June 25, 2010

Roger Federer and Anger Management

In the first round at Wimbledon, Roger Federer narrowly escaped a historic defeat, not least through anger management. Few people remember how the champion learned to regulate the temper tantrums of his junior days.

Roger Federer (who hails from Basel, my hometown) avoided one of the biggest upsets in tennis history when he came from two sets down to beat Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon this week. The defending champion came through 5-7 4-6 6-4 7-6 (7-1) 6-0 in an astonishing opening match on Centre Court.

"I definitely got very lucky out there," a relieved Federer told BBC Sport after winning in three hours and 18 minutes.

One of the critical success factors in Federer's feat to once again beat seemingly insurmountable odds was his ability to keep his cool.

How does he do that? The man considered the greatest tennis player of all time said "you have to draw from experience and physical strength."

Federer has become a master not only in tennis but also in anger regulation—and the latter might explain a lot of the former, since 90 percent of the game is said to be mental.

Although Federer still freaks out at times (see him break his racket in the 2009 video below), experience has certainly helped Federer stay calm under pressure. It wasn't always thus. Controlling his volatile temper was a problem that had plagued Federer throughout his childhood.

Back in the 1980s, just like many kids his age, Roger was often out of control on the court. (He describes himself as a “hothead.”) He erupted after hitting dumb shots and rarely went through a day without hurling his racket against the fence.

That's when Peter Carter entered the picture. A tough player from Australia, he took Roger under his wings. From the age of 10 to 14, Roger spent more time with Carter than with his own parents.

Federer and Carter discussed the mental side of the game—not just strategy and psychology, but also the importance of being gracious and diplomatic and reigning in your emotions. Carter was eventually able to get Federer to see how much energy he wasted during his outbursts.

In 1997, Peter Lundgren, a former ranked ATP player from Sweden, joined the staff and worked with Roger on occasion. He helped hammer home Carter's self-regulation message.

In the rare outbursts that remained, Federer, unlike older colleagues like Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe (see video below), was never rude to umpires, linesmen or opposing players. His anger was mostly reserved for himself.

In 2002, Federer managed to creep into the Top 10 for the first time. But in long matches he was still vulnerable and lacked a certain mental toughness. He knew that after four- or five-set losses, he would go back to the locker room and weep in frustration.

That August, Federer lost a first-rounder in Toronto. He stuck around to compete in doubles, but basically just partied nights instead of preparing for his matches. One evening, he went out for beers with some other players, and ignored Lundgren’s repeated calls on his mobile.

Finally, his coach got through to Federer. Peter Carter was dead, Lundgren told him. His vehicle had veered off the road on a South African safari and fallen into a ravine. He and the driver were killed instantly.

Federer lost it. He bolted into the street. When he couldn’t find a cab, he panicked and just started running. He ran more than a mile until he gained his bearings and made his way back to the hotel. He returned to Switzerland to make arrangements for Carter’s funeral. The body arrived in Basel on his 21st birthday.

Carter’s death forced Federer to focus on his life, his game and his relationships. As a young pro, he had brushed aside some of Carter's lessons about being a good player and a good man. Now he took them to heart to honor his old friend.

It didn’t happen overnight. But that September, in a Davis Cup tie against Morocco, Federer teamed with George Bastl to win the doubles and beat Younes El-Aynaoui to wrap up the series. In each match—they both ended 6-3, 6-2, 6-1—it was like watching a tennis God toy with mere mortals. Someone had flicked on the switch.

Not permanently. As I write in The Rabbi and the CEO (¨Commandment 6, Thou Shalt Not Kill: Anger Management¨), Federer had won 48 of 49 matches since his U.S. Open victory in August 2004, but during the Nasdaq-100 Open finals at Key Biscayne in April 2005, much like this week in Wimbledon, he found himself in trouble. His archrival, the Spaniard Rafael Nadal, exploited almost every one of the top-ranked player’s shots and won the first two sets, an almost impossible situation to get out of.

In the third set, at the end of the ninth game, came the final straw: Federer missed a break-point opportunity. In a decidedly un-Swiss outburst he slammed his racket to the ground.

“I was really angry, so I threw it out,” Federer said later. “I was very disappointed. I was missing one opportunity after the other. I really felt like I’m climbing uphill all the time, and I had an opportunity and I missed it again, and I just had enough. Who knows, maybe it did me good, and I kind of woke up.”

Here was the decisive difference compared to the temper tantrums of his youth: Federer was not a slave of his anger. He used his fury like a wake-up call to rouse himself—and then he went on to win the match.

P.S. This article is based on The Rabbi and the CEO: The Ten Commandments for 21st-Century Leaders (SelectBooks 2008). If you like it, click on the ¨Share¨ button above. And/or retweet it.


  1. very moving bit of information on the process of his development as a professional and as a human being who represents himself with dignity and grace. thank you thomas.

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  3. and a swiss, no less! thank you for your kind words. feel free to share the blog with anyone you know. big hug, thomas

  4. ¨as i see again and again, you are also creative in the sports dimension. cool!
    my view (as a former tennis pro):
    roger has now arrived in a continuous crisis at a high level.
    in these cases anger management helps only sporadically, but he drove into a wall after the most unbelievable 7 years in the tennis sport. he has experienced it all a thousand times, he doesn't find the 5th gear anymore when he is behind against the good ones. his head is not free anymore, he knows too much. very, very difficult to become innocent again.
    he has to invent himself newly, and for him as a father this will have consequences either way. but he will remain the greatest even if nadal is now the one hoarding titles. only his knees can stop nadal now, he is still hungry because roger was ahead of him for the last few years, although nadal topped federer in most of their direct duels.
    i love federer, the most masterful of all masters.¨

  5. Thank you Thomas for an excellent post on Roger, the best player of all times.
    As my 12 year old son focuses more on tennis, his favorite sport, he is also learning to fight this natural tendency to burst out and have a tantrum when losing a point...your analysis of Roger's overcoming this is right to the point and has opened my son's eyes...a little! For Now!

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