Roger Federer’s Tales with Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras

Swiss journalist and author Rene Stauffer brings readers back to Roger Federer’s meeting with Tiger Woods and how Federer was not quick to respond to a text message from Pete Sampras after winning the 2006 US Open in his celebrated book ROGER FEDERER: QUEST FOR PERFECTION (New Chapter Press, $19.95, www.RogerFedererBook.com), the first U.S.-published book on the Swiss tennis champion. The excerpt from the 2006 US Open is provided below.

When Tiger Woods achieved the “Tiger Slam” in 2000 and 2001—winning all four of golf’s major championships in a row—Roger Federer was not yet 20 years old. The way that Woods dominated golf and reignited interest in the sport certainly caught the attention of the young Federer. However, he never thought that he would ever be compared to someone as dominant as Woods. “His story is completely different from mine,” he said in the spring of 2006. “Even as a kid his goal was to break the record for winning the most majors. I was just dreaming of just once meeting Boris Becker or being able to play at Wimbledon some time.”

Despite their different developments and the differences between their sports, the commonalities between Woods and Federer became unmistakable through the years. Like the four-time Masters champion, Federer is in full pursuit of sports history. While Woods is pursuing Jack Nicklaus and his 18 major championships, Federer is chasing Pete Sampras and his 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Both Woods and Federer are amazing because of their mental resilience, which is evident from the fact that they manage to make the most terrific shots under the greatest of difficulties.

Unlike his parents, Roger Federer is not a passionate golfer, but he follows Woods’ career with great interest. “It would be interesting to meet him and to see what he’s like in person,” Federer said in Key Biscayne in 2006.

Both Federer and Woods are clients of the International Management Group (IMG) and Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, is friends with Mark Steinberg, the agent of Woods. In the summer of 2006, Federer asked Godsick if he could arrange a meeting with Woods. “The next thing I heard was that Woods would be delighted to come to the US Open final,” Federer recollected. “At that time the tournament hadn’t even started. I would have preferred meeting him in a more relaxed atmosphere than on the day of the US Open final—and I still had to get there first.”

The public had no idea that a spectacular meeting was in the making behind the scenes at the US Open. After Federer defeated the Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinals, he was informed that Woods was going to make good on his promise. He flew to New York from Florida on his private jet with his wife, Elin, to watch the US Open final in person. To everyone’s surprise, Woods took a seat in Federer’s guest box—which was quite noteworthy given the fact that Federer faced an American, Andy Roddick, in the final. “The fact that Tiger was sitting there put me under extra pressure,” Federer later admitted. “It was just like when I was younger when my parents or Marc Rosset watched me play in person. You want to play especially well.”

Woods’ timing was perfect. He watched and cheered as Federer won his third straight US Open title, defeating the resurgent Roddick 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. For the third year in a row, Federer won both Wimbledon and the US Open—a record that he didn’t have to share with anyone.

While Federer briefly met Woods before the final, the two spent well over an hour together in the locker room following the match, drinking Champagne and gazing at the US Open trophy that Federer just won. Woods even talked on the phone to Federer’s parents who were at home in bed as it was nearly three in the morning in Switzerland.

“I was impressed by how much we had in common,” Federer explained when Woods was on his way back to Florida. “He knew exactly what I was going through and I see what he has to go through. I’ve never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling of being invincible.”

“It was terrific for me to see him go into my player’s box, shake his fist, and enjoy himself,” he recollected a few weeks later. “He was the loudest one in my box. I was surprised how loose he was about it. He was happy as a kid to be able to watch the final. I think we’ll do things together more often.”

The appearance of Woods at the 2006 US Open final sparked more comparisons—and debates—between the two “athletes of the century” as to who was greater and more dominant. With all due respect to Woods, James Blake came out in favor of Federer. “In tennis, it’s a tournament where you have one bad day and you’re out,” said Blake. “That’s what we do every single week. Roger is winning every Grand Slam except for the French, winning every Masters Series tournament. That means he can’t have one bad day—that’s incredible. Not to mention he has to be out here for four hours running as opposed to walking while carrying one club—again not taking anything away from golf. Tiger’s proven himself every Sunday every time he has a lead. But look at Roger’s record in Grand Slam finals, too. In Grand Slam finals, he’s 8-1. That’s unheard of.”

