After a quick introduction, I headed to my side of the court, instinctively to the service line where I started every practice for the last 15 years. When I turned around and realized Roger was at the baseline, I quickly jogged back, thinking how dumb I must have looked - obviously Roger didn’t start warmups with mini tennis! As he fed the first ball in, right to my forehand, a million thoughts ran through my head; most notably was “I absolutely cannot miss this first ball off the feed”. But my forehand, historically my weaker side and more susceptible to nerves, was feeling shaky. With all my concentration, I pushed the ball down the middle of the court and thus began my first hit with Roger Federer.
After overcoming the challenge that was making the very first shot through the most nerves I ever had in my life, I felt much better. The warm up, though intimidating, was extremely fun. He was so smooth and hit the ball so clean that hitting with him was easy, and I quickly gained the confidence to swing big. No rally really lasted more than 10 shots - by that time, Roger would choose to hit a forehand winner into the corner with so much effortless power I could barely react or a crafty drop shot with so much backspin that it would bounce on my side then come back over the net.
The rest of the warm up was a bit of a blur, but included a little bit of everything. He remained extremely focused during the duration of the hit, only stopping for a quick conversation with one of his coaches. However, when we were done and sitting on the side of the court, Roger relaxed a bit and engaged in conversation. He asked me about my college tennis days, as he knew my coach from when he played pro tennis. He asked me about my job and about how I liked living in NYC. I was amazed at the normalcy of conversation I was having with one of the greatest athletes in the world, as if he was an old time friend genuinely interested in my life. All too soon, Roger said he needed to head back to the locker room to get ready for the match. I asked him for a picture, one I knew I would treasure for a long time, and with that my first hit with Roger was done.
I decided to stay on the grounds to watch a bit of Roger’s match that evening. He was playing against young player from India, Sumit Nagal, who had come through qualies and who no one thought had any chance at the upset. Yet Roger came out flat, making several errors and dropping the first set 6-4. Friends were texting me asking what I did in warmup that made him play so bad, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit responsible. Thankfully, Roger righted the ship, and won the match in 4 sets.
On the hour-long subway ride back to Manhattan that night, I was recounting the day’s events to friends and family, texting pictures and describing what it was like to hit with the GOAT. Around 1 or 2 am, when I was back in my apartment, I got a call from Josh. “Hey Sameer, sorry to call so late but wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t important. Roger must’ve enjoyed hitting with you, because he wants to do it again tomorrow!”
Of course, I accepted and was extremely excited and happy that Roger thought I was worthy enough for another round. This time, it was going to be a bit different. Since it was an off day, this would be a practice session instead of a match warm up. Additionally, Roger preferred not to come to the grounds when he didn’t have to - thus, this practice would happen at his private court in Greenwich, CT where he was staying during the tournament instead of at the US Open site. The court we were to practice on had been made specifically for Roger to match the speed, grit, and bounce of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The next day, Josh set up an official US Open car to take me to Greenwich, about an hour away from Flushing. As I waited for Roger and started warming up, I could already tell that this was going to be different. I was standing on a private court in the backyard of a large house that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the day before, there was no one else there - no fans screaming or media personnel trying to catch everything on camera. This wasn’t a stadium that had stands or bleachers; rather, it was a secluded court surrounded by trees and a small pond behind it.
A few minutes later, a car pulled up to the driveway, and Roger, his 3 coaches, and his 4 kids stepped out and headed towards the court. Whereas the day before he had walked onto the court and was immediately ready to start, today he took his time in getting warmed up, laughing and joking around, playing with his kids, and starting with some soccer and mini tennis games against his coaches and I. I could tell his mentality was very different, which I presumed was because there was no stress of an upcoming match today. Even when we started to hit for real, Roger was much more relaxed, often stopping practice to tell a funny story (some about his fellow players which was interesting), check his phone, make a joke with his coaches, or check on his kids.
Curious about this complete change in mentality, I asked him during one of our breaks what he does on a typical off day. He mentioned that he avoids the tournament site if possible. When he’s there, he constantly has fans and media watching every one of his moves, and even a simple practice session involves thousands of people watching him and hours of interview requests from the media, all of which makes it hard to relax and truly be himself. He mentioned that the night before, he finished his night match around 1am, but didn’t leave the grounds until close to 4am due to all the interviews with different networks in different languages and fan requests he needed to take care of. A bit exasperatedly, he claimed to be the most interviewed athlete in the world, much more than the likes of Tom Brady or LeBron, due to all the different languages he speaks and the broad international appeal of tennis.
I felt as if that off-day practice went very well, partly because Roger’s relaxed attitude made me feel less pressure and partly because I was gaining confidence in my hitting ability. It was a relatively short practice and we ended with a few points, with Roger thoroughly destroying me despite seemingly playing at about 10% effort. As we were wrapping up and heading back to the cars, Roger’s coach asked me if I was available the next morning to warm up before his second round match, saying he would reserve Arthur Ashe Stadium for us. “Sure”, I replied, trying to sound as if this was a normal request and hold back the feeling of disbelief at everything that was happening.