How the realization Federer is human boosted his appeal
Federer's historic career earned him plenty of respect in his native Switzerland, but it took this year's tumultuous summer for them to truly appreciate him. He returns to play his hometown event in Basel this week not just as a tennis champion, but a national hero.
Strange but true -- more of Roger Federer's compatriots watched him lose his Wimbledon crown to Rafael Nadal this year than saw him win his first and fifth Wimbledon titles put together.
Swiss TV ratings for the summer's epic five-set final were 1.12 million -- nearly 15 percent of the country, or the equivalent of about 44 million viewers in the United States. Only 545,000 watched his maiden win in 2003, and even fewer -- 477,000 -- tuned in last year when he defeated Nadal to tie Bjorn Borg's mark of five titles in a row.
There's no doubt that Federer earned tremendous respect and fame in Switzerland while amassing 12 Grand Slams and 50-odd career titles, just as he did everywhere else. But none of those career achievements managed to galvanize the nation like his sudden struggles this season.
"He won everything the last four years, and all the people were saying, 'only Roger, only Roger,' said Stanislas Wawrinka, who partnered Federer to the doubles gold in Beijing. "And this year he's losing, he's No. 2 and so all the people are trying to push him."
After a rocky start to the hard-court summer, Federer repaid their emotional investment handsomely, winning the Olympic doubles and the U.S. Open.
Speaking from Madrid last week, Wawrinka acknowledged that their win in Beijing had a "very big impact." It was one of only two golds won by Switzerland during the 2008 Games -- cyclist Fabian Cancellara took the other -- and received a tremendous response from the public.
"It's not only the fans of tennis, like usually when Roger won a Grand Slam or something like that," Wawrinka said. "It was the Olympics and the fans of the Olympics all the Swiss sports fans and all of Switzerland."
The win made Wawrinka into a familiar face at home: "A lot of people recognize me and ask for pictures, autograph." But it was the sight of an almost unrecognizable Federer that left an indelible mark on the population.
After a disappointing quarterfinal loss to James Blake in singles, Federer transformed himself in the team event. Cool elegance gave way to wild, boyish excitement as the pair won match after match, and the gold medal final was watched on nearly two-thirds of the Swiss TV sets running that Saturday afternoon.
Federer and Wawrinka's three-set victory electrified the country and became Switzerland's defining moment of the 2008 Olympics. Usain Bolt's record-breaking victory in the men's 100m race, which took place during the match, ended up as a tape-delayed afterthought.
Federer's obvious joy charmed the Swiss and wiped away any niggling questions created by his decision to base himself in Dubai and, more recently, to move his official Swiss residence from his Basel birthplace to more tax-friendly Wollerau.
"That was absolutely a big boost for his popularity," said Rene Stauffer, tennis writer for Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger and author of "Quest for Perfection: The Roger Federer story."
"Everybody realized how much it meant to him to win that medal, which was obviously not a money-driven thing, but a question of pride and nationalism."
In the past, it had been puzzling to see the national lack of response to Federer, who was rapidly establishing himself as one of the world's biggest and most beloved sporting celebrities.
In 2005, after winning this third Wimbledon and defending his U.S. Open title, Federer was named European Sportsman of the Year and Laureus World Sportsman of the Year, but was passed over for Swiss Sportsman of the Year in favor of 19-year-old motorcyclist Tom Luthi.
In 2006, two weeks after he won his ninth Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, Federer's Davis Cup appearance in a home tie against Serbia failed to sell out, and organizers had to reduce the capacity of the 5,780-seat stadium in Geneva.
But there is no more taking him for granted. "I think people in Switzerland have realized that nothing is forever," Stauffer said. "When you're 27, you can stop playing like [Bjorn] Borg did or you can stop winning Grand Slams like [John] McEnroe did.
"Federer is human. He's not just a winning machine. That's really I think the big realization this year."
Such is the interest these days that any Federer news immediately leaps to the top of Tages Anzeiger's most-read list, even trifling items like a recent sighting of Federer and long-time girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec looking at rings while shopping in Dubai. "You just put in the name Federer, and people jump on it," Stauffer said.
It was a sign of how things had changed since modest plans for the tie were made earlier in the year. "We could easily have sold 2,000 more," said Rene Stammbach, president of the Swiss tennis federation. "But six months before the event, we didn't have the Olympic gold medal, we didn't have Federer coming back winning the U.S. Open, we didn't have all these things."
The enthusiastic crowds also helped Federer fully grasp the effect of his exploits during the summer -- he described it as the same "great sensation" Nadal must have had after being presented with the No. 1 trophy in Madrid last week.
A similar reaction likely awaits him at the ATP Basel event this week, a tournament where he once served as ball boy and has now won for the past two years. An Olympic homecoming Federer organized for Wawrinka, Cancellara and himself in Basel after the U.S. Open drew thousands to the town square.
Will the phenomenon have much impact on Federer himself? Probably not. "He's not there that much," said fellow Swiss and former WTA No. 1 Martina Hingis, in California to play an exhibition earlier this month. "He's all over the place playing, training and traveling.
"He won the U.S. Open again and then they played Davis Cup and obviously, he's huge. But that's why he tries to avoid it, he's so quiet and calm and he's not the type of person who seeks attention."
Federer's national appeal has always been more mainstream than the Slovakian-born Hingis' -- think Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the United States, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski in Britain. But ultimately, because tennis remains behind soccer and skiing in the country's sporting hierarchy, his celebrity has transcended the sport rather than standing on its shoulders, similar to Michael Phelps and swimming in the U.S.
When it comes to inspiring kids to pick up a racket, however, the Federer effect has been noticeable in Swiss tennis ever since he burst into prominence on the men's tour.
"The yearly increase in junior boys has been 10 percent, and that's not because of my blue eyes," Stammbach said. "It's because of Federer's performance."
And that, you suspect, is what Federer himself cares most about.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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