The boy’s father could tell something was different. At six months old, the boy could balance on his father’s palm as he walked through their home. At 10 months he could climb down from his high chair, trundle over to a golf club that had been cut down to size and imitate the swing he’d been watching in the garage. At two—an age when physical developmental milestones include “kicks a ball” and “stands on tiptoe”—he went on national television and used a shoulder-height club to drive a ball past an admiring Bob Hope. That same year he entered his first tournament and won the 10-and-under division.
At eight, the son beat his father for the first time. The father didn’t mind, because he was convinced that his boy was singularly talented, and that he was uniquely equipped to help him. The boy was already famous by the time he reached Stanford, and soon his father opened up about his importance. His son would have a larger impact than Nelson Mandela, than Gandhi, than Buddha, he insisted. “He has a larger forum than any of them,” he said. “I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One.”
This second story, you also probably know. You might not recognize it at first.
His mom was a coach, but she never coached him. He would kick a ball around with her when he learned to walk. As a boy, he played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, and soccer at school. “I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved,” he would say.
Though his mother taught tennis, she decided against working with him. “He would have just upset me anyway,” she said. “He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned a ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother.” Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were “pully.” Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and “if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously.”
As a teenager, he became good enough to warrant an interview with the local newspaper. His mother was appalled to read that, when asked what he would buy with a hypothetical first paycheck from tennis, her son answered, “a Mercedes.” She was relieved when the reporter let her listen to a recording of the interview. There’d been a mistake: The boy had said “mehr CDs,” in Swiss German. He simply wanted “more CDs.”
The boy was competitive, no doubt. But when his tennis instructors decided to move him up to a group with older players, he asked to move back so he could stay with his friends. After all, part of the fun was hanging around after his lessons.
By the time he finally gave up other sports to focus on tennis, other kids had long since been working with strength coaches, sports psychologists and nutritionists. But it didn’t seem to hamper his development. In his mid-30s, an age by which even legendary players are typically retired, he would still be ranked No. 1 in the world.
In 2006, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer met for the first time, when both were at the apex of their powers, and they connected as only they could. “I’ve never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling of being invincible,” Federer would describe it.