Saturday, March 9, 2013

Meeting Roger Federer

Enjoying a little lunch with my good friend Roger Federer

There are very few people left in this world that I consider to be transcendent stars. By that, I mean someone who when you see them, you can't help but become nervous due to the realization that this is a person on a completely different stratosphere of fame. In today's media saturated culture, being famous does not equate to being talented (see the Kardashians, Ke$ha or most members of the New York Jets). Plus many of those in the public eye are now ubiquitous, able to be seen everywhere and at all times. But there are a few people that due to their talent, fame and overall aura, stand above the regular crowd. They are worldwide celebrities, those that could go anywhere on the planet and immediately be recognized and celebrated. Tiger Woods, David Beckham, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Prince, Madonna, Bono, are just a few of these people, individuals who create a different level of "wow, there they are!," whenever they are seen.

In the sport of tennis, there is no one with more of that "it" factor than Roger Federer. In part because of his status as one of the elite handful to ever play the game and in part due to his personality that often leads him to shy away from interviews and public appearances, Federer is the rare star that is both famous and a bit unknown. That is why today when I found myself eating lunch beside him, I became a bit excited.  I have been fortunate over the years in my college sports coverage to meet most of the big names in that arena and I thought I passed the point where I would be shaken by the sight of any athlete. But while enjoying my turkey panini (one thing you can say about tennis events, they do well with the food) at lunch, I looked up and noticed Roger Federer sitting five feet away from me. I called Drew, told him to bring the camera, and thought that this could be a chance to get a picture that I could keep forever.

But as I waited on Drew to arrive, it occurred to me that I had to do better than simply a picture. What does a picture with a famous person say beyond "hey I bumped into this guy and had him stand next to me uncomfortably so that I could savor the moment we bumped into each other for eternity." No, I wanted something else, something bigger and more unique, that would suggest to Roger and all who heard it, "The Outer Courts" have arrived. Because Kentucky had just completed its college basketball game today (a huge win over the Florida Gators that could put the Cats in the Tournament and had us rocking in the media room), I was obliged to do a UK Postgame Show that is syndicated across the state of Kentucky. It is basically a hour long show in which fans call in and either moan a bad performance or, in the case of today, celebrate a huge win. So why not take advantage of this unprecedented moment and create what I am confident has never before taken place, Roger Federer on a college basketball Postgame Show. 

So how was I to make this moment happen?  Federer had a small entourage around him (although to be fair, it was much smaller and significantly more polite than the entourages of many significantly less decorated tennis players), and I had the feeling that as they listened to me talking, they were growing skeptical of my intentions. Roger simply wants to eat a salad and doesn't want to be bothered by two yokels from Kentucky trying to get him to talk. So maybe if I didn't ask for an interview (he would never want to waste that time) and simply just asked for a quick soundbite, then he would agree. Maybe if he just said "Go Cats!", I would be happy, the state of Kentucky would be happy and he would only be slightly annoyed. As I got my courage up, I asked Drew the percentage chance Federer would yes. He went with a very optimistic (in my eyes) 4%.

As the Postgame Show went to its first break, I stood up meekly, showcasing none of the "fortune favors the bold" mentality that I utilize in my daily life. There was something about asking not just a tennis player, but a Hall of Fame superstar that was making me nervous. What if he was angry and gave me an evil eye? What if he had me kicked out? What if Tennis Channel went off the air because of the outrage of my interruption of his nice salad with cranberries and walnuts? All of these questions ran through my head, but I still proceeded to his table and said meekly, "Roger, I don't mean to bother you but (actually this was a lie...clearly I meant to bother him as I was currently bothering him), I am doing a radio show for UK basketball in Kentucky and I was wondering if you could just say 'Go Cats!' to the fans." He looked at me with a slight smile as one of his entourage members said, "are they a Nike school?"  That was an issue I never even imagined could matter, but luckily for me, Kentucky represents the swoosh. When I answered in the affirmative, Roger said, "sure, I would be glad to."

SCORE!  We came back from break and I told my audience that I had a surprise for them and live from Indian Wells was tennis star Roger Federer, who took my phone and said, "Hello radio guys, Go Cats!" You can hear his comments at the link below:

Yes, I know in theory I am supposed to be a professional journalist. And in theory, I shouldn't care about meeting a player or get starstruck at five words from another human being. But you know what, theory goes out the window in circumstances like this. For the first time in a long time, I was genuinely nervous and excited about meeting someone I have always admired. And unlike other times when I have met those I admired from afar (I am looking at you Michael Jordan), this time the star couldn't have been nicer and more accommodating. In a tennis world where many I have met have done all they could to avoid external communication and showcasing even the most basic politeness, the biggest star of all was willing to help a Kentuckian out and be a hero to the Big Blue Nation. That counts as a major highlight of the Indian Wells experience and a reason to once again tip my hat to the great Roger Federer.