The Woods camp and golf fans pointed out that the American, in contrast to Federer, already won all four major tournaments in his sport and instead of only having to defeat seven opponents at the biggest tournaments, Woods had to fight off around 150 contenders. Tennis aficionados emphasized that Grand Slam tournaments lasted two weeks and not just four days and that in tennis, having an off day is enough to get knocked out whereas in golf, players could always save the day in such a situation.

Still others highlighted the commonalities between the two. “Despite their total dominance, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer show a modest self-discipline that would have impressed the most chivalrous medieval knight,” The Daily Telegraph of Britain wrote. The Calgary Sun stated unequivocally which of the two super athletes it favored—“(Federer) is infinitely more human than Tiger Woods, more precise, more likable, more honest, less robotic, seemingly enjoying his place as a tennis player for the ages.” The Daily News of Los Angeles, by contrast, questioned all of these comparisons. “You say the Swiss dude is definitely the greatest tennis player of all time? Good, then we can switch back to the Bengals-Chiefs. Equating Roger Federer to Tiger Woods isn’t a backhanded compliment, it’s a forehanded insult. An athlete of Federer’s all-around refinement deserves better than to be defined in terms of another athlete.”

After his US Open victory, Federer returned home to Switzerland when he received a surprise phone call. Pete Sampras, whose legacy and records were now one of Federer’s biggest rivals, called to offer congratulations. “He had already text messaged me three days ago and now he was calling me to congratulate me personally,” said Federer shortly after the US Open. “He asked if I had gotten the message. I said I was just about to reply. It was almost embarrassing. Perhaps I should have replied quicker.” Sampras told Federer how much he liked to watch him play and emphasized that he now was more clearly dominant than he was during his prime. “To hear something like this from him was incredible,” Federer said. “It’s never happened to me before that my earlier idol called me to compliment me.”

Sampras and Federer continued their text message relationship, with Sampras offering more good wishes over the following few months. Before the tournament in Indian Wells in March of 2007, Federer then took the initiative and called Sampras, who meanwhile announced he was returning to competitive tennis on the Champions circuit run by his contemporary Jim Courier. Federer asked Sampras if he would like to hit some balls and train together. “I wanted to see how well he could still play because, after all, he was one of my favorite players growing up,” Federer explained. With a wink in his eye and devilish grin, he then said, “beating him in his backyard in Wimbledon was so special to me, so I wanted to try and beat him in his house.”

Federer and Sampras only played once during their careers—the memorable round of 16 match at Wimbledon in 2001. Late in Pete’s career, the two had one brief practice session together in Hamburg. “It started to rain,” Federer recollected. “I was so disappointed, but he was happy to get off.”

After their training session together in Los Angeles in the spring of 2007, Federer expressed his surprise at how well Sampras could still keep up during their practice session. “We played some great sets and tie-breaks. I’m glad to see that he’s actually still enjoying tennis.” The scores of these practice matches? “They’re secret,” Federer said. “Surprisingly, he was very good, but not good enough to beat me!”

Federer found that he and Sampras shared many commonalities and could talk in great detail of their respective lives and pressures on the tour, as well as common experiences, experiences at particular tournaments and even about players who they both played against. With Woods, this was not the case. “Pete and I played the same tournaments and even played against the same opponents,” Federer said. “I have much more in common with Pete than I have with Tiger off court.”

“When I was new on the tour, I hardly ever spoke to Pete,” he continued. “First of all, he was never around at the courts, and when he would come into the locker room, everything was quiet because he was respected so much by all the other players.” Several years later, Federer finally got a chance to find out what made Sampras so unique and what brought him so close to perfection.

 

Laura Robson, the Surprise of the Open

FLUSHING, NY – Move over Andy Murray, there’s a new Brit in town.

Laura Robson has become the feel good story at this Open, after she won her third round against Na Li, 6-4 6-7 6-2 to advance to the fourth round.

And this comes after she sent Kim Clijsters into retirement.

Call her the Giant killer.

“When the draw first came out I wasn’t really looking past the first round,” the 18 year-old said. “ And then, you know, when I heard that I was playing Li Na after I played Kim, I didn’t really think anything.  I just knew that it was going to be an extremely tough match, which it was, and that she’s a great player.

“So I knew I had to play well; that’s what I did.”

So far in 2012, Robson seemed to take a step back. After making the second round last year at Wimbledon and the Open, she was one and done at the other majors this year.

