As we approach the beginning of the 2015 ATP season, David Packman looks at the game-changing journey embarked upon by three of the men in the world’s top five: Fatherhood.
Since the advent of the ATP Rankings system in 1973, it’s unlikely we’ve ever seen a time when three of the world’s top five tennis players were fathers. Until now, the upper echelon of the men’s game has predominantly been the domain of the childless – those unencumbered by the responsibilities and intricacies of being a dad.
But for the world’s top ranked player, Novak Djokovic, Swiss duo Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka – ranked second and fourth respectively – their commitment to the role is proving that fatherhood no longer signifies the end of elite aspiration in professional tennis.
It’s not surprising to learn that fathers have won only 13 of last 138 Grand Slam titles, but both Federer and Wawrinka have done the job recently (Federer twice) and it will be hard to stop Djokovic achieving the goal in 2015 alone.
While I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s easy to juggle fatherhood and a successful professional tennis career, these guys are finally starting to change the perception that a child is a potential millstone around a player’s neck.
Back in his heyday, John McEnroe was allegedly reported to have quipped, “There goes 1987,” after learning that his wife at the time, actress Tatum O’Neal, had fallen pregnant. It turns out he understated it – Mac never won a Grand Slam singles title again.
McEnroe wasn’t alone. Since 1980, only eight players outside Federer and Wawrinka have managed to do so after becoming fathers.
But this current crop of dads has a markedly different attitude towards fatherhood than their predecessors, and their achievements on court speak for themselves.
Federer, at 33, has been in the fatherhood caper a while now and is the dab hand of the three. His wife Mirka gave birth to identical twins Myla Rose and Charlene Riva – now five – back in 2009. Then in May this year, they celebrated the birth of another set of twins, boys Leo and Lenny.
Note: It appears that even when reproducing, Roger just seems to do things more efficiently than the rest of us mere mortals.
Since the birth of his girls, Federer has gone on to win the Australian Open in 2010 and Wimbledon in 2012.
His track record since upping the clan to four has also been solid. Despite a glitch on his immediate return from the birth of his sons (he lost early in Rome) he enjoyed a very strong finish to the 2014 season, winning the Shanghai Masters for the first time and going toe-to-toe with Djokovic for the year-end No.1 spot. Of course, he also did it for dads everywhere when he brought the Davis Cup home to Switzerland with Wawrinka.
Federer has often discussed the positive influence his children have made on his life, saying they keep him grounded and allow him to concentrate on his game to the exclusion of outside influences:
“[My children] have a massive impact on my life,” he has said. “It’s helped my game more than anything.”
Wawrinka himself entered the conversation this year when he captured his first Grand Slam – taking out the Australian Open. His subsequent form slump can be somewhat explained by the increased external focus on him after that triumph, but he has since leveled out, performing consistently this year to earn his place as world No.4.
Wawrinka, 29, is father to four-year-old Alexia – and he has long been the consummate family guy. He said earlier this year that family was the most important thing to him.“I like to be with my wife, with my daughter, to take my daughter to school, to lead a normal life.”
Perhaps the most interesting development in 2015 will be to see how Djokovic continues to handle fatherhood. At 27, he only recently witnessed the birth of his first child, a son, Stefan, in October.
Earlier in the year, with baby on the way, he made his intentions very clear when he stated:
“Without a doubt, life changes, priorities change. My priorities are my family, my wife, my future kid. Tennis is definitely not number one any more.”
They were significant comments at the time, and if we fast-forward to now; the Serb is yet to lose a match since becoming a father.
He celebrated his son’s birth by winning the Paris Masters and – after famously sucking his thumb in a celebratory gesture on court – told reporters “this is definitely the best time of my life” before offering this gem: “I won Paris without dropping a set – we should make more kids I guess.”
He backed that statement up by winning the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Like everything else in his life, Djokovic was not planning on leaving any stone unturned in researching his new role. He even sought Federer’s advice on balancing life on the road while they were in Paris. Unsurprisingly however, Federer reportedly told Djokovic that he would need to figure it out for himself.
It appears he went and did just that.
But in looking at the well-oiled Federer machine, Djokovic will have recognized the importance of organization in the overall mix, something the highly regimented Serb already well understands.
Obviously, the top earners in the game have the luxury of an entourage that helps enormously with this aspect and one wonders how those battling to earn a living actually manage to raise a child and meet their own demanding schedules on tour.
As the father of a five-month old boy myself – our first – I know only too well the toll that many nights of sleep deprivation can take. I can’t imagine stepping onto a practice court – let alone competing – in a half-awake stupor morning after morning. And that’s just the beginning.
So, yes, it does make some sense that only eight of the top 50 players are fathers – and it actually drops off even more significantly after that.
But nonetheless, it’s clear that the age of the more conscious dad is upon us. Being a father can empower us to succeed beyond our wildest imagination. Entourage or not, fatherhood is a game changer. It’s all encompassing and brings with it a new enthusiasm for life, and, for many – myself included – a total change in perspective. Children have an innate ability to bring you right into the moment – into a place where perhaps a win or a loss is ultimately not as important as you might have once thought it was.
But let’s not confuse that for one moment with desire. The will to win is a different beast. We can be certain the fire in the belly burns even brighter as these guys strive to give their children the opportunity to see them perform on the highest of stages.
Federer has gone as far as saying he is driven by fatherhood. After winning Wimbledon in 2012, he said the victory was a dream come true for him and his girls:
“Seeing them there. Yeah, it’s big,” he said.
It appears he’s going to have to climb the mountain one more time for the boys now. And with Djokovic intent on clinching his first Grand Slam title for young Stefan – thanks to fatherhood – fans have even more to look forward to in 2015.
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