Roger Federer may be at the top of the tennis game, but his love affair with watches, champagne and fashion is only just beginning, Dubai doesn't make a lot of sense at the best of times, let alone when you're browsing breakfast muffins on the 123rd floor of the Burj Khalifa during a lightning storm. But it is to the world's tallest building, on a freakishly wet day on the Arabian Peninsula, that Moët & Chandon has summoned members of the international press to unveil its newest ambassador.
That's right — Roger Federer. The greatest tennis player who ever lived (probably) is taking over from Scarlett Johansson as the face of Moët. It's a change of pace, granted. The 31-year-old from Basel, the watch capital of Switzerland, is famed for being as precise as a Patek Philippe, as unflappable as an Alp. Hardly party-boy material, but then he's a very tasty option for any luxury brand: international, upmarket, wholesome.
According to Philip Beresford, author of The Sunday Times Rich List, he has £196m in the bank and already has contracts worth £28m with, among others, Nike, Gillette and Rolex. He can expect to receive another £10m from his deal with Moët. Unlike his childhood hero, Boris Becker, the six-time Wimbledon champion is not the type to knock anybody up in a broom cupboard. Of an evening, you're more likely to find him tucked up at home with his wife, Mirka, a former tennis pro, and their three- year-old twin daughters. In fact, the only whiff of trashiness seems to be the fact he chooses to live in the overpriced concrete dump that is Dubai for a couple of months every year. The rest of the time, he's playing around the globe, but he likes the heat here for training. Today he's going back and forth from his gym to various insanely expensive hotel suites to talk up his new gig as the face — and unsullied liver — of upmarket boozing.
To be fair, Federer is properly dashing in the flesh, his features not so squashed as they look on court. The international ladies gathered to greet him are certainly keen. Once they've clocked the henchness of the Federer torso in a supertight, superfine grey cashmere sweater, it's all they can do not to rub their thighs. "How you doing?" he says smiling, eyeing them with humour-tinged politeness on his meet-and-greet. "Nice to see you. I'm very excited. I'm going back to the gym now."
We reconvene for a proper chat at a beachfront hotel a few hours later. He has taken over the royal suite, where macaroons and incense perfume the air. Federer, now in a Dior suit (he loves a costume change, this one), gestures to some photos of him jumping and smiling and proffering magnums, that are laid out on a coffee table. "Do you like them?" he asks. "I shot them in Paris. Patrick was amazing to work with." Demarchelier, of course. He's clearly loving being a luxury brand's show pony.
Or maybe he's a secret dandy? The ATP World Tour is now so long, there are next to no opportunities for evenings out where one might indulge in some luxury carousing or sartorial swaggering about. Not in public, at least. It makes Federer a safe fit for endorsing Credit Suisse and champagne, but also means that although he spends a great deal of time with a microphone shoved in his face, you rarely hear him talk about anything other than the match he's just played, or the one he's about to.
There are so many layers of people around him, it's hard to get a handle on his vibe. But here's the truth. The formerly gawky, cantankerous Swiss youth is now an unshakeably suave, 17-time Grand Slam winner, with a devoted wife, a conker tan and — would you believe? — a covert love of fashion.
"I've gotten into the mood of being more fashionable. I enjoy it," he says, smiling away in his Dior suit. "When I go out for dinner — and I go out for dinner a lot — I can really try out some things. Have fun with it, you know." Famously — or infamously — his dear and unlikely friend is Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue. Has she made you trendier in the years you've been hanging out? "Yeah, I would think so," he says. How did you meet? "I knew her through tennis. She loved tennis waaay before my time." Not sure she'd appreciate so much emphasis on the "waaay", Roger. "To be meeting Anna, I didn't actually know who she was. She was friendly. She's given me great support and help along the telling me which photographers to work with, meeting some very influential designers.”
"She once took me on a whirlwind trip to Milan fashion week," he says, referring to a jaunt three years ago. He leans back in his seat to explain. "She so badly wanted me to come with her to a fashion week, and I was, like, 'No, I don't have time, I can't do it,' " he says, sounding a little blunt. "She said, 'How many times do I need to invite you?' I said, 'I think I could do Milan.'" He twinkles. "She was very happy." And you? "I was, like, 'Oh, my God!' " he almost squeals. "It was the most incredible few days of my life. Sucked into this fashion industry, went to every show, then —poop! — out again. I was like, 'What just happened to me?' We had the best time."
Obviously, this is not unhilarious. Grace Coddington, Wintour's long-time colleague at American Vogue, writes of Wintour in her new memoir: "She gets these occasional crushes — Ben [Stiller], Puff Daddy, Roger Federer." But it sounds as if the Federer/Wintour alliance is practically a gal-pal situation, all tennis talk and enjoying the spring fashions. Wintour is "very fond" of Mirka, and she even threw Federer a birthday party in New York this year, staying up until an unheard-of 11pm.
Yet another party is thrown in his honour this evening, backlit by pool lights and palm trees. At the event, Federer is on autopilot until we slope off for another chat. He sits on a sofa in a quiet corner, the most alone he has been all day. Without scores of eyes fixed on him, he suddenly looks like any other nice young dad. Yet last year a global study found that he was the second most trusted person on earth after Nelson Mandela. "I was, like, 'Is that for real?' " he says. "I'm still so young for a list like that. I shouldn't be there. I guess the way I speak, maybe it does come across quite nice, quite genuine. Which it is."
He finds the adulation intense. "It depends on where you are. China is extreme. The moment one or two start screaming, it's a frenzy. London is diverse, full of excited fans. 'Please, Roger, please do me a favour, please sign this.'" What does he make of Andy Murray's recent victories? "He's had a great year and I was very happy for him at the Olympics and the US Open, even though he crushed me in that final." Do you think he's less of a grump these days? That he's finally growing up a bit? "Yes. You automatically do. You have no choice. You're in the public eye, you're winning more, maybe you become more confident. You know what it's like at the top."
Federer knows. He says his life now is about "managing my days correctly", so he can be an optimal sportsman, father and husband. Downtime? "I don't need much."
Of course he doesn't. Speaking of family, though, despite being on the road for 40-odd weeks a year, they rarely spend a night apart. "In the past eight or nine years, we've maybe missed each other three months."
So, I'm guessing you're not a huge drinker then, Rog? "No, I mean, look," he says laughing, "it's important that you do it in moderation. You do it the right way." He says he would never have been confident enough to model for a luxury brand a few years ago. "I've evolved a lot as a person. You grow up from a boy to a man."
Anna would be proud