<
>

For Roger Federer and his devoted superfans, love is everywhere

play
1 Big Thing: Federer is greatest champion in men's tennis (1:59)

Scott Van Pelt reacts to Roger Federer winning the 2017 Australian Open and explains why Federer achieved the nearly impossible, which is becoming the greatest champion in men's tennis. (1:59)

It took three days of hanging around, of waiting vainly at practice courts and risking sunburn, hoping that he might show up, but when they finally got their man, goodness, was it worth it.

For when two of Roger Federer's devotees, who are a bit coy and don't wish to be named, finally got to present their idol with the "RF Love Box," crammed with 110 messages of support from his most loyal fans around the world, just a couple of days before the Australian Open started, little did they realize that it might help inspire one of the great sports comeback tales of recent vintage.

"It's the Love Box because we put all the love of his biggest fans in that box," said teacher Martine Lessire, one of Fed's superfans from Belgium who devised the new presentation ritual that will now take place before every tournament Federer takes part in.

"It was to welcome him back after he had been out injured for so long. It's most important that Roger knows that we love him and that we're with him. Always -- in good moments or bad moments."

It's actually just a variation on a fond tradition, Lessire said. Ever since Wimbledon in 2003, a few weeks after Federer had been knocked out in the first round of the French Open, his fans have presented him with an envelope full of good luck messages at every tournament he competes in.

"It got to be known as the 'Red Envelope,' and Roger would know to look out for it at every tournament," said Doris Loeffel, a Swiss fan who has followed Federer in dozens of tournaments all over the world.

Being chosen by fellow superfans as the courier who would deliver the Red Envelope became the most cherished job in Fed fandom. Loeffel did it herself at the 2012 Olympics in London. The courier, usually decked out in full Swiss cross and monogrammed RF regalia, would wait until the great man finished practicing and wave the envelope frantically to attract his attention before he'd stroll across for a chat and to have his picture taken with the messenger.

Does he ever read the messages? According to a French TV documentary, Federer's house is full of the hardware he has won, plus a sheaf of Red Envelopes because he so enjoys this tradition.

"He told me he read them," Loeffel said, adding with a smile: "Roger's a gentleman."

Last year, after he was knocked out of Wimbledon and was out injured for the rest of the season, Federer's website was refurbished. It reappeared without the forum section that his fans used to keep in touch with each other, and the Red Envelope tradition died with its passing.

Yet Lessire, who had maintained email contact with many of her cohorts, was determined to reinvent it, passing on the messages to two superfan couriers in Melbourne who created the Love Box.

"He was so happy when they explained to him it was the new form of the envelope," she said.

Suitably inspired, we know what happened next. A rusty, 35-year-old father of four who hadn't played a tournament for six months emerged to win a record 18th Grand Slam singles title against his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, in a monumental five-setter. It was the most impossible, wondrous sports story of the year. Er, at least until that other old GOAT, Tom Brady, came along.

Lessire watched the Aussie Open final on her own at her home in Namur, Belgium.

"I wanted nobody around me," she said. "I was too nervous. He loses so often to Nadal. So it was just me, my TV and neighbors having to listen to this woman screaming for three hours."


THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT Federer that sends normally sane and sensible figures a bit doolally. Literary giants write love letters about him, and fellow champions just want to cheerlead. Wasn't it Chris Evert, the epitome of cool, who once mused wildly: "Why do I love Roger? I don't know. I just do. There's something about Roger which just tugs at the heartstrings!"

According to Thomas Reuteler, president of Federer's official Swiss-based fan club, fans4roger, it's a safe bet that there were 10 million others around the globe like Lessire and Evert who were investing hope beyond hope that Federer would prevail.

What is it? The unmatched grace and greatness of his game -- or his personality? Or both? A man who can play like a prince but has a rare common touch with his fans. We're talking a popularity that might be unprecedented in the depth of its swooning devotion and longevity.

Federer has won the fans' award as the ATP's most popular player for 14 successive seasons. Fourteen! Yes, even through all those years when the heartthrob Nadal was muscling his way to glory and when Novak Djokovic dominated like a beautifully oiled machine. Last year, Fed picked up an amazing 56 percent of all the votes cast even though he'd only played for half a season.

After his Melbourne triumph, how comical that a Swiss bloke should be recognized by a market research survey as the most popular sports figure in Australia, better known and considered more likable than any of the country's own top sportsmen and women.

That will have come as no surprise to Caroline Burrows, one of his biggest fans in Australia. The Melbourne psychotherapist used to drive a battered old Toyota Tarago minivan that she and her fellow Federer fanatics would deck out in Swiss bunting and balloons, christening it the "The Federer Express," to see him at the Australian Open each year.

