Life lessons learned from a late career Federer
It’s a lovely problem to have (and one that I didn’t think I would ever have again) to be wondering what to write about after yet another Federer slam victory. To analyse the match itself would be to miss the bigger narrative here of records and Federer’s place in sporting history. To focus on history risks repeating everything that has already been said and will continue to be said about him – that Federer is GOAT. Duh.
I’ve been wondering lately about the impact that Federer has had on my life and it occurred to me that this late career version of Federer, this dad-joking, dorky legend in all our lunchboxes, has been a profound inspiration to me for the way that I approach my life and career, even more than the peak Federer of 06-07. So rather than focus on the title last night, here are some life lessons I have learned from late career Federer, gathered from my thoughts on 2017-2018.
- ‘Who cares, it’s just tennis!’
Not the reply that you expected from Roger Federer, but when asked by Courier after his semifinal win about whether he had a trophy room for all of his titles, Federer gave this unexpected response. He went on to say that he does enjoy going through some of them with friends at times, mentioning – among other things – his Olympic gold medal, not one of his more prominent career achievements, as something cool that he could share with them.
Watching this late career Federer, I couldn’t help but be struck by his ability to keep his success in perspective. This is in stark contrast to Bernard Tomic’s ‘I just count my millions’ comment when he crashed out of qualifying for the Australian Open. One player has done so much, yet prefers not to be reminded of his trophies in every room of the house, and enjoys sharing his successes with those dear to him. The other tries to seek comfort in money while failing to keep his demons at bay. Just a reminder that perspective, the ability to recognise that your life is larger than your profession, is a key measure of success.
- Love and cherish your community, and they will help you soar.
Last night, when Federer faced break points early in the fifth set, the entire Rod Laver Arena burst spontaneously into a chorus of “let’s go Roger, let’s go!” The crowd, who had been excited about the prospect of a fifth set late in the fourth, reverted overwhelmingly to cheering for Federer as soon as the fifth set began. It was clear that almost everyone bought tickets to see a Federer 20th.
Later that night, when the match has been won and Federer was presented with the trophy, he began his victory speech unexpectedly by paying respect to Australia – the cities he’s visited, the tournaments he has played here. His family loved Perth. He had loved his experience at the Sydney Olympics. And Melbourne has been worth the trip each time. It’s not hard to see why the crowd here has always supported him, despite a very Australian tendency to cheer for the underdog. And when Federer choked back emotions and could talk no more, Rod Laver Arena, and no doubt the rest of Australia, let their cheers do the talking for him. Have you ever heard anything like it?
- Big boys do cry.
While we are on the topic of tears, in a world of toxic masculinity and petulance, Federer has never shied away from expressing vulnerability. It is the thing that makes him endearing and authentic, despite living what appears to be a privileged and charmed life. Federer has shown that it is okay to cry on a big stage, that losses should hurt and wins should move you, and that the ability to let your emotions out can sometimes be a sign of a life lived with passion.
- All on board the gravy train.
‘It must be nice for Federer, now that everything’s gravy,’ said one of my co-workers as we both stole some time to watch tennis from the work kitchen. Indeed, one of the best things about late career Federer is that he has broken all records, and anything else he wins from here is just a numbers game. It presents a unique challenge for a player like Cilic, still with things that he wants to prove. How do you play someone with a mindset like Federer, who – in a completely different way – has ‘nothing to lose’?
At this Australian Open, Federer was the giddiest and most relaxed I have ever seen him at a slam, laughing with Courier post-match, turning on and off that ‘smouldering intensity’, giving insightful press conferences and actually enjoying the ancillary parts of a professional athlete’s life like media and PR. When asked on Margaret Court Arena last night about how he could keep going after 20 slams, Federer said:
‘Who cares about that part? It’s about winning and having a great time, seeing you guys now and celebrating all together. It’s so much fun.’
And isn’t it just? This connection between tennis audiences around the world and late career Federer stems not only from his successes, but from his apparent joy and delight in travelling the world and playing tennis. Federer is not only playing well at this stage of his career, he is actually having fun, savouring every moment and creating memories with his family, his team and his fans. And for me personally, working in a profession where some of the most successful people are also some of the most miserable, I am gratified that I have a role model who exemplifies the importance of enjoying your successes, of leaning into each moment that life brings you, expecting magic.
All on board the gravy train I say. Choo choo!
- The secrets of longevity
One overwhelming narrative of late career Federer is his longevity, and much of it has been attributed to his efficient playing style, which has kept him out of injury for much of his career. But there is much more to longevity than technical talent and efficiency. The mindset aspect of Federer’s longevity has been less discussed. I have already mentioned his passion for tennis and his enjoyment of life as a professional athlete, a given for anyone hoping to go the distance in their career. When asked about how he keeps his ambitions strong at this age and level of achievement last night, Federer gave a lot of credit to the people around him –
‘I think by not overplaying, not playing every tournament possible. I enjoy practice. Not minding the travel. Having a great team around me, they make it possible. At the end it’s seeing that my parents are incredibly proud and happy that I’m still doing it. They enjoy coming to tournaments. That makes me happy and play better.
Then, of course, my wife who makes it all possible. Without her support, I wouldn’t be playing tennis no more since many years. But we had a very open conversation, if she was happy to do this or not, years ago. I’m happy that she’s super supportive, and she’s willing to take on a massive workload with the kiddies. Same for me, because I wouldn’t want to be away from my kids for more than two weeks. This life wouldn’t work if she said no.
Many puzzles need to fit together for me to be able to sit here tonight.’
It’s again a wonderful perspective from someone who understands that success is about many moving pieces fitting together, and he is just one of those pieces, albeit a significant one. The secrets to Federer’s longevity, or anyone’s longevity in a particular profession for that matter, is about not overworking, having the right support system, your own personal Mirka, Seve and Ljubi. Or Papa Fed, that person who’s not afraid to tell you that you look like an idiot playing bongo drums.
As I embark on a personal career pivot of sorts this year, these are the things that I think about when I think about Federer. We can’t all win 20 grand slams, but each of us can approach life with passion, perseverance, and delight, drawing on the support of friends and family, and giving back to the community that gave us so much. These are the life lessons I have learned from late career Federer.
Happy 20th, Federbitches.