THANK YOU, ROGER

Written by Sameer Kumar
7/21/20

From heartbreaking, match point-missed opportunities against arch rivals, to ecstatic come-from-behind record-setting victories, there was no shortage of roller coaster emotions that accompanied growing up as a die-hard Roger Federer fan over the past couple decades. In the Kumar household, waking up at 3am for Australian Open finals was expected when Roger was competing, as was yelling at the TV when he shanked a seemingly short backhand on a big point. I’ll never forget the feeling of inspiration my brother and I had after Roger’s 2012 Wimbledon victory, or the subsequent practice on a supposed off day fondly re-creating some of the finals’ biggest points and best shots. Needless to say, Roger was not only our favorite player, but also a hero who inspired us to be the best we could be and extended our passion and love for the game of tennis.


Fast forward several years to 2019. In the spring, my tennis career came to an end as I graduated college and moved to NYC to start my first job. After 15 years of daily practice and weekend travel, I was glad to have some time away from the sport as I transitioned into the real world, a post-tennis life. Come August, I was 2 months into my desk job, 4 months removed from the last time I stepped on a tennis court, and had no idea what the 2019 US Open starting in a couple weeks would have in store for me.


A teammate’s girlfriend was working the US Open practice desk that year, in charge of setting up pros looking for a warmup or an off-day practice with local players willing to help out. She asked if I would be interested, and the timing happened to align with a week off of work that I was going to have. I decided to give it a shot, hoping that my past tennis ability hadn’t completely faded away yet. I signed up as an official practice partner for Monday - Thursday of week 1, my biggest incentive the free entrance into the grounds.

 
 

Day 1 of being a practice partner was the first time I had played tennis in about 4 months. I had a couple 30-minute hits in the morning, warming up Belinda Bencic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for their first round matches on the outer practice courts. I was rusty but managed to get through the hits without embarrassing myself too badly. Early that afternoon, I got a call from Josh, the head of the practice desk, asking if I was free for a hit with Novak Djokovic in a couple hours. Excitedly, I said yes - I never imagined that this practice partner stint would include opportunities to play with Djokovic-level caliber players! However, a mere 15 minutes later, that excitement was erased - Josh called back with the news that Novak decided to hit instead with Grigor Dimitrov, a decision that made plenty of sense to me. After all, why would someone like Novak hit with a random practice partner when he has a full list of fellow pros that I’m sure would also jump at the opportunity?

But Josh’s second call brought further news - Roger Federer was playing the night-match second on after 7pm and was looking for a warm up around 5:00pm. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and the disappointment of missing out on the Novak hit quickly faded. Would I really get the chance to play tennis with Roger, my favorite player and hero? The athlete who I have spent the most time watching and cheering for, from live matches to countless hours on YouTube watching highlights, interviews, and victory speeches? I was hesitant to get my hopes up as I wondered if Roger would similarly cancel and instead hit with another pro, as Novak did. But as 5:00pm got closer, and nothing I had heard suggested the hit wouldn’t happen, my excitement (and nerves) crept up.


We were scheduled to hit on Practice Court #1 - which felt more like a stadium than a practice court with its rows of bleachers surrounding it and the main ESPN media studios right beside it. Outside the court hung a large screen displaying the day’s practice schedule so fans who were passing by could see who was practicing and when. In the 5pm slot, it read “Federer - Kumar”.  Around 4:45pm, I went through a quick dynamic warmup to make sure I was fully ready to go and, not wanting to be late, headed out to the court. 


As I walked on and looked around, I saw about a thousand fans crammed into the stands, each straining their neck to try to get the best view of the court which would soon play host to the great Roger Federer. Trying not to think about the growing sense of nervousness in my stomach, I tied my shoes and stretched out a bit to stay loose. It was now 4:55pm and I, along with the thousands of fans, was eagerly anticipating the moment Roger would step onto the court. 


But 4:55 turned to 5:15, then 5:30, with still no sign of Roger. As I sat at the side of the court, fans from the crowd yelled out “Hey Kumar, where’s Roger?” and “Is this still happening?”, questions I didn’t have the answers to. I wondered if Roger had canceled to hit with someone else and perhaps Josh had forgotten to tell me. But around 5:45, I heard a big roar from the crowd and turned around - Roger and his 3 coaches were walking out, heading straight towards me. 

 
 

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.

 
 

The next morning brought rain and chaos at the practice desk as all the pros were trying to re-book their practices to get on to one of the few indoor courts at the US Open site. Luckily, Arthur Ashe Stadium has a roof, and so matches on those courts were set to happen as scheduled but our warm up got moved an hour earlier and we only had half the court to accommodate other players. Walking out onto Ashe felt surreal as I looked around at the biggest tennis stadium in the world, on a court where so much history had been made, especially by the player I was set to hit with again that morning. Roger was back to his focused, match-ready self, intensely warming up without much break or talk. Hitting on half a court meant less margin for error, hitting indoors meant the ball came at me faster, and hitting early in the morning meant I wasn’t as warmed up as I would’ve liked, and I definitely felt more nervous and erratic a few times during that session than I had on either of the prior 2 days.  


I once again decided to watch a bit of his match under the roof that morning, and once again Roger came out flat, dropping the first set this time to Damir Dzumhur. I couldn’t help but think that my warmups were cursed, or worse, just plain bad, but I took solace in the fact that he won both matches in 4 sets and that he invited me back to hit twice, meaning he must’ve thought the practices were decent enough to warrant another one. Unfortunately, after 3 days of hitting, 2 of which were followed by first set losses, Roger must’ve decided moving forward to hit with his coaches or other pros the rest of the tournament as I never got a call back after that. Thus, my Roger Federer experience ended after 3 incredibly memorable practices.


Looking back at that week, I find it hard to describe in words what it meant to me. It was truly unbelievable to not only get the opportunity to hit with Roger, my childhood hero, but also to meet and talk to him in a completely private setting and get a sense of what he’s like away from the fans and cameras. Now, almost a year later with Roger out with an injury and the sporting world put on pause due to the pandemic, I can’t help but think about how lucky we all are to have been able to experience his greatness in tennis live over the past several years. Inevitably, Roger’s retirement day will come, and the sport of tennis will lose not only an all-time great but one who has inspired millions of young athletes around the world, including myself, to take up tennis, work hard, and strive to be the best they can be. As I think back to growing up on the emotional roller coaster that was being a Fed fan, or all the time I spent training and competing inspired to one day be like Roger, or the passion for tennis and ability to overcome all its challenges I learned from watching him, or the experience of meeting and playing with my idol, all I can really say is “Thank you Roger!”

 
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