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Roger Federer’s longstanding Aussie affinity tells a storied tale

Melbourne is arguably the 39-year-old’s wellspring: the people, places and moments that greatly shaped the king.

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Upon hearing the news that Roger Federer was going to skip the Australian Open, I was reminded of a scene from the 1983 cult classic movie, “A Christmas Story”. As Christmas Day progresses from morning to afternoon to evening, the Parker family’s mouths water with anticipation for the chance to savor the holiday turkey.  

But then, just when the moist and crackling main dish emerges from the oven, the neighbor’s dogs tip it over and consume the turkey themselves, leaving little but a comprehensively devoured carcass. All of the Parkers are stunned and rendered speechless.

“The heavenly aroma still hung in the house,” says the narrator, adult Ralph Parker, reflecting on memories of vanished hopes. “But it was gone, all gone!  No turkey! No turkey sandwiches!  No turkey salad!  No turkey gravy!  Turkey Hash!  Turkey a la King!  Or gallons of turkey soup!  Gone, ALL GONE!”

No hearty forehands. No delicately carved slice backhands. No elegant serves. No kind comments. For the first time in his career, the man who dubbed the Australian Open “The Happy Slam” will not be present in Melbourne. Our Federer soup, gone.    


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Granted, given what this year has meant for the entire world, there are worse possibilities that don’t even have to be imagined.

That said, Federer and Australia share a deep affinity that will make his absence jarring and poignant. For if Wimbledon is the place where Federer has most vividly ruled the world, Australia is arguably his wellspring: the people, places and moments that greatly shaped the king.  

It was an Australian, Peter Carter, who most extensively coached Federer throughout his formative years in Switzerland. A contemporary of such Australians as Darren Cahill, Mark Woodforde and Pat Cash, Carter’s death in a car accident in 2002 shook Federer to the core, heavily motivating him to take advantage of the considerable skills the two had honed together. “I guess it was somewhat of a wake-up call for me,” Federer said in 2019, “and I really started to train hard.”  

When Federer was 13, his family strongly considered moving to Australia. His father, Robert, took frequent lengthy business trips there and was offered a job Down Under. Young Roger was excited at the prospect of living in this tennis-rich country. After Robert opted to remain in Switzerland, Roger burst into tears.  Though he soon enough came to accept life as a Swiss, there have been moments when Federer has speculated about life as a Davis Cup teammate of his longstanding rival, Lleyton Hewitt (who in ’03 beat Federer in a stirring Davis Cup match in Melbourne).  

The 2000 Sydney Olympics was the spot where Federer first commenced his romance with the woman he’d marry, Mirka Vavrinec, herself a Top 100 player also competing that year on the Swiss tennis team.

From 2005 to 2007, Federer was coached by Tony Roche, an Australian legend whose understated manner and penchant for hard work–and then, more work–profoundly personifies the deep tennis values that have propelled Australia to so much tennis success.  


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And much is noted about Federer’s affinity for a great many other Australian greats, including Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, and Rod Laver. He has spoken frequently about these champions and how they have affected his attitude towards the game.    

But of course, most visible of all, there have been the statements Federer has made inside Rod Laver Arena. By age 25, he’d won the title three times (’04, ’06-’07). Call this period the “Early Empire,” Federer in the finals turning back Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez. All three were fine contenders—Safin beat Federer in a scintillating Aussie semi in ’05—but not quite on a par with those who’d soon enough emerge as his greatest rivals.

Federer’s Melbourne “Middle Ages” began in ’08, when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the semis. The Serbian went on to claim his first Grand Slam title and has since made his biggest mark in Melbourne, lifting the champion’s trophy a record eight times. A year later, Federer’s five-set loss in the finals to Rafael Nadal triggered tears from the loser. “God, it’s killing me,” said Federer, shortly before being consoled by Nadal.  

Though Federer took the title again in ’10, the next six years were frustrating. Not once in that time did Federer get past the semis. Shortly after the ’16 Australian Open, as he prepared a bath for his twin daughters, Federer felt a click in his left knee that in turn required the first surgery of his career. After the injury resurfaced that year at Wimbledon, Federer did not play at all for the balance of 2016. By then he was 35 years old.

Consider what came next, “A Regal Twilight.” In January 2017, Federer arrived in Melbourne upbeat but uncertain. Seeded 17th, would he at last be able to harness the technology of a racquet with a bigger hitting area? How would his body hold up?  What could he expect from his opponents, the court surface, the summer climate in a city where the saying goes “If you don’t like weather, wait 15 minutes”?  


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To the joy of millions, the seas parted. Djokovic lost in the second round. Andy Murray, who’d finished 2016 number one in the world, went out in the fourth round. Federer’s confidence boosted by five-set wins over Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka, he arrived in the finals to take on Nadal.

There he played what will be remembered as the most significant match of his career. Over the course of three hours and 38 minutes, the two played the kind of all-court tennis that had thrilled the world for more than a decade.  

But there was something new this time. For years, Nadal had successfully attacked Federer’s backhand, the Swiss often either failing to hit enough forceful drives or instead slicing it right into Nadal’s powerful forehand. On this evening, though, Federer frequently unleashed, taking the ball earlier, forcing Nadal back on his heels. Down 3-1 in the fifth, Federer put together a majestic five-game sequence to earn his first Grand Slam singles title in more than four years.

A reasonable sequel took place inside Laver Arena 12 months later, albeit versus a slightly less formidable opponent. In the fifth set of the finals versus Marin Cilic, Federer rattled fought off a break point in the opening game and then tore through the decider, 6-1.  

The last two years have been less productive. In 2019, a potential shape of things to come arrived when Federer lost in the round of 16 to a slick hopeful with a sharp one-hander of his own, Stefanos Tsitsipas.  And last year, despite two rather Houdini-like escapes versus John Millman and Tennys Sandgren (the latter from seven match points down) that took him to the semis, Federer’s body could barely carry him through one set versus Djokovic before he went down, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 6-3.    

It’s fitting that Federer coined the term “The Happy Slam” for the Australian Open. After all, for more than 15 years in Melbourne, he has given the world a great many enchanting moments. Australia has played a major role in shaping the Federer tennis legacy. Here’s hoping he recovers well enough to return yet again; certain to delight, perhaps even to surprise.  


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