There is a problem. It is 8am in Dubai and a freak storm has descended over the improbable desert city. Where there should – statistically, at least – be clear, azure skies, there is a mulch of saggy grey cloud. This is a problem because I was supposed to be boarding a helicopter to Roger Federer’s Gulf training court, where he would demonstrate that famous, whipping forehand of his before being unveiled as the new face of the world’s biggest champagne brand, Moët & Chandon. This is how Roger Federer rolls.
And what better place than Dubai, Federer’s home- from-home: extravagant, flashy, built on the celebratory whim of a nation newly rich on black gold.
But the helicopter is grounded, and we wouldn’t have been able to watch him train anyway: the court is uncovered – it really never rains here – and Moët wouldn’t risk its new toy slipping in a puddle and damaging himself.
Hasty phone calls are made (“the biggest downpour in 14 years”, someone says. “unheard of”, says another) and a compromise is struck: we will instead breakfast with Federer at the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Not a bad fallback plan – the weather, it seems, is just about the only thing Moët’s deep pockets can’t fix. They are probably working on that, too.
Roger Federer, make no mistake, is a Big Deal. His contract with the champagne giant, is worth £10m over five years, taking the value of his sponsorship deals – including Nike, Gillette and Rolex, the watch brand he has represented since 2006 – to £30m. He is either the fourth or fifth richest sportsman in the world, depending on who you believe. He is also, bizarrely, the second most respected person in the world, behind Nelson Mandela, according to a recent poll (“I’m thinking, ‘who did this, is this real?’,” Federer says. “I am happy that people believe what I say but it is a bit far fetched, isn’t it?”).
You can see why he’s so highly sought-after: he looks expensive, all chin and angles and tan. As he emerges through the rows of pastries, a mind-bending 123 floors up, there is an audible intake of breath, followed by the kind of intense hush that follows pop-culture royalty. Dramatic muzak plays in the background. If the event weren’t so slick it would all seem a little ominous.
“I’m going to have to stop myself from trying to snog him”, whispers the girl next to me. “He looks like he’s been buffed,” adds her friend.
Dubai, meanwhile, that giant castle built on sand, is hidden behind a dull, white sheet of cloud – probably one of the few that has ever sullied the top of the Burj Khalifa. Maybe it came to see Federer, too.
It may have been his forehand that catapulted him into the limelight, but it’s as much the Federer image, the golden-boy sheen, that makes him irresistible to the world’s biggest consumer brands (you can’t imagine him suffering the kind of fall from grace that befell fellow Nike, Rolex and, until recently, Gillette ambassador Tiger Woods).
None of this tends to be particularly good news for an interviewer: a carefully cultivated media persona, not to mention two decades spent hitting a ball into a 27ft by 39ft box, doesn’t tend to make you very quotable.
But Federer could get by on charm alone. He has it in spades. He could bulldoze through walls with it. If he could put the force of it behind his serves they would be unstoppable. His eyes really do twinkle – it’s unsettling. But simmering behind the affable exterior is an unmistakeable steeliness. You’re never in any doubt this is a man who believes unwaveringly in Brand Federer.
“Athletes are judged very harshly on our success,” he says, “‘Good today, bad tomorrow, boom, finished’ – this is where I stick out a little bit – I have been able to change the way people think about athletes.”
Federer exudes a studiously understated elegance. It’s not surprising tennis aficionado Anna Wintour, the icy editor of US Vogue, has taken a shine to him.
“She likes taking care of me,” he says. “It is very sweet and I couldn’t be more thankful for her companionship and her love for my family. She loves my wife too and she has been a great friend over the years. She loves tennis – she plays it every morning, and eventually we crossed paths, although I didn’t know who she was at first. She has been incredibly supportive and pushed me to try harder and win more, giving me good advice. I can always bounce an idea off Anna, and if she needs anything from the tennis world, I can help her out.”
They are so close that Wintour even hosted his 30th birthday party: “She wanted to help me celebrate Wimbledon and the Olympic medal and my birthday – there are many things to celebrate – so she threw me a party and just said ‘invite whoever you like’. There was an amazing cake and actors and loads of athletes. It was a lot of fun.”
As befits a friend of the first lady of fashion, Federer cares about how he looks. At the Burj Khalifa we were greeted by Casual Roger, rocking a grey button-up jumper, jeans and shoes. Later, in the presidential suite of the Royal Mirage, we have Evening Chic Roger, sharp as a (Gillette) razor in a deep-navy Christian Dior suit and open-collared white shirt.
“I spend a lot of money on clothes – I see them as an investment. I don’t want to be photographed in the same blue jumper all the time so I change it up a bit.
