Translation of the interview by Romain Lefebvre in l’Équipe December 29, 2017, print edition pages 4-6
L’Équipe has awarded you with the title Champion of Champions in a tie with Rafael Nadal. Does that seem fair to you?
– Yes. Some will say no, some will say yes. I think you can look at our seasons however way you want. Both have done something extraordinary. He finished the year at number 1. He’s even the oldest player ever to have done that, which I didn’t know. It’s something no one has done before, so, from that angle, he deserves it. He made a comeback just like me. Me, I’m five years older, which makes things even more complicated. And I beat him every time. You can mix that all up whichever way you want, but I’m totally OK with it.
Do you have the feeling that breaking back at 3-2 in the fifth set of your Australian Open win against Rafa was a determining factor for the rest of your season?
– It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true. It was that moment that I proved definitely that I’m playing fabulously. I’m playing really, really well. You feel that all the backhands are aggressive, I’m calm, serene. It’s a big moment for the rest of the season, yes … Basically, you’re right!
When we saw you at the inauguration of his academy, in October 2016 – you were both injured – you’ve almost never been apart since …
– Exactly. It’s interesting because it had never been that way before then. We understand each other. In the past, when he’s been injured or operated on, honestly, because I’d never been operated on, it was difficult for me to put myself in his skin. In 2016, when he was doing better, and it was my turn to be injured, for the first time I felt the way he did when he was injured. It got me even closer to Rafa, this understanding of what he went through in the past. On the one hand, it’s nice being at home, of being detached from everything, but, at the same time, it’s an injury. It’s not fun. It’s an operation; it reveals a weakness. I know there are a lot worse things in life with health problems. But for an athlete, an injury is difficult – it may mean the end. We both went through it at the same time, at the same moment. I think I understand Rafa more know than before. Before, for me, it was, ‘yeah, right, OK. I see what he wants to say, but not really … it’s clearer today.
If someone told you in 2010, when Nadal was number 1 in the world, that seven years later he wouldn’t beat you once in four meetings during a season …
– I would have said no way! At that time I had two kids, and I had even more desire. Now I have four. With four kids, I’m not going to beat Rafa four times! [laughs]. It’s neither reasonable nor realistic. But fine, the idea was to play for a long time. The question was: would we still be meeting each other? What will our rankings be? When you’re, I don’t know, fifteenth and twenty-third, I imagine we won’t be meeting each other four times during the year. To meet that often, you have to play at the highest level.
Can you give three reasons why you won every time in 2017?
– There’s the Basel win first of all in 2015 [in the final 6-3, 5-7, 6-3] at home, which really did me good. It comforted me in the idea that if I play well indoors, or on a fast surface, it would always be tough for him. After, I think that our long break acted as a reset for our rivalry. In our head-to-heads, our 2004 matches have no relation to today. We’re now two guys who’ve had operations, among the oldest. It’s another era. I approach the matches telling myself, ‘OK, we’ll see what happens.’ My new racquet has given me more options than in the past. Before, my game was more based on a sliced backhand and my forehand. Now, I can do more things with my backhand, and I proved that to myself in Australia against him. That was it. And, tactically, I was clearer in my head about how to play him as opposed to before. The racquet, the surface, the momentum [the dynamic] of finally ending the wins against me, it’s all a package. Plus the fact that I possibly could have won some matches against him I ended up losing. I’m think of Dubai, here, once in the final [in 2006, loss 2-6, 6-4, 6-4], which I shouldn’t have lost, Rome, which I lose in five sets [6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6] in the same year which I possibly should have won, at Roland where I for once had a chance [2011, loss 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1] … All those matches created a sort of spiral which favoured him.
If you’d met him on clay this year, would you have maintained your invincibility?
– It might have been interesting, with the year I had and my style of play, if I could have done well, even won, but no … for me, Rafa will always be the favourite against anyone on clay. So, Advantage Rafa! I say. [laughs]
You played doubles with him for the first time at the Laver Cup. What did playing beside him do?
– It was magnificent. Honestly. Because doubles are even better than practice. In doubles, you have ten seconds to make a choice, and you talk to each other. OK, what will you take? Forehand and I cover that after? No? Go, we’ll change quickly! OK, agreed? Bang bang, boom, bing. And you do that fifty times during a match! Watching his intensity, his calmness, it made me think about myself. We’re similar, we’re always trying to find solutions. He’s a winner. He knows when it’s important, when it doesn’t matter if you miss a shot when you’ve made the right choice. If the idea was right, you accept it. You know when the opponent played well. All that fascinated me. It was really good.
What does he have that you’d like to have?
– I’ve always loved his forehand and his intensity, his ability to concentrate.
You’d like him to have been Swiss?
– Uhmmm … why not? Absolutely. I won’t say no! But with Stan [Wawrinka] we’re doing pretty well, eh! I can’t complain, Stan’s incredible.
Which one of you is a better doubles player?
– Oh … interesting. We play completely differently. In Prague, I asked him, ‘How do you want me to play? More like me or more like you?’ Because I don’t know very well the doubles where you stay at the baseline after serving like he does. I was at the net and the balls we’re whistling by me [he mimes balls whistling by] voom, voom, especially against Jack Sock, who plays like Rafa. Me, I know doubles where both players are at the net, where you try and make a wall and you concentrate on the first volley. But that’s not the way we played. It was ultra interesting. It was modern doubles if you like. He plays that better, and I think I play classic doubles better. I know that’s not the answer you wanted, but sharing that thought is interesting. Let’s say it’s a draw!
