The first time I met Roger Federer was during a press conference at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati about four years ago. Fresh off a straight-sets dismantling of Australian Bernard Tomic, I pitched this softball for my question, “Roger, you’ve won a couple of matches in Cincinnati. Can you assess where your game is on the hard courts, particularly with the U.S. Open coming up?”
For the next 45 seconds, I was a rapt listener as Federer thoughtfully answered my question and with more than enough eye contact to boot. The respectful manner in which he answers questions has always impressed me. The fact that I, a 3.0-level tennis hack, was questioning Federer’s level of play will always seem surreal.
One major bucket list item checked off.
After the interview, I admittedly tailed Federer and his small entourage of about five people (seemingly ATP-required group, including wife, agent, physiotherapist, hitting partner, coach, etc.) through a hallway and down several flights of stairs.
Once that curiosity was quenched, I decided to exit the building.
That was easier said than done.
There were literally no doors or windows. When we reached the bottom of the building, there was finally a pair of doors. I had no choice but to follow the Federer camp into, unbeknownst to me, the ATP Players’ Lounge.
That’s a journalistic no-no, as I soon found out. Upon entering the room I immediately was treated to a barrage of eye candy for a tennis fan. Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory had nothing on me.
I saw the lovely, impossibly long-legged Garbine Muguruza (who won her first Wimbledon title this year) talking Spanish with friends. Italians Fabio Fognini and Potito Starace were engaged in a spirited game of ping-pong. “Pre-Brooklyn Decker” Andy Roddick even walked by.
Despite the coolest ambiance I had ever witnessed, I knew I needed to leave the room. As I walked within earshot of Federer, I heard him utter to his agent Tony Godsick, “The classic way is the best way.”
PeRFect. That’s something Federer would say.
Unfortunately, within 10 seconds of my audio bombing Fed’s conversation, an ATP official confronted me. And I do mean confronted. He looked like one insufficient explanation away from wanting to throw hands.
After he asked me what I was doing in the ATP Players’ Lounge, I honestly replied, “I’m sorry but I just got lost and I’m just trying to get out of the building.”
He wanted to take my notebook and tape recorder as if I were committing espionage. I refused.
The confrontation ended with my walking away and whispering “tennis cop” under my breath.
On July 16, Federer won his 19th Grand Slam overall and his record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title by dispatching Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4.
Watching the incomparable Federer hoist another Major at age 35, with his wife, two sets of twins (Charlene Riva and Myla; Leo and Lenny) and the rest of his family and friends in his player’s box, reminded me of that brief encounter when it was just Roger & Me.
Any true sports fan likes to debate the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) question. It’s applicable to all sports. Yes, even Michael Jordan diehards.
Many journalists and fans alike consider Serena Williams the best tennis player ever. Her resume certainly presents a strong argument.
I believe Federer’s impeccable combination of results, popularity and style of play make him the GOAT. Even though he’s arguably the best player on tour now at 35, his prime occurred between 2004-2006 when he finished 247-15 with eight Grand Slams and 34 titles overall during those glorious years. Subtract losses to Rafael Nadal on clay during that three-year stretch and Federer was essentially unbeatable.
I’m just happy for having the opportunity to watch him play.
And thanks, Rog, for not turning me in to the tennis police in Cincy.