We’d wound up on the topic of his love for tennis. Commentators routinely invoke Federer’s passion for the game, as if he were born with a racket in his teeth. I asked him, was it true? He surprised me: not really. The passion came late, he said, not until he cracked the top ten. “Seriously?” I said, and he laughed again. By way of explanation, he told me a story.
In 2001, Federer beat Pete Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon. Federer was only 19 at the time, still unformed. But he’d just reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the French Open, and fans were starting to learn his name. And here, in England, he faced the great one, the seven-time defending Wimbledon champion—the player he’d be most compared to later, the man who held nearly all the records that Federer would someday claim. “Look, I was able to experience the highest level of tennis,” he said. “It was my first time on Centre Court at Wimbledon. My first and only time I played Pete. I was in a match where I won 7–5 in the fifth—very similar to what we just went through with Rafa. I was 19 years old. I realized, Oh, my God. There’s so much more to tennis than just practice in a cold hall somewhere in Switzerland. This is what tennis could be about. I realized, I want to be back on that court one day, I’d love to compete with these guys on a regular basis, I’d rather play on the bigger courts than on the smaller courts.… And all of a sudden it started to make sense. Why you’re doing weights. Why you’re running. Why you arrive early at a tournament. Why you try to sleep well at night. We just started to understand the importance of every single detail. Because it makes a difference.”