Dubai: Several years ago, the name ‘Roger Federer’ was accompanied by outpourings of praise from an adoring tennis public, bewitched and beguiled by his relentless success and elegant court craft.
In recent times, however, it’s the dreaded ‘r’ word — retirement — which has been regularly evoked in conversations about the Swiss maestro.
The received wisdom is that, at the age of 32, Federer is in terminal decline and will struggle to keep pace with the younger forces of nature that are the world’s top two players, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, in the coming years.
He won the last of his record 17 Grand Slam crowns at Wimbledon in 2012 and, after claiming only one title last year, now languishes at his lowest world ranking for more than a decade — eight.
So is Federer now on an irreversible slide into the sporting wilderness, a gnarled veteran limping towards the tennis commentary booth or coaching box?
Certainly not on the evidence of the cheerful, irrepressible figure who appeared at a media briefing on Sunday at the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel ahead of this week’s Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open.
He looked tanned, lean and extremely content with his lot after exhibiting flashes of his old brilliance in reaching the Australian Open semi-finals last month.
This is a man who is clearly growing as gracefully as he prances around the tennis court — not a past master on his knees.
“I feel as if I’m in as good a shape as I have been for a year, so that’s very encouraging,” he said.
Indeed, Federer seems intent on fulfilling the former American tennis great Pete Sampras’ recent prophecy that his friend can play for another four years, after telling the assembled media that his “best tennis is around the corner” under new coach Stefan Edberg.
Yet not even sporting demi-gods can resist the relentless, ticking hand of time, so has Federer contemplated his future after he hangs up his racquet? “Not really,” he told Gulf News exclusively ahead of his first-round match against Benjamin Becker yesterday.
“I guess it’s going to be something I’m going to think about when I’m retired, not now. Now I need to enjoy it [my career]. I’m still enjoying tournaments and matches.”
Surely the most obvious route for him to pursue would be to join the bandwagon of former greats, such as his new mentor Stefan Edberg, in becoming a coach to a prodigious player of his own ilk?
“No, I don’t see myself doing that,” he says emphatically. “But Stefan probably never thought he would either. But I don’t see him as a coach necessarily. I see him more as an inspiring figure, who is part of my team. My coach is Severin Luthi, but I can’t deny what he [Edberg] can bring to the table, someone who has enjoyed so much success.”
Despite his initial reticence about a coaching role, Federer’s innate love for his craft soon shines through, almost as if he is struck by the sudden realisation that it would be a waste for man of his celestial gifts not to dispense his wisdom to others.
“I don’t necessarily see myself as becoming a travelling coach,” he adds. “Having kids, they’d need to grow up first before I would do that again. I could do things like coach juniors in Switzerland and stuff like that. They could come to my club and could work with me nearby my home. But not right away.”
When the time comes to call it a day, a man as articulate and effortlessly charming as Federer will be showered with offers of work — he remains the world’s most marketable tennis player despite his recent travails — which perhaps explains the fact that he has no clear gameplan.
I therefore decide to float potential avenues for him.
How about politics? Would he fancy emulating the former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who wants to become the president of Ukraine? Could the diplomatic skills he has honed while being head of the ATP Player Council over the past three years be deployed to good effect in this arena?
“Nah, not so much,” he says without hesitation, before adding with a chuckle: “I’m from Switzerland; we try and stay away from it all [politics].”
On a more frivolous note, I then ask whether he would consider capitalising on his swarthy good looks by embarking on an acting career following his appearance in adverts for sponsors such as Gillette.
“No, not so much,” he replies once again. “Even though I do acting for sponsors and enjoy it while trying hard not to make a fool of myself.”
Yet, while he is tacitly indifferent to coaching and apathetic about acting and politics, when I raise the subject of his philanthrophic endeavours, Federer radiates both passion and pride, superlatives flowing from his mouth as freely as forehand winners do from his racquet.
At the age of only 22 in 2003, the year in which he won the first of his 17 Grand Slams at Wimbledon, Federer started his own foundation, the product of witnessing poverty during trips to his mother Lynette’s South Africa homeland.
This Roger Federer Foundation helps support the education of 86,400 underprivileged children through the creation of community-based childcare centres in a number of African countries and his native Switzerland.
“It’s amazing being able to do that at the same time as my tennis life, and I will have more time for it when I retire,” he says. “We have big goals to try and touch one million children by 2018. I am very thankful to people who have raised money already or who are considering doing it. It’s very much a family foundation and it’s super exciting. I still feel we’re only at the beginning and hopefully we can do more exciting things in the future.”
Federer particularly enjoys travelling to countries benefitting from his charitable efforts, but admits this is not always possible due to his hectic tennis schedule.
He said: “The visits are the ones that stay with you the most, I wish I could do them more often as it’s a priority for me. I remember my first one [visit] down in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I went to see our first project there and I was blown away and had tears in my eyes seeing happy kids and thankful kids. I also went to Ethiopia a couple of years ago, which was beautiful. Seeing people benefiting from it [the foundation], that’s what stands out the most.”
With another child on the way this year to add to twins Charlene and Myla, who were born in 2009, family is another major priority for Federer.
He says: “I love being in Switzerland with the family, being down to earth and trying to live a normal life. I never envisaged my life being the way it is today. I am happy it is the way it is. I’d do it all over again. I am looking forward to the next ten years of my life. A lot of exciting things are going to happen, I’m sure. What’s happened in the last ten years has been absolutely crazy.”
He may not yet be sure about what direction his life will take when he hangs up his racquet. But what is certain is that his legions of admirers will enjoy watching him in the same vein that they have revelled in his genius on the tennis court over the past decade.