Can we imagine you playing doubles at a Slam?
– No. I don’t think that’s possible. We need our rest. We’re both tired after the singles. [laughs].
What’s your best win over Rafa?
– Australia this year.  Yes.
The cruellest loss?
– Wimbledon 2008 or Rome 2006, where I have two match points, playing five hours on clay. It would have been nice beating him in that final, in that magnificent Rome stadium. But Wimbledon, there were so many records on the line: a sixth win for me, the first for him, in the dark like that at the end [night fell at the moment of match point, at 9.16 PM]. It was extraordinary …
Let’s get back to this year. Did you play your best tennis in the States at Indian Wells and Miami?
– I played well, but I had trouble in a couple of consecutive matches in Miami. Against Bautista, against Berdych, Kyrgios. Finally, I had a lot of luck against Berdych. Everyone’s forgotten, but I had match point against me on his serve. On his second, he hits 190 to my forehand. It’s times like those that can change the course of a season. Against Kyrgios, too. It was very, very hot. I played well that day, but in Miami, during the day, I suffered a lot because of the wind. You don’t play your best under those conditions. Or the feeling isn’t always the best. It’s not like Australia, where there’s never a breath of wind. After six matches on Rod Laver, you know every inch of the surface. You can’t play any better in the fifth set. While in Miami, during the day, you have the sun in your eyes from an angle, it’s windy, and you can’t go for the lines! It’s still an excellent tournament, and I really surprised myself in the final against Rafa. Because I told myself, ‘OK, I beat him in Australia and in Indian Wells,’ but, honestly, I was tired. At the warm-up with Seve [Lüthi, one of his coaches], I told him: “Listen, I’m going to try my best.” And he answered: ‘If we’d told you at the beginning of the season you’d make a final in Miami, you would have taken it, even without Australia or Indian Wells. Just this final!’ It gave me a good feeling, good energy, and I ended up having a very good match. My head was clear one more time, after the break back at the Australian Open, I guess. I saw that certain things were working and I kept it up. It was pretty great, right.
During all that, you make the decision of not playing on clay …
– Yes. Late on, actually. Because I was on clay. I told myself: I’ll see how I feel, where I’m at. Honestly, it was a coin-flip situation. I remember exactly where we were and how we decided. My entourage told me: ‘If you do it, Roger, think it over carefully. Because it will be a month where you’ll work like crazy. It won’t be easy, and what will it get you? Because if you don’t win Roland … And my physio was worried about my knee that had bugged me the year before. My conditioning coach, Pierre [Paganini] told me: ‘Listen, there’s so much work to do before playing on clay, and, in the end, what’s the goal? Just playing? It’s your decision.’ The coaches told me: if the priority is Wimbledon, you have to really think about it. Twenty-four hours later, I told myself: bah, you know what? OK, it’s tough, but it’s wise. It was the first time in my life I said no to a Slam while feeling healthy. Because the year before I pulled out of Roland with a bad back and knee, and I couldn’t play the US Open because of the knee. There was a solid reason each time. But this was a first and it was weird, yeah …
In hindsight, wasn’t it the best decision you made this year?
– No, no. It doesn’t give me any pleasure withdrawing from a tournament. I’m still a competitor. In hindsight, it wasn’t a bad decision, but it wasn’t a good one either, if it had turned out I could play on clay anyway, and still play on grass after, like I’ve done my whole career, in fact. Even in hindsight, I see what you mean, but I won’t accept it. It was an important and difficult decision to make because I was healthy.
And then there was Wimbledon glory. What do you remember?
– Oh it was quick. All of a sudden [snaps his fingers], I won my eighth … especially looking at Australia, where I didn’t know. Everything was fragile on my side. I had five-setters, Nishikori, Stan, Rafa, I fought a problem with my adductors for five matches … While at Wimbledon, I arrive, three sets, then three sets, and all of a sudden, I’m in the quarters, the semis, the final and it’s over. It’s a great satisfaction because I’d played so well and worked so hard since the previous year when I lost to Raonic. The idea was, if I made it back this year, that’s where I wanted to be at the top of my game. And finding yourself at Wimbledon in that situation, you, your team, your fans, Switzerland, it’s a very nice moment in the career of a player. Especially when you achieved what was your main goal the previous year. With my knee problem, I’d told myself that everything that came before Wimbledon was less important. I constructed the situation well.
What gives Roger Federer the most satisfaction: the complicated fight at the Australian Open …
– [interrupts] That. Regardless, that.
… or the train that arrives on time at Wimbledon for a final without a lot of emotion against an injured Cilic?
– I didn’t realise that at the time, luckily. I still had the satisfaction of winning against him as if he weren’t injured. It’s only after the final that I heard how much he was hurt. Because I didn’t see him cry during the match. And I imagine it was better for me not seeing that. Regarding my 2017 season, it’s Australia above all for sure. With that incredible match, with everything that happened up to it, the comeback. The emotions were huge. While with Wimbledon, I looked at the record I’d achieved, my eighth. That’s it.
Can you guarantee your numerous French fans that you’ll play agin one day in Paris?
– No, I can’t. Because Bercy is always after Basel and Roland Garros on clay, I don’t know what will happen next year. I’d like to say yes, absolutely, I’ll come back and one day in Paris, and I think that will happen next year. It may be twice, it may be never. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. The longer I stay on the tour, the bigger the chance I’ll return to Paris. Obviously, it’s tough for me to imagine never playing Roland or Bercy again, but the future is unknown.
Translated by MAN