There are many facets to being a great champion, and Roger Federer ticks more boxes than most. The man many experts believe is the greatest tennis player of all time advanced to the Sony Ericsson Open semifinals on Thursday when his opponent, Gilles Simon – one of the few players to have a winning record against the Swiss – retired with a stiff neck after just three games.
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Simon’s injury was a blessing for Federer – it just may let him catch up on some sleep.
Federer was called on court at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday morning to play his fourth-round match against Olivier Rochus of Belgium – that’s right, 40 minutes after midnight. Now, professional performers are expected to go to work at strange hours, but this was extreme to say the least. Federer confirmed it was the latest (or, perhaps we should say earliest) he ever had been asked to play.
The delay had been caused by afternoon rain and the unusual length – more than three hours – of Maria Sharapova’s match against Alexandra Dulgheru. But if anyone expected a murmur of complaint from the world superstar, they were disappointed.
Asked after the Rochus match how frustrating the delay had been for him, Federer replied, “Not too bad. I was home at the hotel till 7 p.m., so I had all day to do something else. I guess I have a day off now, I’m not even sure. I have played two days in a row now, and it was extremely hot and humid yesterday (Monday) and now, today, really late. That’s what tennis is all about. We don’t know when we play and we don’t have a set schedule, so we have to be able to adapt. You get used to it as a tennis player. In the juniors, you start at eight in the morning; in the pros, it happens that it’s 12:30 at night.”
Talk about taking life in your stride. Asking players to perform at the required pitch at an hour when their body clock is winding down to its lowest ebb is asking a lot. But neither Federer nor Rochus was in the mood to complain.
But that’s only part of it. Don’t think a player is finished when he or she comes off court. On this occasion, the match ended at 1:35 a.m. and Federer had a rub, showered and came into the news conference. For the next 30 minutes, he answered questions in three languages. “Yes, I’m happy to do French now,” he said with a smile when ATP press officer Estefania Acosto-Rubio called for the last German question. He switches easily, always low key, sometimes with a little joke and smile, and he treats everyone the same.
Even then, he wasn’t quite finished. As he walked toward the parking lot, a family asked for a photograph. It was 10 minutes past two in the morning. A brush off might have been excused. But Federer stopped, put his arm around the mother and daughter, waited patiently while a camera was fiddled with and smiled on cue. Only then did he disappear into the Florida night.
Federer can be tetchy after a loss, but it never goes beyond the odd cutting remark to a tiresomely repetitive question. Otherwise, it is hard to find fault with this rare human being who seems so at ease with his fame and the responsibilities that go with it. Rafael Nadal is much the same, and tennis is blessed to have them setting the standard. It will be a tough one for the next generation to follow.