You wonder where he finds the time.
After all, he’s managed to dominate men’s tennis for six years: that’s 22 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, 17 of the last 18 Slam finals, 266 weeks at No. 1 (and in the top two for the duration of those six years).
Then add in a clutch of year-end Masters titles and a record number of Grand Slam singles titles.
All that involves a dedicated training regime and a constant schedule. It means playing tournaments from beginning to end, year in year out, many in best-of-five-set formats.
All that takes time.
He fulfills all the media and ATP demands, and then some.
He’s been inseparable from his partner for ten years, traveling together to every tournament in every country, even since the addition of their twins daughters six months ago.
Now that really does take time.
Yet Federer has a knack of effortlessly commanding headlines for numerous extracurricular activities as well as for his tennis.
Happily for this sport, the Federer headlines—when not extolling his athletic brilliance—are not because of misdemeanors or scandal.
Sure, they like to highlight his penchant for nice clothes and the A-listers in his supporters’ box, but more often he draws attention for altogether more substantial reasons.
Which all begs not just one question but two: where does he find the time, and where does he find the energy?
It’s Friday night, and just a couple of days before the first round of the first Grand Slam of 2010. Federer is watching the unfolding tragedy in earthquake-hit Haiti and wants to contribute.
He could simply donate a substantial sum to the relief fund as several players did.
Federer, though, has a better idea.
In fact, it is a great idea for publicizing the events in Haiti, but a bad idea in practical terms: a last-minute series of doubles matches on the day before the Open.
But if you’ve got clout, what better way to use it?
He texts Rafael Nadal, who immediately says yes. He also gets the other big names in Melbourne on side—Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, Serena Williams, and Kim Clijsters—as well as Aussie favorites Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur.
At which point, it’s down to the Australian tennis authorities to help turn the Federer brainwave into a reality, in 24 hours.
On Sunday, the crowds turned out—15,000 for the AU$10 seats and another 5,000 in the Melbourne Park grounds—and they raised more than AU$200,000. With donations from the ATP, WTA, ITF, the Grand Slam Committee, and Tennis Australia, the proceeds exceeded AU$0.5 million.
It’s a credit to all the players that they gave up their normal training routines so close to the start of the Open.
Even more bold was their willingness to be miked up during play so the crowds could enjoy their comments. And there were jokes aplenty: Roddick mocking Williams’ on-court meltdown in New York, Federer trying to replicate his between-the-legs winner against Djokovic, and threatening to get Nadal back for a shot aimed at his partner, Williams.
Federer said before the event: “I thought we should do something.”
For him, that meant something a little more than opening his wallet.
And not for the first time…
…like become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, as Federer did in 2006.
He first teamed up with UNICEF after the Indian Ocean tsunami for which he’d led several fund-raising initiatives, including the ATP All-Star “Rally for Relief.”
As an ambassador, he made a two-day trip on the tsunami’s second anniversary to India’s hardest-hit state of Tamil Nadu.
Refusing to talk about tennis, he spoke instead about the children he’d met. “I have spent a lot of time with the children and I think I now know each of them by their first name. I told them that I would always be there for them.”
It takes very little prompting to get him talking about his Foundation, though.
Federer’s foremost efforts, when it comes to fund-raising, are given to his own Foundation, set up in 2003.
Its focus, at its inception, was disadvantaged children in South Africa, a country with which he has a special affinity through his mother. It now also funds projects in Mali, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.
The Foundation reflects that same ‘doing’ rather than ‘donating’ ethos, supporting projects operated by local relief organizations.
The children, their families, and communities work out their own priorities and implementation with the aim of taking over the projects themselves.
The Federer business head—and he’s expressed an interest in business after his tennis playing career is over—likes to oversee much of the Foundation’s work. The red cap and t-shirt sported by fans are all sold for the Foundation. There’s a calendar, and auctions of his autographed kit on his website.
And then, of course, there are the sponsors…
Sub-editors went into chocolate melt-down when Federer announced his recent tie-in with the Swiss luxury chocolate manufacturer, Lindt.
In truth, it was a natural partnership for him. Apart from the usual sports brands, he favors Swiss companies in sponsorship deals: Java coffee, Credit Suisse, and Rolex are stand-outs.
It’s two-way traffic, of course. Luxury brands benefit from a classy ambassador, and he in turn bolsters his not-insignificant portfolio. But the Foundation is always a beneficiary.
His announcement of the long-term partnership the Credit Suisse last year included mention of a “significant annual contribution” to the Foundation.
The terms of the Lindt deal were “undisclosed” but the company is donating $100 per ace that Federer serves in the Australian Open to his the charity.
Federer is probably most associated with Gillette, a campaign sorely damaged by the disclosures of Tiger Woods and the hand-ball of Thierry Henri.
Things had gone deathly quiet on the Woods front until Federer revealed, in a magazine interview this week, that they had recently spoken.
Not a fair-weather friend then, but rather a pragmatic man only too aware of the vagaries of the media. Federer said, “The image you patiently construct for an entire career can be ruined in a minute. I just try to be myself, not change for the press or the public or the fans. If they like me, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s too bad.”
He must, however, have few concerns about his popularity with all those groups.
For five years, Federer has maintained a complete stranglehold on the ATP Player Awards.
Until last year, when Nadal took over the No. 1 world ranking, Federer had been player of the year for four consecutive years. No matter because he topped their poll of “Player of the Decade” last month.
And in any case, there are two other awards that hold just a much significance.
Fellow players vote for the recipient of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, and Federer has won it for five consecutive years. Only Edberg himself won the award five times, and that was over an eight-year period.
It seems appropriate, then, that Federer should be the elected President of the Players Council, representing the concerns of his fellow players and supplying diplomatic statements to the ATP management and the press.
In the ATP poll of fans, Federer won for the sixth consecutive year. It is testament to the time spent, from his earliest days on the tour, interacting with the fans, signing for hours on end, and sharing his news with them on his website. Almost every player now follows his example.
As a sporting ambassador, he’s routinely top of the pile. He's the International Tennis Writers Association Ambassador of the Year, winner of the Prix Orange—selected by the French public and press—for a record fifth consecutive time, and a recipient of the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of Year Award, and there are many more.
So how does he keep all the balls in the air?
It’s rare, this kind of universal admiration. It’s even more rare for a sportsman still at the height of his powers, and still as approachable as when he entered the spotlight as a teenager.
It all appears to come naturally, but he must also have a finely tuned survival mechanism buried deep in his DNA.
It is a switch that gets thrown a few days after a Grand Slam, when he disappears like the mist on a hot morning. It is a gift that he, his family, and close friends respect above all.
So the Federers are able to find privacy. The can marry away from the media. They can announce the arrival of twins on their website and retreat back into the shadows for a month. They can take holidays away from prying eyes. They are seen only when they want to be seen.
So it appears that the chief lesson in giving so much time is, in fact, to guard the moments of down-time with unswerving dedication.