But that isn’t stopping her here.

She fought Clijsters in straight sets, 7-6(4) 7-6(5), in the second round, sending the three time US Open champion into full time motherhood.

And now she took down Li, who was seeded ninth at the Open and many expected to make the second week.

“I have had a fairly tough draw, haven’t I?” she asked with a smile. “Well, you know, you have to beat who is in front of you.  That’s what I managed to do so far.  I think I play [Sam] Stosur now, who is defending champ.  That’s going to be really tough.  I’ve never played her before, so, you know, I’m going to just work hard tomorrow and recover as best as I can for the next one.”

Ah yes, the defending champ. That would be a tough matchup, but they said that about Clijsters and Li. In today’s match, Robson easily took the first set and then lost a tie break in the second to give Li life, even though she was up 3-1 at one point in the breaker.

Then in the third, she took control with a 6-2 cruising, putting her on the map. The funny thing she never gets down on herself, which many 18 year-olds do.

“I’m only 18, so if I was that negative, you know, last year or a year ago, then who knows what I’m going to be like in a few years,” Robson said. “But, no, I have always thought that I can play with the top girls.  Whenever I’ve practiced with, you know, Caroline or Maria, I’ve always felt that the level was there.

“It was just taking that onto the match court and keeping the level up for the whole match.  That’s what I have worked on.  Yeah, that’s been the biggest difference.”

Well maybe Murray can give her pointers now on handling on the British press. Well on second thought, the way she took care of them today, she will do just fine.

The Best There Ever Was

If there is a better and more erudite interview in sports than Roger Federer then I must have missed him over the years and this comes from a writer who has interviewed Arnold Palmer, Jim Calhoun, Geno Auriemma, Coach K., Vivian Stringer, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and a whole host of others.

Federer spends a good hour after each match answering questions in English,French and Swiss.And he answers every one thoughtfully.

One might get a few word answer from Rafael Nadal to a question and that in part is a result of his lack of command of English,but Federer is good for a full 3 paragraphs on each question,be them about his opponent,his daughters or his perspective on Tiger Woods,a friend.

Federer is very bright and has a keen perspective at the age of 30 of his place in the tennis lexicon.But there is more to his life then tennis.he is a fan of a bunch of sports,is a great family man and when he vacations tennis is the furthest thing from his mind.He made that clear in his Saturday press conference after his win over Marin Cilic.

After the match, Cilic marveled about Federer and made it clear that in his mind Federer has a few more Majors to win.

This US Open could be one of them.

The Dark Knight Returns

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – With his one handed backhand and quick ability to attack the net, Roger Federer looked superior, almost like a super hero fighting a henchman early in the story.

And his dismantling of Santiago Giraldo, 6-4 6-3 6-2, may look like an easy win on paper, but it really added something to the Federer lore. He’s not just a super hero, he’s the Dark Knight of the Open.

Much like Christian Bale’s title character from the movies, Federer does his best work at night, under the lights when the pressure is on.

“[The crowd] can’t wander around to different courts and say, Okay, on Court 2 we have this going on; Louis Armstrong we have that happening,” said Federer, who with tonight’s win has tied Andre Aggasi tonight for most wins in majors at 224. “No avoiding that limelight.  You do feel that pressure as well.  When you miss a stupid volley, you go like, Yeah, everybody saw it.  I’m a bit of an idiot here right now.  Better don’t miss that next time because on TV everybody’s watching, in the stadium everybody saw it.

“So you do feel that pressure.  Yes, you do.  That’s why I think Giraldo did well tonight.  Also you’re thinking about me, but think of the other guy who is playing a top guy in that stadium.  It’s also not that easy.  Surely he can swing freely, there’s nothing to lose, but also he does feel that big stage.”

Being Federer, who has seen it all, craves the excitement of the night in Queens. The Maestro said he likes the rock and roll atmosphere of the Open as much as tones of other tournaments.

“When you have some success, you actually start enjoying different types of atmospheres:  loud, you know, crazy, to very proper and never applauding on a mistake like you have in Japan,” Federer said.  “Then you go to England where they know exactly what is a good shot and what is a bad shot.  Then you go to Switzerland where it’s also very proper again.

“So I like that, you know, difference we have.  Music played on the change of ends.  They’re showing all sorts of stuff on the big screens; whereas in other places it’s just complete silence.  So I like that change.

