It was Roger Federer who dubbed the Australian Open the “Happy Slam” and seven years on, it’s an assessment that’s more fitting than ever for the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
“It’s where people like to get together,” Federer said as he anticipated the start of his 16th year on tour in 2014. “People are always happy that the year is starting again. It doesn’t feel like the grind. People are always more open and flexible.”
Australian Open 2014 is shaping up to be an even happier experience. Apart from celebrating the 10th year of the first of four titles at Melbourne Park in 2003, the Swiss star is delighted to be staging “A Night with Roger Federer and friends” on 8 January, which will also feature his hero, Rod Laver, and a close friend in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
For fans, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see superstars of the tennis world in a special setting; for Federer, it’s a priceless opportunity to raise both funds and awareness for his personal charity. “I’m always very happy to take time for my Foundation. It’s something that’s very close to my heart, as many people know,” he explained.
“To help people in need, that’s really most important. That was the idea behind it and Tennis Australia was really excited, so for me to be doing it on Rod Laver Arena is truly an honour.”
The special evening is supporting an objective that’s deeply personal for Federer. A prolific traveller since his teenage years, the Swiss was most touched from an early age by his experiences in South Africa. His mother, Lynette, was born in the seaside city of Port Elizabeth, making his travels there particularly memorable.
“I loved going there but clearly I was also confronted with some of the poverty and my parents always told me what was going on and why this was the case,” he said of the inspiration for the Roger Federer Foundation. “It was somehow always clear … I was eventually going to, if I had the opportunity, try to give back.”
Federer has certainly done that, with the millions of dollars raised through his Foundation supporting people children in numerous African countries, including South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Ethiopia.
Quality education is the highest priority for the prolific champion, who understands the importance of a long-term focus. “It’s very, very special to all of us and we have big goals moving ahead,” he said. “So far we have been able to support 80,000 plus kids in one year. The goal is by 2018 to hopefully be supporting one million.
“We have ambitious goals and for that, clearly some money is needed. But it’s not all about money; it’s about making sure it’s sustainable and that the kids really get quality education.”
Christmas Day marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of his Foundation, which Federer was determined to start early in his career, having watched other athletic greats and businessmen make a significant impact in their own charity work.
Delighted to see his early efforts how transforming into tangible and quality change in parts of Africa, Federer is also rapt by ongoing support from those around him. Melbourne was the obvious location in which to host “A Night with Roger Federer and Friends”, for example because Tennis Australia was so receptive to the idea.
“They’ve shown to me how proactive they’ve been when it came to fundraising, charity, how they’re always so happy to be participating. I think that’s not just in tennis but also as a country as a whole,” said Federer, who was also a high-profile participant and driving force behind Hit for Haiti leading into Australian Open 2010, as well as Rally for Relief, which raised much-needed funds for Australians affected by devastating floods in January 2011.
Laver, with whom Federer has already shared emotional moments at Melbourne Park, will be a popular addition to the one-off event leading into Australian Open 2014. “He is a legend of our game and I love the history of our game because they have paved the way for us in such a big way that tends to be forgotten,” Federer noted.
“I always like to get former legends and greats and icons back involved in the game – particularly Rod because he has achieved things that will never be achieved again. I think it’s nice. I really respect and appreciate that he’s willing to participate in our event.”
Federer is also delighted that Tsonga agreed to participate and says fans will be thoroughly entertained by their exhibition encounter. “We’ve had some great matches on the court, we’ve always played very fair and I think we really like each other very much on and off the court because there’s always a fun factor to it,” he pointed out.
And no doubt it will be a valuable experience leading into Australian Open 2014 –Federer’s 57th consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance and one that he’s happily anticipating.
Having played much of the 2013 season with a back injury – a contributing factor as he made his earliest Grand Slam exits in more than a decade – the four-time Australian Open champion is relieved to be fully fit, and has been training hard for weeks now at his Dubai base.
“Some success came back at the end of last year (2013 season) which is quite important for me, for my confidence because I was really in a difficult spot from Wimbledon all the way until Basel,” he said.
And having claimed a record 17 majors already, Federer is positioning himself perfectly to make a claim on an 18th, with a new schedule that includes his first appearance in Brisbane.
“Anything is possible. I personally believe that. It’s just important for me that I play better against the top guys,” he said. “It’s not been bad for me this year, I just didn’t land enough wins. That’s something I want to improve for this year.”
If Federer sounds like he’s in a good place now, imagine how much better he’ll be by the time he arrives at his Happy Slam.