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Roger Federer: Fearless At 30

DEUCE Australian Open 2012

Federer© AFP/Getty ImagesAt 30, Roger Federer "has the enthusiasm of a 20 year old", says Paul Annacone.

Roger Federer is now 30 years old – typically the tipping point year for a professional tennis player. But dare call Federer "typical" at your own peril.

December in Dubai
               The coach issued a suggestion: try this drill.   
               Now let's try that one.
               Here's one that ends the point sooner.
               How 'bout this one that makes the point last longer?
               This time you get to hit only one serve.
               Come in on the return. 
               Stay back on the return. 
 
The coach was Paul Annacone. More than 30 years into his tennis life, Annacone had honed his game at fledgling Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, reached a career-high No. 13 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, played Davis Cup and gone on to coach Pete Sampras.

So here was Annacone on a December afternoon in Dubai, putting yet another player through the paces, looking for ways during tennis' short off-season to enhance his charge's tools. 

And the player was incredibly happy, eager to soak up every one of Annacone's words.

"Roger has the enthusiasm of a 20 year old."

That he happened to be Roger Federer hardly mattered. What Federer does in Dubai has long intrigued. Away from tournaments and rivals, fans and cameras, surely this spot in the Arabian desert is the place where the secrets are stashed; where the genius that has triggered swooning in everyone from literati, like the late author David Foster Wallace, to glitterati, such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour, to zillions of tennis aficionados, is concocted in an elaborate laboratory.  
 
Federer, Mirka, Luthi, AnnaconeBut the recipe was marked by utter transparency. Here Federer was, age 30 – the tipping point year in the life of a professional tennis player – spending anywhere from two to four hours a day hitting ball after ball under the eyes of Annacone and Severin Luthi. Add to that a few more hours with fitness trainer Pierre Paganini and physiotherapist Stephane Vivier. The picture emerged of a man simply conducting business. As another all-time great graced with genius, Rod Laver, recently said, "There's really no substitute for hard work, for putting in all that practice and time."   
 
"I love this game more than anybody, so I'm not all of sudden going to wake up in the morning and say I don't like it anymore," says Federer. "It's a lot of sacrifice. It's a lot of effort I have to put in every day."

But in this case, Federer might be mistaken. Based on the pleasure he took in Dubai, it would be inaccurate to call something Federer enjoys so much a sacrifice. Says Annacone, "For Pete there was more wear and tear by this stage. Roger has the enthusiasm of a 20 year old. There is no need to motivate him. He's relentlessly studious about trying to improve."

If more memorable chapters emerge in the Federer saga, mark 10 September, 2011 as a good day for his prominent last phase to commence. That day there had been a brilliant US Open semi-final versus Novak Djokovic. Despite holding two match points against the Serb, for the second year in a row in New York, Federer had come up empty. His 2011, became the first year since 2002 he’d failed to win a Grand Slam singles title.  

FedererThere followed a press conference where Federer described Djokovic's dazzling forehand return winner at match point down as "the lucky shot". A backhanded compliment that did not do justice to the victor. Dare a man who has struck as many breathtaking winners as Federer reduce himself by speaking this way of a rival's good fortune?      

Later that afternoon, a trip to the ground – that is, Federer is on the floor of the US Open's day care center, playing with two-year-old daughters Charlene and Myla.  And as he simmered and frolicked, Federer began to concoct his plan. 

With the diamond-cutter's focus practised by such longstanding World No. 1s as Sampras and Jimmy Connors, Federer has long been meticulous about his competitive schedule. After mid-September, Federer took six weeks off, skipping the ATP World Tour's Asian swing. He emerged incredibly fresh, winning 15 matches in a row to take the titles at the Swiss Indoors Basel, the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris – his 18th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown – and, for a record sixth time, the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals

"I've always been an emotional tennis player."

The London run was highlighted by a comprehensive 6-3, 6-0 dismantling of Nadal and two sparkling three-set victories over the man who'd beaten Federer at Wimbledon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Said Federer after the final, "For me it was important to step and sort of have that bird's view from up top and say, 'Where am I right now in my year? It's been a good year. I know I've been playing well, I've been healthy. When is all this hard work going to pay off?'"

Having worked with Andre Agassi into his 30s, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert is quite familiar with the evolution of an aging champion. "Last year I was selling Roger's stock a little bit," says Gilbert. "But what he showed me late last year, I'm buying. That was as aggressive as I've ever seen him."

