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In Federer’s footsteps: the places that shaped the Swiss tennis legend

Dave Seminara says his book is 'a fan’s pilgrimage and not some unauthorised biography' Dave Seminara

Roger Federer makes his long-awaited return to tournament tennis on Wednesday at the Qatar Open in Doha – just in time for the release of a book that explores the neighbourhoods and clubs around Switzerland that helped turn him into a champion.

This content was published on March 10, 2021 - 10:40
Tim Neville

Dave Seminara, an American freelance travel and sports writer for The New York Times, visited some of Switzerland’s non-touristy areas like Rapperswil and Münchenstein for his book Footsteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts.  

Along the way, Seminara interviews distant Fed-family relatives, gets a feel for the places that the winner of 20 grand slam titles calls home and, in a personal twist, makes his own return to tennis on some of the same courts where Federer has played. The book is a quick, light-hearted read that tilts more towards travel than biography while still shedding light on some of the superstar’s more personal quirks.

The block where Federer grew up in Münchenstein Dave Seminara

“Roger with his hundreds of millions of dollars could live anywhere he wants, but he hasn’t left,” Seminara says in a telephone interview from his home in Florida. “One of the main things I wanted to find out was what’s the connection between Roger and Switzerland?”

By most accounts Federer, who turns 40 in August, is now firmly in the twilight years of his tournament-playing career and will be staging his return after two surgeries for a troublesome right knee kept him out of competition for 13 months. Many see his appearance at the Qatar Open, which started on Monday, as a warm-up in his fight for a record ninth Wimbledon win in July.

Meanwhile, for Seminara, Switzerland was the perfect place to get reacquainted with his own tennis skills after a cocktail of autoimmune conditions had kept the lifelong player out of the sport for years. As his health improved, so did his ambitions.

“This all started off as just a treat for myself,” says Seminara, who also writes for The Wall Street Journal and BBC Travel. “I felt like I wanted to do something totally indulgent and I thought, I want to come back to tennis, but not just on, like, neighbourhood courts. I want to go to Switzerland and play tennis on courts where Roger played.”

The café in the Tennis Club Old Boys Basel, where Federer played as a boy Dave Seminara

Swiss privacy

As a diehard fan, Seminara tried to name one of his children after Federer until his wife nixed the idea. (They settled on James). So in October 2019 Seminara travelled around Switzerland for ten days, first reporting the story as a travel piece for The New York Times that has yet to run because the pandemic put most travel coverage on hold. Even so, Seminara quickly realised he had much more to say than the 2,500 words his editor had assigned him, and the idea for the book was born.

Throughout its 210 pages the book takes readers to Einsiedeln Abbey in canton Schwyz, central Switzerland, where Seminara serendipitously meets a distant member of the Federer clan who baptised the more famous Federer’s children. He meets Federer’s dentist, who quietly reveals that Mirka, Federer’s wife, has excellent teeth.

A view of Berneck, in northeastern Switzerland, where the Federer clan originates Jakob Federer

In Felsberg in canton Graubünden, eastern Switzerland, Seminara suddenly finds himself in a two-hour tennis match, the longest he’s been able to play in years, on a clay court where Federer sometimes trains and then insists on paying for the post-workout coffee. “And it’s garbage coffee,” Seminara laughs.

Dave Seminara after playing a match on "Roger Platz", a court named after Federer at Tennis Club Felsberg Dave Seminara

Reporting the story could be awkward at times, especially in Switzerland, where people generally take their privacy (and the privacy of others) more seriously than Americans. Seminara is told he cannot take pictures of a tennis court where Federer sometimes plays.

He stomps around neighbourhoods looking for random properties Federer has purchased over the years and then approaches neighbours to talk about it, a move that one of Seminara’s friends from Liechtenstein admits he would never do. At one point one of Seminara’s contacts refuses to take him by another Federer property but does take him to a spot that affords similar views.

The home in which Federer's father, Robert, grew up in Berneck Dave Seminara

“I was surprised that for a country that values privacy so much how easy it is to find out about people’s real estate transactions,” Seminara says. “Federer has privacy in a way that people don’t bother him, but the press does cover him pretty diligently.”

Retiring in Basel?

One voice missing from the book, however, is that of Federer himself. Seminara does recount a time he met the athlete briefly at a tournament, and then again as a reporter, when he asks Federer a few questions in English after Federer won the Swiss Indoors tournament in Basel for the tenth time in 2019. A one-on-one interview was never really part of the plan.

“I was surprised that for a country that values privacy so much how easy it is to find out about people’s real estate transactions.”

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“I wanted this to be a fan’s pilgrimage and not some unauthorised biography,” he says. “I wanted it to be a real fan’s experience.”

If Seminara had been able to sit down with Federer, however, he says he’d want to know what every fan wants to know: “How much longer are we going to get to enjoy the privilege of watching you play tennis?” 

So when will Federer hang up his racket? “I hope it’s not going to be soon,” Seminara says, but when it is time, he thinks Federer’s final tournament will be the Swiss Indoors. This year’s event is scheduled for the last week of October.

“The tournament is really special to him, even though it’s not one of the world’s biggest tournaments,” Seminara says. “He was a ball boy at this tournament. His mother, Lynette, worked as a volunteer at the tournament. It’s five minutes from where he grew up. When he does retire, I feel it’ll be right there at home.”

“Footsteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts” was released in the United States on March 2 and is now available in Swiss bookshops.  

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