This article first appeared in Languedoc Living in June 2016
by Katrina Allen
“Get yourself to Halle” urges William Skidelsky in his excellent book “Federer and Me”.
Like the author, I am a complete Roger Federer nut. Why? Because he is the most beautiful, elegant and creative tennis player there has surely ever been. I get goose bumps just thinking about his game. Like a Muhammad Ali or a David Beckham, he transcends his sport, adored by people who don’t even like tennis. Pancho Gonzales once said of Pete Sampras, “he moves on oil”. Nothing like Roger he didn’t, but then Pancho was no longer alive when Fed. really came into his own.
Skidelsky’s book is a homage to Roger. It’s his “story of obsession”. But the book is more than that. It’s funny, personal, highly informative and at times quite technical. It should be on every tennis fan’s bookshelf. Unless you are a Nadal fan that is, as he is unbelievably rude about the Spaniard, though I do get his point. In comparison, Nadal is a brute, a tic-ridden, inelegant, boring, topspin machine, everything Roger isn’t.
So I took his advice and got myself to Halle this past week because I was desperate to see Roger live before he retired. Federer is now 34, pretty ancient in tennis terms, and he seems to be going a bit downhill physically. He was famous for never getting injured, a credit to his easy style, but now he’s having a few back problems. I reckoned this year might be the last chance, and never to have seen him live would be something for which I’d never have forgiven myself.
Halle is known as an ATP 500 event. To those non-tennis aficionados, that means it’s extremely important in terms of prize money and ranking points. It’s also a grass court tournament, a Wimbledon warm up event so there is also a great line-up which this year included Berdych, the wonderfully eccentric dreadlocked Dustin Brown, Baghdatis, Gulbis, the list goes on. The other ATP 500 tournaments are in major cities like Tokyo and Rio. Halle is a tiny town about three hours train ride from Hanover, definitely not easy to get to. So what’s that all about? Well, it’s the brainchild of Gerry Weber, a women’s clothing magnate and it’s where he is from so he built local. And he built big. The stadium holds 11,500 people (I’m puzzled as to where all these people manage to find accommodation in or near this little town) and, best of all, has a sliding roof which was a blessing this year, given the thunderous conditions during the week.
It seemed rather extravagant going to Halle, given that I’m a member and can get in free to the rival grass court tournament at The Queen’s Club in London. Although Queen’s has quite a few top players but they are, as a whole, quite boring compared to those in Halle (I was once convinced Raonic was an avatar or, at the very least, made of plastic, though he seems a little more human these days. Getting rid of that weird arm sleeve has probably helped, as has the new more sensible haircut). Yes, Murray plays at Queen’s but he is becoming rather painful to watch these days with his depressing chuntering, shoulder slumping, and swearing (you don’t need to be a very good lip reader) every single time he loses a point. I simply don’t understand why he does this as it just gives the opponent confidence. Maybe his newly re-appointed coach, Ivan Lendl, will knock it out of him. Oh, and yes, Wawrinka plays but he crashed out in the first round. The other thing is that Queen’s doesn’t have a roof and the first two days there were a complete washout. I felt rather smug under the Halle roof, watching great tennis, with the storms overhead.
The Gerry Weber Open (GWO), as the Halle tournament is known, is not just any old tennis tournament. It feels like a festival. Food stalls galore (with many strange but delicious local specialities), relaxed, informal, happy fans drinking beer out of real glasses, eating great food off real plates with real knives and forks which makes everything taste all the better and probably the fans behave like adults because that’s how they are treated. You can even take your beer into the stadium. I didn’t knowingly see a drunken fan the whole week. I have been to all the grand slam tournaments and many other major tournaments around the world and nothing compares with this one. It’s an absolute gem.
There was a bit of French interest in the tournament in the 22 year old Lucas Pouille , the current world no 29 who has been racing up the rankings over the past four years and who played number two seed Nishikori in the first round. Pouille has beaten loads of top players including Gasquet, Gulbis, Goffin, Ferrer and the current young star, Dominic Thiem. Unfortunately, he doesn’t like grass much (he is very much a clay-courter) and lost in three sets. He did, however, rather impressively, take the first set on a tie-break and then Nishikori stepped up. Pouille is a lot taller and heavier than the Japanese player though, which didn’t help in the slippery conditions (the massive thunderstorm during the match probably made the enclosed court a little humid) but he is definitely one to watch.
But, not being rude to the French player, this event is all about Roger really. He’s won it eight times and he is very much the darling of the crowd. Fans come from all over the world just to see him. It’s one of the few tournaments where one can easily buy tickets to see him, well-priced at that.
I’d bought tickets for the first two days (easily done over the internet), figuring I was bound to see Federer play on at least one of them, but the previous tournament in Stuttgart had overrun due to the terrible weather, so he was down to play on the Wednesday. I threw away my return flight ticket and booked another for the Friday. It’s not cheap being a Roger obsessive. And then I managed to get a press pass, gold dust. In fact, they even interviewed me about my real tennis* for the tournament magazine.
All of which meant that I saw Federer from the press bench and, best of all, went to his post match press conferences and saw him up close. I made sure I sat in the front row.
On the t.v., Federer seems of fairly average build but it is an optical illusion. Up close his chest is huge, he is broad-shouldered, and yet strangely languid. And he exudes power and confidence, charm, good looks, humour, intelligence. I could go on.
I asked him a bit of a lame question, something like “how does this court compare to Wimbledon centre court?” I had to ask him something. He met my eyes (bliss!) and we talked for several minutes. He was incredibly insightful, talked about the movement and positioning of the sun at Halle as the day progressed, how it didn’t reach a particular patch of the court which meant there was a small damp area where the ball would skid through (of which he no doubt takes advantage), and the way in which the Wimbledon centre court conditions change over the fortnight so it was hard for him to make a true comparison. And quite a bit else, which I can’t quite remember as I was a bit star struck, definitely not cool for a member of the press.
Then Roger went down in the semis to the local boy, Alexander Zverev, the first time he has lost to a teenager in over 10 years. I think I may have got there just in the nick of time. The thought of him retiring is almost unbearable, although one must be realistic. I won’t be the only one to shed several tears when the time does come.
But, if he does have one more Hallé in him, you’d be mad not to go.
Katrina Allen is a former Junior Wimbledon and senior tournament player. She also played real tennis*, the original form of the game, at top level.