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 Another Thing

The ideal Swiss role model
With Tiger Woods all over the place, one wonders if part of the reason his tennis equivalent handles fame so well is due to his upbringing

Elsewhere in this issue, we look at the ongoing saga that is the TigerWoods Story. Latterly, his straying hasn’t been limited to his driving (vehicular or golfwise), and the subsequent extra-curricular distractions have unquestionably played a part in making him at present a diminished competitor in a world that he has ruled almost without threat for the past 13 years.

No contemporary golfer can comprehend what it is like to possess Woods’ hitherto relentless mastery over his sport. One man who surely has some idea, though, is Roger Federer. Heading into the French Open, he had 16 Grand Slam titles to his credit compared to Tiger’s 14 major championships.

A mutual self-awareness and respect has helped make them friends of sorts (as has their respective relationships with their equipment supplier, Nike). At the Australian Open in January, Federer revealed he had been in touch with Woods in the wake of the car crash that shook the world, this over a month before Tiger’s public statement of February 19. Federer said then: “I have always been aware that the image you patiently construct for an entire career can be ruined in a minute.” Mmm, let Tiger tell you about it, Roger.

Roger Federer: not only a great tennis player but a grounded human being
Roger Federer: not only a great tennis player but
a grounded human being

There are so many things to admire about Federer. He attracts an adjective, ‘grace’, that might more usually describe a female sportsperson and makes it apply to him as comfortably as a duck takes to water. He has transcendent talent but he acts generously in victory and defeat, much as the latter hurts. After his loss to Rafael Nadal in Australia in 2009, he was distraught, in tears. No athlete cares more than Federer. Yet his demeanour is invariably dignified. He knows he’s great at tennis but there’s an air, almost bizarrely an unassuming one, that seems to say: “Hey, it could have been something else if I’d wanted”.

His family/work life-balance seems not only admirable but perfect. He met his wife, Mirka, previously a professional tennis player herself, at the 2000 Olympics in Australia. They have young twins. OK, we thought we knew that Tiger was happy at home, which is the zillionth example of William Goldman’s famous adage “No one knows anything”, but I’d wager more of us would be shocked to discover anything reprehensible in Federer’s life that might be remotely close to the territory Woods was inhabiting.

Is it anything to do with the fact that he’s Swiss? More specifically, that he’s not British or American or otherwise from a country where someone who happens to be especially dexterous with a ball is revered as if he were a latter-day Einstein. Federer is from a land where a second language isn’t patois but a step on the way to learning a third.

René Stauffer is a Swiss journalist who knows Federer; indeed, has written a book about him. He feels that therein may lie part of the answer.

“In some respects Switzerland may be a more disciplined society than you are used to. For certain, it is a quieter country, more removed, than the United States or Britain.We have sports stars, of course, such as skiers, and football is big here like it is everywhere n Europe. But such stars don’t get chased by the paparazzi all the time, as they do with you. Roger noted just the other week that he had taken his twins for a stroll by the lake and no one had bothered him. He does get snapped from time to time, but it’s not too bad for him.” Or, to put it another way, there’s some context of celebrity that’s on the sensible side of worship.

Leaving aside skiers and footballers, Federer isn’t the first famous Swiss tennis player of the modern era – Martina Hingis won five Grand Slams, including Wimbledon. “I think Roger was lucky to grow up into tennis at a time when Martina was the best woman player in the world,” says Stauffer. “He entered a world that was used to us having good tennis players.”

Yes, I asked Stauffer, but leaving aside his immense ability, what’s he really like?

“When you see him, he always asks how you are and what you’ve been doing. He remembers stuff about you.”

In other words, and out of character with most sportsmen who cannot compare with his status, he behaves like a human being. Now that is world-class.

(Note: if it ever emerges that Roger Federer has been caught in a compromising situation up the Matterhorn with a yodelling instructor, a cuckoo clock and a bar of Toblerone... well, then my name’s Heidi.)

June 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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