INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — For all the athletic skill, the records, the career that seems endless, maybe what is most appealing about Roger Federer, the finest male tennis player ever — anyone disagree? — is his sense of self.
He knows exactly who he is and wants us to know. There’s no false sense of humility. No shying from the spotlight.
He’ll remind us he’s still human, still imperfect.
He and other top athletes might be superstars, he said Wednesday during a pre-tournament interview for the annual Indian Wells extravaganza in the desert down the way from Palm Springs. “But we’re not supermen ... I’m just a normal guy who happens to be great in what he does.”
Which means, of course, that he’s not normal.
He’s the new Centurion, the Century man, if not necessarily man of the century, who only last Sunday in Dubai won his 100th tournament, second behind the unthinkable total of 109 by Jimmy Connors.
When one journalist pointed out that 100 is a nice round number, Federer in an instant responded, “It is.”
After the laughter ebbed, he continued, “It has a special meaning for me. It’s an achievement I never thought I was going to make.”
Not recently, he means. Rather way back when Federer, now 37, was an erratic teenage prodigy in Switzerland, labeled the nation’s next star and being hamstrung by a temper he needed to learn to control.
Yes, he’s been aware of that 100th. He knows what’s happening around him, knows his status.
“I started thinking about it maybe nine months ago,” said Federer, “ever since I got to 96, 97. I don’t remember where I won those titles. When I got to 98 I thought it would be a pity to retire before (the 100th). That’s what kept me on the road, to be honest. Then to do it on the first attempt was nice, instead of being asked all the time, ‘Is this going to be the week?’ I could get fed up with that.”
Pity? Yes, Federer speaks like that. He is the child of a Swiss father and South African mother, conversant in numerous languages. Although residing in Switzerland, as do so many in his profession, Federer is a citizen — and sporting hero — of the world.
He’s the home favorite at Wimbledon, other than Andy Murray, and at Flushing Meadows, where the U.S. Open is played. Tennis is like that. Spectators cheer for the stars, the names. They don’t want an upset. They want to be a part of history.
And Federer definitely is history. Rather, he chased it and caught it; a record 20 Grand Slams, including eight Wimbledon titles; No. 1 in the ATP ranking for a record 310 weeks (he’s currently No. 3); and willing to play everywhere and anywhere as much for the sport as for his personal gain.
It’s 16 hours of flight time from Dubai to Los Angeles. He arrived Monday, jetlagged, but after a night’s sleep and a brief practice he said he’s ready for the tournament. He travels with his wife and their four children — and a nanny and plenty of attention.
So many athletes from every sport tell us they can’t wait to retire, to avoid airports, to escape the media. But Federer accepts the travel and attention; in fact, he almost enjoys it.
He’s won those 100 tournaments, he has endorsements from Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, NetJets, Uniqlo — which gave him a clothing contract worth up to $300 million when his Nike deal ended — and he finds fulfillment in the competition.
“I want to be happy and to please people,” he said, “but I know I can’t please everybody. So that’s not my goal. I want to be as flexible as possible, but my priority (upon retirement) will be my family, as it is now.
“I cannot sit still. I always want to travel.”
He long ago made it to the top, but the journey seems endless.