the economic circumstances of a child's background are no obstacle to them making it to the very top of the game, this will offer no supporting evidence. While Venus and Serena Williams were genuine products of the ghetto community of Los Angeles, and Jimmy Connors grew up in a blue-collar area of Illinois, encouraged to despise the rich kids who populated the established tennis clubs, Federer is a product of the affluent middle classes.
He is the second child of a modestly well-to-do but unremarkable family from Basel. He's certainly not had to defy social obstacles to reach the top, he's not even a middle-class rebel without a cause like John McEnroe was. He has never felt the need to turn his anger into on-court intensity, the way Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and even Pete Sampras could turn their opponents into deeply hated enemies, at least for the duration of a match. Nor has he ever resorted to the snide tactics of a McEnroe, Ion Tiriac or Ilie Nastase to derail an opponent's concentration. He's a well-spoken and well-behaved child without an apparent chip on his shoulder.
Yet the drive that underlies the phenomenal body of work he has created cannot be assembled without a steely determination. Perhaps the lesson for tennis sociologists from the Roger Federer story is that such determination is classless – that it can burn as brightly in someone for whom everything was laid on, as it can in someone who has had to fight for everything. Having said that, a little money to oil the wheels of junior coaching and a willing parental taxi service clearly helped, and Federer benefited considerably from both.
Roger Federer was born on 8 August 1981 in Switzerland's second-largest city, Basel, the second child and first son of Lynette and Robert Federer, who had lived there since their marriage in 1973.
Though hardly a destination for the trendy international jetsetter, Basel's location on the Rhine river at the junction of three countries – Switzerland, Germany and France – makes it a highly appropriate place of origin for a global sporting icon. In fact, the city's location at an international crossroads had something of a role in Federer today being conversant in three languages – or four, if you consider the fiercely independent guttural Swiss-German dialects as a language in their own right. Five languages are regularly visible in everyday life in Basel: the four Swiss languages – German, French, Italian, the original pure Swiss language of Romansch (now spoken only in the east but still in use on banknotes and some official signs) and English. The city's airport, sited on French territory, was for years known as Basel–Mulhouse but is today known as Euro-Airport, which cities in Germany, Switzerland and France all claim as their own.
As the most European city in a country whose inhabitants are still very sceptical about joining the European Union, Basel has a mildly un-Swiss character and a sense of humour all of its own. It has its own variation of the German carnival called the Morgestraich (literally, 'morning roam through the streets'), a pagan procession held on the Monday after Ash Wednesday at 4am, at which time all the lights in the city go off to enhance the effect of a stream of candlelit torches. It's also one of Europe's oldest university cities and a centre of the European pharmaceuticals industry. It was in Basel in 1943 that a chemist, Professor Albert Hofmann, tested on himself a molecule he had devised and named LSD-25 – when he began having hallucinations, it became clear he had become the first man to experience the effects of the drug commonly known today as LSD.
Roger Federer's story begins in the Basel pharmaceuticals industry, though somewhat less prosaically. His father, Robert, was a laboratory assistant with the Basel-based chemicals giant Ciba-Geigy. As the 1960s ended, he decided to travel, threw in his job, and landed in South Africa, as much because it was easy to get into than for any other reason. Ironically, he then got a job with Ciba's main plant in South Africa, which was based in Isando, an industrial suburb on the east rand of Johannesburg. There in 1970 he met an 18-year-old secretary, Lynette Durand, who worked at Ciba and had lived all her life in the affluent nearby suburb of Kempton Park. They got to know each other outside work; he introduced her to tennis, she loved it, they played a lot, and began a romance, which led to marriage in 1973.
Robert Federer was born in 1946. The son of a textile worker, he grew up in eastern Switzerland near the town of Altstätten, and played tennis for fun, but never aspired to doing it particularly well. Lynette is six years his junior, born in 1952 to a family whose first language was Afrikaans. She went on to play tennis to a much higher level than her husband – according to Beat Caspar, the former sports editor of Basel's daily newspaper, the Basler Zeitung, 'She had a good sense of co-ordination, much better than Robert' – but, despite having a fair amount of ambition, she too never aspired to make a career of it.
In 1973, the couple moved to Switzerland – leaving Lynette 8,400 kilometres (5,200 miles) from 'home' – and settled in Riehen, a suburb of Basel near the German border. (The English-speaking world is still not entirely sure how it wants to spell and pronounce Switzerland's second biggest city. 'Basel', pronounced Barsl, is the Swiss German name and, as it is a Swiss German city, that is the local name. It's also the spelling and pronunciation used on the tennis circuit for the Swiss Indoors tournament that takes place there every October. But there is an old English version 'Basle', pronounced Barl, derived from the city's French name 'Bâle', pronounced as in the English word 'balcony', which dates from the days when most major European cities had an English spelling and is still used by some British newspapers. This book uses the local spelling of 'Basel'.)