Federer, Laver, Melbourne 2006Like all of us, Federer marches to his own seemingly contradictory yin-yang. What's less frequently seen, but quite important to Federer, is the line that goes from his head to his heart, the deep-rooted passion that has publicly revealed itself only occasionally – such as at the 2006 Australian Open when Federer accepted the champion's trophy from Laver, or at the same spot three years ago following a loss to Nadal. 

But as Federer points out, don't think all those fluid shots are issued from an automaton. "I've always been an emotional tennis player," he says. "I used to be so emotional when I used to lose. But I try to keep my emotions in check while the tournament is going on because I like to save it in case there is something more. It can't be an emotional rollercoaster throughout the whole career, season, or match."

"He never gets hurt, he’s sharp, he doesn't overplay."

Paired with Federer's subdued but present emotions is a remarkable tranquility. Watch Federer around a tournament, and you will see a man consummately at ease, never rushed no matter if about to conduct a series of interviews in various languages, in a line for food, killing time in the locker room, on his way to practice, or for that matter, about to pull out a new racquet deep into a match. Says Annacone, "It's like he's at a cocktail party. He's just enjoying every part of the tournament."

And so, as he has so often with his racquet, Federer has his own distinct ability to manage time on his terms. Week after week, he conducts himself with constancy, precision and reliability. Says Gilbert, "He never gets hurt, he's sharp, he doesn't overplay. You see him play a tough match and he’s right out there the next day."
 
"I'm shocked every time that I've reached so many finals or won against so many players or whatever record it is," says Federer. "It strikes me and makes me obviously very happy and very proud that I've been able to do it for so many years at the highest of levels."

Federer, Henry, Woods, Gillette 2007It's that sustained level of excellence that has always made Federer popular with marketers all around the world. According to Forbes Magazine, Federer is the second-most trusted athletic brand in the world – a testament not just to logos and ad campaigns but to sustained performance. Federer's current endorsement portfolio is tidy but significant, including such tennis brands as Wilson and Nike, as well as Rolex, Lindt Chocolate, NetJets, Gillette and others. "It's not just that Roger's arguably the greatest tennis player," says Greg Via, global director of sports marketing for Gillette/P&G, who has been part of advertising shoots with Federer in such wide-ranging places as Barcelona, Dubai, Orlando and Shanghai. "But that he stands for something even bigger - a grooming icon, a man who looks good, a man who conducts himself with class and works with us in any number of ways." In Shanghai, for example, Federer went on-stage to teach 1,000 young men how to shave.   

The last time Federer entered a year without a Slam title, Barack Obama was a state senator. Like the President of the United States, Federer enters 2012 eager to prove a point. Three major chances for Federer take place in London – Wimbledon, the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and the summer Olympics that this year take place at the All England Club. The Olympics have often been a wellspring for Federer. At the 2000 Sydney games he commenced his romance with a touring pro named Miroslava "Mirka" Vavrinec. Eight years later, taking the Olympic gold medal in doubles with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka helped propel Federer to his fifth US Open singles title. 

Even beyond the Olympics, Federer is poised to make his share of major runs in 2012. After all, can Djokovic compose another year-long masterpiece? How well will Nadal perform? Others such as Andy Murray and Tsonga remain more intermittent nuisance to Federer than sustainable rivals.       

Federer, Melbourne 2012So what are keys to capturing big titles well into one's 30s? While a world-weary Sampras was able to eke out one last run at age 31 when he won the 2002 US Open, such former World No. 1s as Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe were unable to find the winners' circle past 30. Even after the great Laver swept all four Slams at age 31, he never made it to another major semi-final.

Read: Roger Reaches For World No. 1

Then there were those who succeeded significantly at this stage – Connors and Agassi with two Slams apiece past 30, Ken Rosewall with four. Study this trio closely, and you will see that Federer shares much: superb footwork, driven by incredibly-alert eyes that send the feet into ballerina-like motion. Tempting as it is to call this a gift – which it might well be – it also clearly a skill, one Federer continues to hone year after year, month after month, day after day, hour after hour, minute to minute.

Over the remaining years of his career, Federer will listen and read to all sorts of conjecture and commentary. There will come losses, at once sobering, at once frustrating, certainly those that signal a possible curtain call. But it's likely the words he'll respond to most will be two that come from Annacone: try this. Knowing that all he can do is control the process, Federer in 2012 figures to do all he can to generate more memorable outcomes. 

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