Roger Federer, speaking in press conference after he had beaten Marcus Willis, the $50 an hour teaching pro ranked 772 in the world, answered many of those questions and reminded us once again why Roger is Roger – a rather special guy.
For a start, Federer’s awareness of what his match with Willis meant to Wimbledon, tennis, Britain and, of course, the man himself, reminded one of the fact that, quite simply, he is a tennis fan. Along with Novak Djokovic and, especially Andy Murray, he follows this game in detail and revels in all the stories it produces.
“This story is gold,” said the man who has created history and quite a few stories himself. On certain occasions, Federer has been criticized for reminding us how great he is. In fact, he is just stating facts but the replies he gives to set up questions often come tinged with conceit.
But while discussing his match against Willis, which he won handily enough, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, the narrative was almost all about the other guy – the burly, jokey Englishman who had just enjoyed the most unforgettable experience of his life. But, surprisingly, Federer insisted he would not forget it either.
“While I was playing, I was thinking, ‘This is definitely one of the matches I’ll remember’ because I’m starting to forget some.”
Then Federer just let his thoughts roll. “I thought I got my fair share of support. He deserved more. He deserved more in the bigger moments. He played some great points. He fought hard. Great personality for a Centre Court like this. I must tell you, it’s not easy for him to come out and just play a decent match. There’s a lot of pressure on him. I thought he handled it great.”
At the end, the crowd were appreciative of the fact that Federer waited so that he and Willis could walk off together. But that was in public. Far more revealing was Federer’s attitude in the locker room before they went on court.
Apparently, Willis needed to go to the bathroom as they joined up to walk out. “I wasn’t sure if he wanted to go first or second,” said Federer. “I had to wait for him. Then I said ‘You have the choice. I don’t know what you want to do.’ I wanted the cooler experience for him. I don’t know what the cooler experience was, if it’s walking ahead of me or behind me…..I thought it was cool he got out first because it’s his moment, in my opinion. I wanted him to have a great time.”
Dating back to Rod Laver, one of the nicest men I’ve ever known, I have listened to a lot of champions react to numerous situations over the years but I am not sure I have heard anything quite like that. As an exercise in how to submerge an ego to embrace a particular situation, this takes some beating.
But Federer has always been aware of the big picture. He embraces it, even in defeat, because he can see past his own brilliance no matter how acutely he is aware of it. He knows what tennis means to people and to those who play it. He wants to win every match he plays but he wants the game to thrive, too.
Offering more of that awareness, Federer also said this, “Unfortunately we don’t have enough of these stories any more. It’s like when a junior makes a run. If a 16-year-old would also make a run like that we would be talking about it similarly. We used to have those stories almost every Grand Slam, say ten years ago. It’s not happening that much anymore because it’s becoming mentally and physically maybe too grueling, I’m not sure. But I just hope the press respects his situation. It’s easy now to just use it, chew it up and then throw it all away. He’s got a life after this. He’s got a career after this. It’s not simple for him to handle it. But I thought he handled it great.”
Even then Federer wasn’t finished talking about Marcus Willis. As a teaching pro, Marcus will read the following technical critique with interest.
“What I like about his game is he reads it well,” said the former champion. “He knows when you’re coming in. He can slice easily, even really deep in the court. He chips really well; he sees when it’s short and he steps into the court and goes for it. Clearly, he’s got an extreme grip on the forehand. Even today he had not too many problems coming over the ball. On grass you would think it would be the toughest. Then he has a nice serve. I struggled reading it. At the net he was very solid, like most British players. I think for him, it’s a question of just day in, day out, just wanting it…….”
There was more because when you ask Roger a question, you get a proper answer, although I must admit, not all are as detailed as that.
In many ways, this press conference was quite a performance. It is not often you get a great champion – possibly the greatest player ever to strike a ball – to sit there and discuss an unknown player in such vivid detail. But, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this unusual encounter is that, looking at it from the other end of the telescope, Roger Federer enjoyed the experience every bit as much as Marcus Willis.