Federer's Wife at the Center of His Game
His back, a chronic but manageable concern for years, has been troubling him again, but Roger Federer is in Melbourne with every intent of returning to the court and playing in his 49th consecutive Grand Slam tournament.
The record, held by the former South African player Wayne Ferreira, stands at 56. But Federer is a serial record breaker and, now third on this all-time list, just might break another one.
In an era when major injuries have caused most of his rivals to crack at some stage, he has kept the damage to a minimum, thanks to his silken footwork, sound stroke mechanics, sage scheduling and ability to respond quickly to the warning signs. Latest example: deciding to retire from a minor event last week in Doha after the quarterfinals rather than imperil his ability to play in the main event next week, the Australian Open.
He also long ago conquered a fear of flying. “I was scared when I was younger, and I used to get very sick on the plane,” he said in a preseason interview. “Today that’s all gone.”
But according to Federer, who will turn 31 this year and who ended 2011 on a reaffirming winning streak, the biggest reason for his durability and enduring appetite for top-flight tennis is his support team, above all his wife, Mirka.
In that sense, Mirka has long been the most important woman in the men’s game. Born Miroslava Vavrinec in 1978 in what is now Slovakia, she emigrated to Switzerland as a toddler with her parents. The Swiss press reported that she received early encouragement from Martina Navratilova, and then became a professional tennis player, peaking at No.76 before a foot problem forced her to retire in 2002.
She and Federer have been together since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, when he was just a teenager with great potential but not yet a great résumé. Mirka later helped formally manage his career, travel and media commitments, typing by his side on her smart phone as he gave interviews. She has ceded that role in recent years as Federer has expanded his staff and portfolio, but that does not mean she is outside the loop on scheduling, sponsorship, Federer’s clothing and product lines, and even some pure tennis issues, although she now rarely watches matches not involving her husband.
“She still plays a huge role and has great input and impact,” said Paul Annacone, Federer’s co-coach. “She understands the big picture extremely well and does a great job in terms of letting us work but also shares invaluable information. This is a tricky balance. She’s been there since day one, so she knows very well what it takes and how to get there.”
Since the birth of the Federers’ twin daughters in 2009, Mirka has taken the family (and the nanny) on the road, rarely missing a trip or tournament. Without that support, Federer said, he doubts he would still be interested in chasing down trophies worldwide from January to November.
“I know how fortunate I am,” he said. “And maybe that’s one of the reasons that makes me very happy when I’m playing and makes me very motivated, because I know this is not a normal situation I’m in, being able to play with a healthy, happy family next to me, because the easiest thing would be to say, ‘Let’s just stay home and take care of the kids.”’
“But the kids are healthy, they are happy, and Mirka doesn’t want to be away from me, and I don’t want to be away from her,” he added, “and like this we make it all work that we are actually together all year long, and maybe miss the girls and Mirka maybe one or two weeks during the year, which is just incredible that she’s willing to make all of that effort. I’m happy that it’s this way, because anything else would make it more difficult to compete and to play at the highest levels. It would basically be impossible.”
Federer is hardly the first tennis star to travel with family in tow. Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Ivan Ljubicic all juggled fatherhood and the nomadic life on tour. Kim Clijsters has won three Grand Slam singles titles as a mother. But at the moment, the only other father among the top 20 is Gilles Simon, No.12 this week. What separates Federer from the crowd is that he already has secured his fortune and legacy — a record 16 Grand Slam singles titles — yet has shown no hint of losing his appetite for the game or the road, which is certainly more palatable with a private plane and other highest-end comforts.
But there is still a toll, and it is seldom the megastar who pays the highest price. “How important is the support from your wife? Hard to say, but to win Grand Slams, nothing can be more important than you winning,” said Mats Wilander, the former world No.1. “I think Roger will win again, whether he has the support or not from his wife and family, but yes, if your family travels with you, it’s harder on them than you. As a player, you’re as selfish as anything and as a supporting cast you have to be the opposite.”
The difference here perhaps is that Federer is an involved enough parent to tolerate middle-of-the-night wake-up calls from the twins during tournaments. The bigger difference perhaps is that Mirka was once a player herself.
“I think it’s a great help that she actually played,” Federer said. “I never started dating a tennis player because of that, actually, sort of 10 years ahead. But in my situation, I think it really does help, because she knows in some ways what it takes, and she did it on a level that was still very good but not at my level. And she already put in a massive amount of hours herself. So when I tell her, ‘Look, I need to go to practice,’ she’s the first to say, ‘I know, I know you need it, and you need only maybe 20 percent of what I needed.”’
Mirka, who rarely speaks publicly, declined to be interviewed for this article. But Federer said that her career-ending injury had shaped his own approach to protecting himself with the help of his longtime fitness trainer, Pierre Paganini.
“She was a big believer in me not wasting any sort of talent, because she knew herself that she was limited to a degree,” Federer said. “She was extremely hardworking, but she knew with my talents I could achieve so many more things, and she was also one that was very influential, as was Pierre Paganini, for instance, early on, when I became world No.1 and we decided, ‘Less is more; we have to take care of the body,’ because Mirka’s body went first because she maybe over-practiced.”
“So I think she could also give me some advice, sort of know-how,” Federer added. “Her body is still fragile today when she goes and does sports, and mine isn’t, and it’s incredible. I’ve done so much more sport than she has, so it’s I guess a bit of luck, too, just smartness because of the people that have surrounded me.”
Last season was sour and ultimately sweet for Federer. He played some tremendous, flowing tennis, stopping Novak Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak in the French Open semifinals, and yet slipped to No.3 and failed to win a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2002. He also blew a two-set lead in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and blew another two-set lead, against Djokovic, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Federer said Mirka had told him during his six-week break later in the autumn that she thought he should search more deeply for explanations. “She was very much a believer that it can’t be that I lose all these matches so closely, that there must be something more,” Federer said. “She was the one that says: ‘It’s O.K. to lose one or two matches very closely, but you can’t start losing more and more and more. Then maybe something’s wrong in your corner. So you just have to question yourself and check with the entire team, see what everybody thinks.’ She had her opinions, and some were, I thought, wrong, some were right.”
Federer did not elaborate, but when he returned to the circuit, he won three straight indoor titles: Basel, Paris and the A.T.P. World Tour Finals. That was sweet indeed, but not as sweet as it would be to return to the Grand Slam honor roll in Melbourne.
Triumph or disaster, Mirka will be there, which is a big reason why the triumphs are still possible. “She’s been a rock in my corner,” he said.
Re: Federer's Wife at the Center of His Game