“I started off wearing a lot of Prada and Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. When I was starting out I didn’t feel very comfortable in suits but today, no problem. I have grown up a lot in the last 10 or 15 years. I’m wearing the suit, the suit isn’t wearing me. I try to look good on the court too. Hopefully people will look back and say ‘Roger helped the game of tennis in the way he looked on the court’.”
There is more to him, though, than endorsements, designer suits and celebrity friends. He talks about his budding wine hobby (“I am building a chalet with a wine cellar – it is something I am eager to know more about”); visiting art galleries in New York; about his unlikely love of techno, trance music and AC/DC (“I got into them through a coach who was a long-haired rocker”).
Later, over a glass of champagne – yes, Moët – he even talks a little about his family, something I’d been warned he can be prickly about. He confides that before the birth of his twin girls [by his wife, former tennis pro Mirka Vavrinec] he was secretly hoping for a boy: “I guess I wanted a boy so he would be the older brother of the next sibling. Today I am so happy it was girls – they are less connected to me and my tennis, it’s perfect.”
It is in the bar, surrounded by journalists from around the world, that Federer is at his most impressive. While people around him start to get chattier, less nervous, slurring slightly from the champagne, he is imperious. Unflappable. Commanding the room like he commands the baseline. He answers my questions in English, switching to German without a blink to talk to someone else, finishing off in French (he also speaks some Swedish and Italian).
He has a knack of sounding unrehearsed – a few of the answers he gives me seemed off the cuff, but, after checking them against past interviews, turned out to be repeated almost word for word. The only time he appeared to be reading from a script was – unsurprisingly – when he was talking about Moët, at which point he slipped into (albeit spirited) PR talk: “An honour to be working with them… Iconic brand… Special moments in people’s lives…”
It is two thirds of the way through my interview with possibly the greatest tennis player ever to pick up a racquet, when I realise we haven’t spoken a word about tennis. He congratulates Murray on his Olympic victory, in which Federer was destroyed in straight sets. However, it comes with a reminder that it was preceded by that crushing Wimbledon final, in which the Swiss overturned Murray’s lead to take his seventh Wimbledon crown, culminating in the Scot’s tears on centre court. “Obviously the Olympic final hurt, because it only comes around every four years [Federer already has doubles gold from Beijing]. But Murray was supreme and deserved it. He showed the reaction of a champion after I beat him in the Wimbledon final. To go on and with the Olympics is an amazing achievement.”
It’s a great answer: both magnanimous and combative. It says: “well done, mate, but don’t forget who’s boss”.
He says his move to Dubai, where he spends a few months a year (“let’s be clear, I still live in Switzerland”), was for tennis reasons.
“I use Dubai as a second base and for practise reasons. I can focus here, put my head down and work hard, but the next moment I’m on vacation. I don’t feel that in Switzerland, I just feel home, and that’s a much deeper feeling. When I’m done practising in Switzerland, I have to run and see someone or do something but in Dubai I feel like I can enjoy it with the people I’m here with. It has beautiful beaches, great restaurants, an easy lifestyle. And it’s a great hub to go to different places. As tennis players, we travel so much, so I feel like I need a base outside of Europe – either you go east or you go west. For some reason I ended up here. It is also really good for practising in the heat, which I struggled with a bit, coming from Switzerland. I’ve been here eight years now and I don’t regret it.”
The only topic that noticeably irks him is about his retirement. When exactly is he planning to hang up his racquet? He answers with the resigned air of a man who knows the subject is going to crop up sooner or later in every interview.
“I don’t know how much longer – I hope at least four or five years but you never know, with injuries and family.”
His ability to deal with his occasional frustrations with journalists is, he admits, something he has had to work on over the years. “In the beginning I had a difficult time trusting the press – I thought they were here to rip me. I had to work very hard, especially with the Swiss press, who couldn’t even pronounce my name. They would call me ‘rogee’. They didn’t know me, so they wrote the wrong things. I found it is best to be open but know what I don’t want to say. Not that I have anything to hide, but it is difficult when you know everything you say will be documented.”
It’s a formula that works. His sponsorship deals stretch a decade into the future; the angular Federer jaw will be gracing billboards for the foreseeable future. Does he worry that one day it will all go away?
“If the attention dries up, that’s no problem. That’s what is supposed to happen: you have to leave the platform for someone else. I’ve had so much attention for so long that it’s fine.”
But he’s playing some seriously good tennis, the sponsorship deals are pouring in (Credit Suisse has been added to the list), millions hang on his every word. The Federer Express shows no sign of slowing.
First published in City A.M.