“Here, this is a huge tournament which I like a lot and have had such amazing success that obviously every year I will come back here to New York I’ll feel that it’s a place that’s very special to me and where I usually do actually play my very best tennis.”

Federer feels this year’s Open may be a little different. The court speed in Flushing has always been known as notorious fast surface, but he sees it as a little slower this year.

“It’s definitely slower,” he said.  “Obviously, night sessions always maybe play a touch slower than the day clearly.  I really have the feeling conditions are slower this year than last year here at the Open.

“So it takes I think some getting used to.  You’re not getting as many free points maybe with your serve.  Maybe that was part of the inconsistent play I had early on in the first couple of sets.

“As the match went on, I think I started to get more solid and better, and that’s a good feeling to have.  But the ball really gets used after a while, I have to say.  I was quite surprised.”

Yet, this is Roger Federer and the Dark Knight of tennis is used to all surfaces no matter what the changes are. He attacked the net more in his match tonight, especially against Giraldo, whose best surface is clay, while also taking changes, simply because, well he’s better.

And isn’t that why the super hero always wins?

“Why am I successful?,” he pondered.  “I guess because I’m a pretty good player and I’m usually the favorite when I go into these matches, so I expect myself to win.  I should win these matches, thank God, and I more often do than don’t.”

The Dark Knight rises in the second round against Israeli Dudi Sela.

Raging Rafa Determined To Get The Career Slam

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Just look in Rafael Nadal’s eyes and you see determination. The top seeded player on the men’s side knows this is his time and the career Grand Slam is there for the taking.

Maybe that’s why the 24 year-old was so serious this year when by taking Barcelona off and concentrating on winning the all elusive US Open title.

“I didn’t change a lot in my schedule,” said Nadal as he reached the Semifinals for the third year in a row by dispelling countryman Fernando Verdasco in straight sets 7-5 6-3 6-4. “My schedule just changed so I don’t play in Barcelona. So I am fresher because I know how important is the US Open and I’m fresher I think because I had to stop three weeks during the summer without tennis because I had to do a treatment on my knees.”

Whatever it is New York is seeing a determined player out there, who is trying to break the barrier and become a one of the few with four majors under his belt.

And so far, so good, but of course, Nadal has the hardest hill to climb with hard conditions on the court and of course the 400 lb gorilla in the room named Roger Federer.

Now, the wind is something every player had to endure and Nadal has come up aces in that area. He said it was difficult to play tennis tonight and even lost his serve during the third, but that didn’t stop a straight set win.

No it’s the matchup with Federer everyone wants to see, even Verdasco, who thinks the title will go back to Switzerland rather than joining the World Cup in his homeland.

“I think if I need to bet here, I will bet for Roger,” Verdasco thought. “I think that he won five times here and he likes these conditions.”

It’s true Federer has been playing as well as Nadal in this tournament. In fact, everyone – and especially CBS – is looking forward to a Federer-Nadal final, something that has happened in the other three Grand Slams, but never in Flushing Meadows.

Yet looking too far ahead is hard for the Spaniard, and for now, he thinks his longtime rival has the edge.

“Well, for sure Roger is the favorite of the tournament, especially because he won five times ‑‑ five times?” he said.  “And six finals in a row.  No one doubt on that.

“And I am in semifinals, so I don’t think about the final.  Everybody free to think, and what Fernando says is completely fair.  I hope keep playing well and have my chance in that match in semifinal.”

Nadal has a date on Saturday with 12th seeded Mikhail Youzhny, whom Nadal has a nice 7-4 record against the Russian, but  took his most recent loss back in 2008 in India.

So sure, the Spaniard has a right to smile these days, after two straight years in the Semifinals, Nadal is looking to take the next step. Back in 2008 he said he didn’t have the energy after playing so much that summer and lost to Andy Roddick and last year he ran into a steamroller Juan Martin Del Potro.

Now things have changed.

“This year,” he said.  “I think ‑‑ I know how important is the US Open for me right now, and I know I have to arrive to this tournament fresh if I want to have any chance to have a very good result.

“That’s what I tried.  I think I did.  I am at the right round without problems, so that’s very positive?  Right now remains the most difficult thing.”

And yes, you can see it in his eyes.

The French Brings Chnages

Ah, spring in Paris and yes that means the French Open is underway at Roland Garros.

