Federer hometown refuses to take centre court

Why does Switzerland's greatest sports hero take a back seat in his hometown to a converted warehouse and a park?

This content was published on April 24, 2007 - 15:49

The question is not easy to answer, but most locals associate Münchenstein – the Basel suburb where Roger Federer grew up – with a large park and a warehouse that has been turned into an art gallery.

It may be that the Swiss like to keep a low profile; they stay out of wars, keep bank accounts secret and even refused to make themselves heard at the United Nations until a few years ago when they finally applied for and were granted membership.

This may explain why the rather non-descript suburb with a name only the Swiss can pronounce with any competency is not making more of its most famous son.

There is no Federer monument or sign devoted to the tennis player on any of the roads leading into the community, no plaque on the wall of the terraced house where he grew up or any evidence of even the smallest of tributes at his primary school just across the road.

In fact, just asking directions to the part of town where he grew up leads to the shaking of heads and shrugging of shoulders.

Not so for the Schaulager. The former warehouse was put on the map when it was transformed into an art gallery by Basel's – and Switzerland's – best known architects, Herzog and de Meuron.

The same goes for the Park im Grünen. If Münchenstein were to have a centre court, it would be this popular recreational area, complete with idyllic ponds, larger-than-life sculptures and playgrounds.

Old Boys

"We should do more [to honour Federer] but I think Switzerland is too small [to know how to deal with] such a superstar," reflects Nick von Vary, president of Tennis Club Old Boys Basel, where Federer first learned the tricks of his trade.

"The Swiss like to keep their distance from celebrities. We are not the kind of people who celebrate their stars like Americans do."

But if there is a shrine to Federer, it's here at this club in a leafy Basel neighbourhood. Blown-up photographs of the champion in action line the walls of the clubhouse. And one of the courts has been named after him.

On this day, a couple of young players queue to get the autograph of Marco Chiudinelli, an Old Boys club member who is 135 places below Federer in the ATP rankings. The two grew up together in Münchenstein.

Chiudinelli says Roger is an inspiration for the people of the area, despite their reluctance to display their pride outwardly.

It has manifested itself in twice as many new juniors as usual joining the club – around 30.

Play like Roger

"Some of them believe if they start they can learn to play like Roger," remarks Madeleine Bärlocher, who headed the club's junior programme when Federer started playing, and still teaches the youngest members.

The child with the potential to become the club's next big star is not a boy but a six-year-old girl, Viviane Handschin. She volleys and smashes with the best of the much older boys she trains with, and works at her game four days a week.

But her father says Federer played no role in her developing an interest in tennis. "Play football" is her answer when asked what she does when she doesn't have a racket in her hand.

If Federer has had an impact, it has been to enhance the club's excellent reputation, helping it remain an attractive employer for talented coaches. The current man assigned to work with the Old Boys most promising youth is Frenchman Sébastien Ndoumbe.

Among his ports of call before Basel was Florida where Ndoumbe worked at the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

He says the focus in his homeland, France, is on technique, whereas in Switzerland getting a "feeling" for the game is just as important.

Upon reflection, it can be just as difficult to get a feeling for Federer in the places that marked his formative years.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Basel and Münchenstein

[update: on June 8, 2009, the day after Federer won the French Open for the first time, it was confirmed that Basel's international tennis venue, the St Jakobshalle, would be renamed the Roger Federer Arena following a planned renovation.]

Key facts

Often seen as a suburb of Basel, Münchenstein is politically autonomous.
It has a population of 12,000 and is an important industrial centre in the region, with 8,000 jobs.
When in Switzerland, Roger Federer resides in the neighbouring community of Oberwil.

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