Roger Federer has rarely been a man for one-word answers, rarely been short of an opinion, and rarely been caught off guard by a question.
He is, without doubt, a PR gift in every medium—articulate, self-assured, and generous in his obligations—though he must rue the day when he agreed to hold press conferences in English, French and German.
But Federer also worked out, many years ago, that good PR is a great tool in the right hands and, as a result, helped set the standard that all players now follow. The top men and women in tennis are global stars capable of filling vast column inches and broadcast hours. They can single-handedly ‘put bums on seats’ anywhere in the world, and such pulling-power generates income and draws fresh blood to the sport.
The equation is simple: You pat my back and I’ll pat yours.
In Federer, of course, tennis is fortunate in both message and messenger. From early on, he involved himself in tennis from the inside, helped perhaps by the Swiss gift for negotiation and diplomacy, when to speak out or keep one’s counsel.
Many times he is asked about discussions between the Players’ Council—of which he is President—and the governing bodies, and invariably delivers the same response: What’s behind closed doors stays behind closed doors. But when the time is right, he speaks up.
After the US Open was again delayed by rain last year:
This is the fourth year in a row I think we’re playing a Monday final. Might as well make it a Monday final, right?…Or you have to change up a few things. I think the [three-day] first round is not working and “Super Saturday” is not feasible.
The USTA has changed its schedule.
On dope testing, he commented in February:
I didn’t get tested after the semi-final in Australia, which I told the people: To me that is a big surprise…we should be doing biological blood passports, I think we should store things away, I think that would scare a lot of cheaters away.
Bio-passports were announced a month later.
And he has been frank about his own challenges:
I’m in a different situation than [the other players]: They are right in their prime 22—27, 28. It’s challenging, exciting, making the right decisions in my personal life right now. I have family, not many of the other guys have that. I have many more things to worry about than they do.
When he resumed duty at his 15th consecutive Roland Garros, his 54th consecutive Grand Slam, it seemed there could be few surprises left in the Federer locker. Except that, as on countless previous occasions, he managed to make headlines with a timely surprise, just as he had in Rome the week before, where he arrived with his signature curls replaced by a short-cropped, near unrecognisable Swiss.
Federer had long been resistant to joining Twitter, preferring to communicate with fans face-to-face, via the most ‘liked’ Facebook page in tennis, and via his own website.
But after some snide comments about his serve on Twitter during May, he took the plunge—a proactive step, perhaps, to manage the gossip from the inside:
For me, it’s really [about] connecting with the fans on a different platform than what I’ve done in the past…I wasn’t sure in the beginning, to be honest. I wanted to wait and see, and only do it when I felt very comfortable and not get pushed into it by someone. I did get many comments from fans and followers that they would love to see me on Twitter. I said, ‘Okay, I’m happy to give it a try and have some fun with it’.
Now, six months later, he has 1.4 million followers and a growing reputation for witty hashtags from a his trending “AskRF” sessions.
Soon after launching into Twitter, he picked up another online medium, taking to ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit. He’s even taken to posting “selfies” with a new iPhone.
And when the likes of Laura Robson, John McEnroe and Pat Rafter join him in some Twitter banter, you know that he has again taken to a new medium like a duck to water.
Federer, now without coach Paul Annacone after another surprise decision during the autumn, is breaking the mould again in the very first week of 2014. He has opted to prepare for the Australian Open at the Brisbane International for the first time in more than 15 years as pro. And don’t be surprised if he even turns up with a new racket!
The record-breaking Swiss may be 32 and the father of four-year-old twins, but it looks as though he will keep fans and the media on their toes for a bit longer yet.