‘Age is just a number’ goes the common refrain. On Friday, Swiss tennis maestro Roger Federer became the oldest world number one men’s player in the world after he reached the semi-finals of the Rotterdam Open. The 20-time Grand Slam title winner came back from a set down to overcome Dutch player Robin Hasse 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 to replace long-time rival and good friend Rafael Nadal.
“This is incredibly special; I’m so happy. I didn’t really think I could get back to number one, this is a significant moment in my career,” said Federer to AFP. During the course of an illustrious career, the Swiss legend has not only proven to be a champion on the court but also off it. His visit to India around Christmas of 2006 to the tsunami-struck Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu won hearts and minds.
Twenty-five years of age and at the peak of his powers, Federer visited Tamil Nadu in his capacity as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to oversee relief efforts. He was given a tutorial on how relief agencies and governments were functioning on the ground.
“I would rather step in early than late. I am in the prime of my career. I am making so much money, and I realise how lucky I have been. I have been trying to tell them (the children) that I shall always be there for them. This is my first trip to India, and it has been great. I will come back,” said Federer to media persons. He was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF in April 2006 and has appeared in their public messages to raise greater awareness for AIDS.
Besides donating an undisclosed amount from his own pocket for tsunami relief, he also auctioned autographed racquets with the proceeds directly going to the UNICEF relief effort.
In Cuddalore, Roger Federer visited a local orphanage, which housed 70-odd children, and struck an instant connection with them. Mind you most of these kids did not know who Federer was and he just sat with them for a good hour answering all their queries. “Now I know everything about them their names, their age, lessons and friends,” he told The Hindu.
There was one three-year-old girl, however, who stole the Swiss champion’s heart. On seeing Federer, three-year-old Abhinaya jumped into his arms and stayed there for the rest of his visit to the orphanage. “It was a stunning scene because it momentarily bridged the unbridgeable gap between the worlds of Federer and Abhinaya,” said this Economic Times report of that unscripted moment.
His first visit to India also included a trip to the Integrated Child Development Scheme Centre (ICDS) at Thazhanguda village, where the local children put up a puppet show. Accompanied by his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Miroslava Mirka Vavrinec, the Swiss legend also made his way to Villupuram, where he took part in an HIV Education Programme.
Since December 2006, Federer has visited India on various occasions for social development commitments, and also most memorably in 2014 when he played for the Indian Aces during the International Premier Tennis League Champions. He played two matches at the Indira Gandhi National Indoor Stadium in New Delhi. In the singles tie, he beat Czech player Tomas Berdych 6-4 before teaming up with Gael Monfils to beat Nenad Zimonjic and Novak Djokovic in straight sets.
Fans in the national capital were ecstatic to see the greatest tennis player of all time strutting his stuff on Indian soil. Unable to visit a whole host places in India, Federer asked Indian fans to photoshop him in the destination of their choice. The response was overwhelming, and evidently, the Indian fans won Federer over.
It’s been an incredible journey, and as tennis fans, we’ve been privileged to see him doing things on and off the court with absolute class and grace.