Robert went on to become a sales executive for Ciba while Lynette also secured a posting with the company in her new home city, and the two played tennis at the firm's multi-sports club, which had a handful of courts shaded by mature trees in the Basel suburb of Allschwil. Company sports and leisure grounds were a very cheap way for employees to practise their recreation, in fact some companies allowed their staff and their families to use the firm's facilities for free. That was fine for the bank balance but for anyone with a bit of ambition, the social nature and lack of competitive structure could become frustrating.
After a few years living in Basel, Lynette joined the 'Old Boys' Tennis Club, one of Basel's top two tennis clubs (the other being the equally Swiss-sounding 'Basel Lawn Tennis Club'), mainly to play competitive matches, and in 1995 she was a member of the Old Boys' women's team that became Swiss national inter-club champions in the 'Young Veterans' age group. She also actively supported local and regional tennis, serving on the board of the Basel regional subsection of the Swiss Tennis Association and taking on responsibility for developing young natural talent. For many years, she also worked at Basel's ATP tournament, the Swiss Indoors. Today she plays virtually no tennis, instead preferring golf, at which she currently boasts a handicap of around fifteen.
The remarkable thing is that both Robbie and Lynette are very short. Neither is more than 1.7m (5ft 7in), and for a while it was feared that any offspring of theirs couldn't possibly grow tall enough to become a force on the tennis circuit. Yet, out of some genetic inheritance, Roger Federer has grown to 1.85m (6ft 1in).
In late 1979, Lynette and Robbie's first child, Diana, was born. A much quieter person than her younger brother, she has quite deliberately kept out of the limelight, and has pursued her own career as a psychiatric nurse, working outside but not far from Basel. Like Roger, she too has had twins.
Diana's childhood was inevitably strongly affected by Roger's exploits, but the Federers appear to have largely avoided the classic trap of having a gifted child whose interest needs to be serviced to such an extent that other offspring suffer. 'The family was always relatively harmonious,' says Thomas Wirz, a Basel journalist and tennis coach who on several occasions carried out interviews in the Federer family home. 'I have sometimes wondered what Diana did while Roger was being ferried from tournament to tournament, and she may well have certain misgivings about the tennis world, but she has always seemed very independent, pretty sure of herself and very polite. There certainly never seemed to be any sense of resentment.'
Diana, who enjoys skiing and snowboarding, was often approached by the Basler Zeitung for quotes. 'She never wanted to have an article about herself in the newspaper,' says Beat Caspar. 'I often asked her. I told her the people would be interested in her, especially when they see her sitting courtside watching Roger's matches, but she always said no. Lynette constantly made it clear that Diana wasn't to get the short straw from Roger's tennis. She always told Diana that she shouldn't be in any way bothered by the fact that people were always asking about Roger. And Diana has always kept her distance from tennis and the media, and has never wanted to talk publicly about her brother.'
Twenty months after Diana's birth, after the family had moved across the Rhine to Münchenstein, a suburb closer to Basel city centre, Roger was born. With no middle name, the birth register simply bears the entry: 'Roger Federer'. Because he's Swiss, and because French is the second language in Switzerland, many assume that his first name is pronounced the French way (eg as in Roget's Thesaurus), but, as he has often had to point out, it is pronounced the English way, and most French-speaking people who know this have developed their own pronunciation (as if written 'Roj-air'). The correct pronunciation of 'Federer' has the emphasis on the first syllable, with the vowel sound somewhere between the vowel in the English words 'fair' and 'fay' and the first 'r' flipped. The English-speaking world has settled into a pronunciation that resembles the English word 'federal', a pronunciation that Federer accepts as legitimate.
What was he like as a boy? Everyone who remembers him from that time talks about a happy and cheerful boy with seemingly limitless amounts of energy and a burning need to play sport, especially ball sports. In an interview in 2005, Lynette said, 'He wasn't a straightforward child. He was very, very lively, full of energy, and he was always trying out the boundaries with his parents – and, later, with his teachers – in sport, in school. He was always a bundle of energy and very emotional, not easy to be with. For a while, I was constantly worried about his concentration, but he later worked on that.'
The Swiss education system offers each Swiss canton (administrative district) a fair bit of freedom in its educational set-up. In Basel, then as now, children went to kindergarten at five, primary school at seven, secondary school at eleven or twelve and then on to various forms of further education at fifteen or sixteen, once the compulsory years were over.