The second major of the season may be the toughest of the four majors to win. The clay courts at Roland Garros make it tough for many of the top players, as they are used to the hard courts or grass.

And in the first three days, there have been a few scares out there. Yesterday, Andy Murray – who was also feeling under the weather – dropped the first two sets to Richard Gasquet, only to rebound to make the second round.

Then earlier today, Andy Roddick, who seems primed to finally win another major this season, had to survive a five-setter against Jarkko Nieminen, 6-2  4-6 4-6 7-6  6-3.

“It’s not easy,” Roddick said.  “I mean, definitely, you know, spending three days in bed in Madrid wasn’t the way we wrote it up, you know. That was bad. That was not, you know, the preparation we wanted. We did the best we could. We scrambled last week and got two matches out at an XO. You know, XO is never the same.

“You know, so as far as preparation physically and in practice, it was good. But, you know, like you mentioned, it’s or like I mentioned, it’s not the same.

“It definitely was less than perfect, but I put some time in today.”

The biggest problem is the footing. Players enjoy stopping on a dime, which isn’t there with the clay courts. Instead they slip, putting uneasiness in their games as they slide up and down the baseline.

That’s why the clay court specialists seem to dominate with Rafael Nadal dominating the men’s side up until last year and the woman’s draw seems to be wide open.

Murray has season winning the French will be a physical and mental challenge. It’s a very different type of hit on the ball where they have to put more topspin on the return in order to get the right bounce.

“I think the ceiling is a little bit different on clay for me, but the mindset of going into a day doesn’t change. You go in and you try and battle and do the best you can. You see what happens.”

“I think the option of how you go about it is pretty simple. I’m aware that it’s probably on a worse surface. I’m aware of the challenges that it brings. Doesn’t change going into a day what I want to accomplish.”

Of course, there are weather issues as well. Spring Parisian showers mean muddier courts, slowing down the match to almost a crawl. Roland Garros is planning putting a roof on its new center court, but that’s going to be completed in 2013 or 2014, so that’s something else they needs to be dealt with.

All of this means it will be a very interesting two week. Expect an upset or two along the way, because with the clay courts, you never know what will happen.

Sharapova’s Loss May Be More Than A Bad Day

Don’t weep for Maria Sharapova.

Don’t shed a tear for her, the same way you didn’t cry for Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, or even Conan O’Brien. These are rich celebrities, who make more money than any of us commoners would dream about.

And in Maria’s case, she just signed an extension of her Nike deal that will net her a cool $70 million over the next eight years.

So please don’t cry for Maria after her first round loss to fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko, 7-6 3-6 6-4, on the first day of the Australian Open because she will be just fine in the pocket book.

But the court is another animal entirely. You have to wonder is the shoulder is still bothering her or if there’s something else in the midst here. Much like many tennis players before her, has Sharapova started to believe her own hype and not put in the commitment to her craft?

“I wouldn’t say it’s ‘belief,’” said Sharapova, who just went into this tournament without playing any of the leadups. “I think ‘belief’ is either something you have or you don’t have. Whether it’s just a little bit of, uhm, you know, maybe confidence, uhm, obviously it’s the first tournament of the year and, you know, I just came up against somebody that just played really good tennis. That’s just the way it goes.”

You have to wonder why Sharapova is having this crisis of confidence. After coming back from surgery, she seemed to skip many of the smaller tournaments in favor of the majors and marquee events. Instead of getting back in shape against lesser competitions, she chose to live more on reputation instead of putting the time in to get back on her game.

And maybe the endorsements are her problem. With $70 million in the bank from Nike alone, there’s no reason for her to take the chump change payday that some of these smaller venues pay. Why put in the work there for peanuts?

Yet, that short sightedness seems to have cost her. Because she hasn’t put in the time, Maria’s serve still isn’t up to par and because she doesn’t have much tournament experience these past two years, there’s just no way to perfect it.

Practice will only get you so far. These days will just continue.

“It’s a bad day and you have to get on with your life,” she said. “You know, there are many worse situations in life. There are people that don’t even know what a tennis match is in the world.”

Yet, many do and because she’s a pretty face with some success there’s no reason for her to go out there and give it her all. The endorsement deals are still coming in and Nike says she transcends sports, so why even try. And until the gravy train runs out, there’s just no need for her to commit 100 percent to tennis.