Sadly and rather embarrassingly, Burrows reports, the van eventually conked out for good in the middle of a busy Melbourne street.

"Yes, the Federer Express died years ago, but Roger marches on," she said, her beaming face not having lost its smile since the man himself saluted her and her pals the other week.

He might be the Wizard of Oz, but that recognition factor is replicated around the world. Of course, it's centered primarily on his sporting prowess -- the sheer force of his achievements will end with him in the same pantheon that the likes of Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens and Pele occupy -- but beyond that, people seem to warm most to the way he carries himself on and off the court.

First and foremost, millions appear to like the guy and trust him. A 2011 survey from the Reputation Institute dubbed him the second-most trusted and respected public personality in the world, behind Nelson Mandela but ahead of the likes of Bill Gates and Queen Elizabeth II.

Being as famous as Federer cannot be easy. He once found the adulation on a trip to Brazil in 2012 deeply uncomfortable.

"It was amazing how many were shaking, had great joy and began to cry, so I had to practically take them in my arms and say: 'It's OK, it's OK,'" he once explained in an interview with Tages Anzeiger, a German-language Swiss newspaper.

"I have to constantly remind myself again about where I come from and tell myself who I am. I also like the normal life still -- back to reality, family, friends, just quiet, please."

That's probably why the bond between him and his most fervent supporters is so strong. They know how he likes to be treated -- without too much song, dance and idolatry -- and he returns the compliment.

Take his return to Switzerland after the Aussie Open triumph. Reuteler, a financial controller who spends his spare time running the fan club, arranged for 50 of Federer's most loyal supporters to meet him at Zurich airport.

When he arrived, gentle chaos ensued as other people at the airport cottoned on to his arrival. But Federer made a point of going over to the fans he recognized first. When things started getting out of hand with some outsiders, a couple of women who began crying uncontrollably, Federer asked Reuteler politely if it was OK for him to leave and go to try to appease them. It reminded Reuteler of why he had become fan club president in the first place.

"I was more a fan of him as a person than I was a fan of tennis," he said.


COLLEEN TAYLOR, a longstanding fan from the U.S. and co-creator of the "Shhh!! Quiet! Genius At Work" banner that has been paraded by Federer's fans at tournaments around the world for years, tried to encapsulate what made the tennis legend so special to his followers.

"There's always a buzz around great athletes, but it's so personal when it comes to Roger," said Taylor, who once delivered the Red Envelope to him in Miami. "I have never seen anything like this kind of belovedness, this adoration that follows him.

"What makes it so special is that he doesn't just take something from you and just keep on going. He looks directly at you, says, 'thank you,' stops to talk, makes you feel that it's no chore for him. He signed my banner and took that extra moment to make me feel special, so that in some way you really feel like a diamond when you share that one moment with him."

For some, the Fed effect goes even further. Vinny Richards -- grandson of Vincent Richards, the U.S. player who won the Olympic singles gold medal in 1924 -- fell in love with Federer's classical throwback game after watching him battle past defending champion Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001.

Since then, the 49-year-old from Tennessee says he has watched every Federer match when possible -- either live, on TV or via the Internet. Yet after a life-changing auto accident in 2002, Richards had to stop following Federer at the actual tournaments.

"Since 2004, I've had four back surgeries, a failed fusion, which has been so very debilitating, and I've had difficult times," said Richards, who was an avid player and USTA member before the accident.

"I watched 2006, his best year, from a hospital bed. I lost my career, my wife left, I regrouped, raised my daughter by myself, and in between doctor's appointments Roger has been a positive distraction, even an inspiration for me to keep going."

Strangely, Federer's increasing vulnerability, the hard losses he has taken in Slam finals at the hands of Nadal and Djokovic, seem to have only increased his fans' admiration.

"He has an inspirational way of handling losses, better than any other star in any sport ever, which makes his victories so much sweeter," Richards said.

Nothing sweeter, all the Fed-heads reckon, than Melbourne. There's a new, refreshed sense of awe in those banners that follow Federer around the world, lauding the maestro, such as the one reading, "And on the eighth day, God created Roger Federer."

And so it is that we leave Lessire now to look around and anoint the next courier who will deliver the RF Love Box to the blessed hero before the Dubai tournament that starts Monday.

"I can't imagine Roger not receiving our messages," she said. "And remember, when he has the Love Box, he has a 100 percent winning record."

One suspects Lessire won't have much trouble finding one among 10 million to carry out this labor of love.