Roger followed his sister Diana into the Neuewelt School, a state-run primary school in a quiet leafy and affluent corner of Münchenstein – the name 'Neuewelt' literally means 'new world' but it is just the name of an area in Münchenstein and doesn't indicate any wider idealistic project. Although they could have afforded to send their children to private schools, Robbie and Lynette's decision to send Diana and Roger to the local state primary wasn't unusual, as that was very much what one did in Switzerland. There was little demand for private schools, especially in moderately well-off areas where facilities were good, and it was felt that parental support encouraged high standards of education. The Neuewelt School had both a kindergarten and a primary school, and both Diana and Roger went there from five to twelve.
Data-protection legislation and other privacy safeguards prevent Roger's teachers from saying too much about his schooling, but Theresa Fischbacher, who was head teacher for part of the time Roger was in his primary-school years, remembers him more from his time outside the classroom than in it. 'I was convinced he would become a footballer,' she recalls. 'You hardly ever saw him without a football at his feet, and he used to say, "I want to become a footballer!" For a long time, I had no idea he played tennis and, when I eventually found out, I assumed it had to be very much a secondary activity because of his passion for football. I have to admit that he was very good, and it wouldn't have surprised me to see him make it as a football player.'
A few years before Roger arrived at the Neuewelt School, two of its alumni, the brothers Murat and Hakan Yakin, had been as enthusiastic footballers in their primary-school days as Federer and went on to become local icons for FC Basel, each playing more than fifty games for the Swiss national team. Their success created a culture at the school that it was cool to play football, and, with tennis at that time still a very limited sport in a country whose primary sporting passions were football, skiing and ice hockey, young Roger might well have felt more comfortable with the big ball at his feet than the small ball on his racket strings.
Fischbacher remembers one other thing about him: 'He was always moving. He was happy, had a lovely nature and was well brought up, in terms of his manners, but he had this constant need to be on the move. He was a fidget.' Yet she denies that this restlessness in any way made him a bad pupil. 'He was clearly bright, and I've known many restless, fidgety kids who were very bright.'
Federer himself says of his primary-school days, 'I loved playing with balls, whatever sport they were from: ping-pong, tennis, basketball, football. I was always trying something.'
At twelve, he left to attend the Progymnasium, a form of secondary school specifically for children expected to go on to the full Gymnasium (literally 'grammar school', although not really comparable to the English grammar schools) at the age of fifteen. Although he never went on to the full Gymnasium, never excelled in academic pursuits and finished his schooling at Switzerland's National Tennis Centre, he wouldn't have been allowed into the Progymnasium if he hadn't been at least moderately bright.
One might expect there to be pictures of such inspirational alumni as the Yakin brothers and Roger Federer adorning the corridors of the Neuewelt School. In some countries, there might even have been a plaque, 'ROGER FEDERER WENT TO SCHOOL HERE, 1988–93'. But no. Switzerland just isn't that sort of country. For today's pupils, parents and staff at the school, Federer is just someone who went there a couple of decades ago. Perhaps this lack of ostentatious admiration provides a part-explanation for Federer's phenomenal normality and humanity in the face of the global admiration he enjoys today.
The Federers often holidayed in South Africa, but these trips largely dried up when both Roger and Diana were at school. In an interview with the South African Sunday Times, Lynette recalled, 'When the children were still young we used to come to South Africa more often, but when they went to school we couldn't return as often because the European summer holidays are in South Africa's winter, which isn't so appealing. But my kids love South Africa very, very much, especially the Garden Route [a popular tourist stretch of the south coast of South Africa between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth]. When Roger was still in his teens, we spent a holiday on the south coast. He loves the game and the wildlife.'
One of the bibles of the global tennis circuit is what used to be known as the annual Media Guide, now re-termed The Official Guide to Professional Tennis, brought out by the ATP (originally the Association of Tennis Professionals) and the WTA (Women's Tennis Association). It's a guide to the global tennis circus, but the meat of it is the biographies of leading tennis players, including their results, vital statistics, general career summary and a few personal details. Each of the ten editions of the guide in which Federer has featured since 2000 – including the 2007-2011 issues which have come out since the first edition of Fantastic Federer was published – has recorded that he started to play tennis at the age of eight. That figure is out by five years, and it seems odd that this hasn't been pointed out to the ATP. The ATP media staff show the prepared pages to players or their agents before they go to print, but no-one in the Federer camp has picked this up (either that or Federer is happy to have the world think he started playing at eight). It is true that he didn't start to take tennis seriously until he was eight, but he first picked up a racket not long after his third birthday. There's even a picture of him holding a wooden racket by the throat (it being too heavy for a three-year-old to wield by holding the grip), taken at the Ciba Club, his father's works club, in late 1984. Roger's story is like that of many players who go on to make it as professionals: his parents played as a hobby and at weekends took him along to their club, where he picked up a racket and was soon hooked. 'He loved the sport from the beginning,' his mother has said.
Excerpted from Federer by Chris Bowers. Copyright © 2013 Chris Bowers. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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