ST interview with Roger Federer: The old master refines his art form

Roger Federer, who makes his Singapore debut in the International Premier Tennis League tomorrow, talks exclusively to The Straits Times about art and artistry, invincibility and risk, and how he is grateful for the love he gets from crowds.

The fine art of Roger Federer is carefully and adoringly classified on YouTube in an endless series of top 10 lists. Lists of "nonchalant points" and "ridiculous inventions", lists of "humiliating slice passes" and "genius fake shots", lists that you wonder if he - like an artist scrutinising his curated work - ever views.

"Sometimes," says Federer, "I get them sent as a link, then I open them up and end up watching the whole thing." He seems moved by the research done by fans into old matches and forgotten points but it's more than that. "Sometimes it can be very motivating and inspiring, too, to see yourself do great things."

These are usually clips of how-the hell-did-he-do-that shots which make you wonder, for all his cultivated cool, does he ever think, how-the-hell-did-I-do-that?

"I do. Because some shots are complete creativity, completely just out of reaction, trying to get to the ball and when you're at the ball what are you going to try to do - you're not sure yet. And the outcome sometimes is phenomenal and you can't believe it yourself at times."

ALL IN THE MIND

I really think I understand the geometry very well of the court because it keeps on changing all the time. If you're closer to the net or further away from the net or you go further wide, different angles open up, so for me that's been good, that works the mind very well.

ROGER FEDERER

It's Monday in Dubai, just outside the tennis centre which is hosting the International Premier Tennis League. An Asian TV crew has just finished their interview - and who Federer is to tennis, to sport, to people, is almost poignantly exemplified by their rehearsals before he arrives.

The TV interviewer, a slim, young man, whose quiff has taken 15 fastidious minutes to arrange, is practising his introduction. "Roger, I am your super fan". No, maybe that won't work and so he huddles with his producer and finds this instead: "Roger, you are my super idol." Then Federer strolls in, absent of air or entourage, and accepts the compliment with earnest surprise. Is it humanly possible to be tired of praise?

Now it's my turn and in 20 minutes I have to peel back 17 years, 88 titles, genius and vulnerability. It's impossible but Federer is an honest, thoughtful subject, answering in long, flowing sentences, always courteous in how he makes our familiar questions appear fresh.

People idly ask: Federer has filled history books, he has wealth, why does he play, as if love and ambition have finish lines. Still, what keeps him going? "Probably hitting tennis balls and getting the feeling of winning match point and the roar of the crowd."

At 34, he plays tennis for trophies but also "for them", the crowd. He is the pure competitor who craves glory for himself, yet also the entertainer who gives to the audience.

You sense he enjoys being this venerated, 17-Slam scholar, who - and he mentions this - is almost always on Centre Court, playing those shots, to all those cheers. It's hard to remember an individual athlete who has made borders so irrelevant, for he is somehow always a hometown favourite in everyone else's town. "It's very unique," he says of how fans globally respond to him, "and it touches me."

Federer no longer owns tennis, the game now ruled by a sinewy Serb whose 11 titles this year suggested so many strengths that weakness could not be seen. But Federer, who won 42 titles during a dominant run between 2004 and 2007, has been to this almost unconquerable place, so ask him and he'll tell you what invincibility used to taste like.

"It's a funny place. Just don't know how long it lasts. You want to try and make the most of it but not go crazy." It's a delirious, hectic, victorious ride and he searches for analogies to explain it. "Whoosh, like on a bullet train," he says. Or like being caught in an ocean "current" or in a wave "you don't want to get flushed out" of.

He was almost flawless then and yet, in retrospect, that time was slightly imperfect, for when he looks back it seems "a bit blurry" to him. "There is so much winning going on and so much playing going on that sometimes... you don't take enough time to actually celebrate those moments. And that's what I have now changed a little bit. If I win something I take more time. It might be five minutes here, a day here... with my friends, with my family, with my team."

One last, small thing about invincibility. "Obviously you walk out and you expect yourself to win."

You think that you can pull off any shot?

"No, no, no, no. Not that. It just happens automatically, you don't know how it did happen ... You stay calm under the biggest of pressures, and it's just a weird thing to be in."

Invincibility, he knows well, is temporary and maybe now Djokovic's will wear off and he will be caught but Federer offers caution: "(We) have to improve. (Novak) won't just drop his level just for free. He needs to be pushed there as well (till he doubts himself)."

Garry Kasparov wrote of chess, "I knew it was a game designed for me", and I wonder if tennis allows Federer the complete expression of his athleticism and creativity.

"I think so, I really think I understand the geometry very well of the court because it keeps on changing all the time. If you're closer to the net or further away from the net or you go further wide, different angles open up, so for me that's been good, that works the mind very well."

If he has amazed us, then he has also surprised himself. "I never thought I was going to be this fast on a court, or this well-rounded... in the most crazy pressure situations that I can stay calm with my footwork, that's not something I ever thought I was ever able to do." He was better than we thought and than perhaps even he imagined. Either way he is grateful.

"Tennis has been great for me, I learnt myself very well through tennis. There's no hiding out there. There is no helmet, there is no team, it's just you."

The older yet new Federer blocks returns, chips, rushes, volleys, and even as he gambles to survive, you wonder what the word "risk" means to him.

"The problem is when you grow older a little bit, you become more experienced and you know the margins better. You know if you go full swing with your forehand what the chances are... you start (understanding) the percentages very well. When you're young, you don't, so in the biggest of moments you just say I'm going to go for it and it works because you truly believe it's going to work."

And so, at 34, while he must use his armoury of knowledge accumulated over 1,297 matches, he must also, he says, "remind myself to still keep going for it, keep staying young in my mind, stay fresh, stay fearless".

Maybe that's what the lively, joyous, team-oriented IPTL, which he appears to revel in, does for him. "Every player," he says, "needs to understand what he's trying to get out of the IPTL. Could be just a fun factor, could be spending time with legends, could be playing in front of a big crowd which some players are not that used to." He, like a wandering tennis evangelist, just wants to try new territories and "that's why I'm going to Singapore".

Federer is stretching time but mine has run out. One last question. I've always wondered whether a man whose game leads us to craft comparisons with painting and ballet has a love for artistic forms outside tennis. And so, does he collect art?

"A little bit," he says.

He pauses.

"I must say I feel today more inspired if I go to a nice concert," he says and speaks of a Chinese pianist he recently heard and of visits to the National Gallery in London and going to a symphony in Rotterdam on his mother's birthday.

He thinks, he adds: "I always liked figure skating."

Then he pauses again.

"I like beauty in motion."

In that case, Roger, you might like to take a quick peek at the "Top 10 Only Federer Flicks".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'The old master refines his art form'. Print Edition | Subscribe