Federer’s Work As A Philanthropist Off Court Is Just As Impressive As His Record Of Championships On Court

Michael Dickens on what tennis and philanthropy have in common.

International Blog – Michael Dickens


Michael Dickens

Roger Federer arrived in Indian Wells, California, for this week’s BNP Paribas Open – the year’s first ATP Masters 1000 tour event – secure in his position as the top-ranked men’s player in the world. On Tuesday, he was anointed with the No. 1 seed in a 96-draw field depleted by injuries – no Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, David Goffin or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – and, thus, he’s favored to repeat as BNP Paribas Open champion. Federer has won Indian Wells five times.

Enjoying a late-career renaissance that began when he won the 2017 Australian Open, Federer’s 2018 season is off to a tremendous start. He’s healthy, undefeated (12-0), and already has captured titles in Melbourne and Rotterdam, beating Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov in the finals, respectively. After winning his sixth Australian Open championship in January, it was at Rotterdam last month that Federer regained the World No. 1 ranking for the first time in more than five years. And, at age 36, he became the oldest No. 1-ranked player.

“The dream as a little boy was to make it one day to World No. 1,” said Federer on Monday. “But not at 36 years old, I can tell you that.”

While the 20-time Grand Slam champion has established himself as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, his work off the court as a philanthropist, I’ve come to learn, is also just as impressive. He brings star power to every tournament he enters and in each exhibition match he participates. Indeed, there’s a huge market of fans who want to see and appreciate him.

“When you come on tour as a young player, you’re just happy to be a tennis player and be out there,” Federer told columnist Ann Killion of The San Francisco Chronicle. “Then I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do besides play tennis?’ I wanted to do something on my own and not just donate a racket.”

Federer teams up with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates

On Monday night, Federer teamed with Microsoft Corporation principal founder Bill Gates, NBC Today co-host Savannah Guthrie and top-ranked American player Jack Sock for the Match for Africa 5 in San Jose, California. The charity event drew a sellout crowd of more than 15,000 fans at the SAP Center and was broadcast live on Tennis Channel in the U.S. Federer received a welcome worthy of a major rock music star, and his introduction was very over the top, full of colorful and swirling smoke and loud “Star Wars” music. As Federer walked out on court, he was greeted by a sea of smartphone camera flashes. Everyone wanted to capture a moment of the excitement created by Federer.

As the evening wore on, Federer seemed to be having the time of his life. He appeared happy and relaxed, and although he beat Sock, 7-6 (9), 6-4, after playing a set of celebrity doubles teamed with Gates, he straddled a fine line between playing to win while also wanting to put on a good show for his adoring fans – complete with some nifty trick shots.

Afterward, Sock showered Federer with high praise. “Roger, in my opinion, is the greatest of all time to play this sport, and I think he’s just as amazing a person off the court with all his philanthropy and his foundation,” he said. “Thank you for inviting me and letting me be a part of this.”

Federer, smiling and appreciative of the compliment paid him by Sock, said: “Thanks to Jack for being such an unbelievable sport tonight. It was so much fun tonight – honestly – I really enjoyed it. I love playing in new places I’ve never been before, and all the fans made it super special. Thanks to everyone for coming out and supporting my foundation.”

Tennis and philanthropy, it should be noted, have a lot in common. Both demand time and discipline – and Federer has proven his success in both fields. The Match for Africa series raises money for the Roger Federer Foundation that helps improve education for low-income children in South Africa. Monday night’s event in San Jose raised $2.5 million for his foundation.

Roger as guest author on the Gates Notes

“I knew I wanted to support children living in poverty by starting my own foundation,” Federer explained in an essay he wrote titled “What tennis and philanthropy have in common”, that was published in Gates’ blog (gatesnotes.com). “From a very young age, I had the deep wish to give back to people who are less privileged than I am. My mother comes from South Africa, and I grew up seeing extreme poverty firsthand. During holidays spent in that region visiting family, I became aware at an early age that not all children enjoyed the same privileges I had growing up in a rich country like Switzerland. That’s why I founded the Roger Federer Foundation in 2003, beginning an exciting and educational journey.”

Federer quickly realized that becoming a good philanthropist wasn’t easy; the will to give back was not enough on its own. “In the foundation’s early years, we were less rigorous about what we funded, and we quickly realized that we couldn’t measure whether we were having an impact or not,” he wrote. “If we really wanted to change children’s lives in a tangible and sustainable way, we needed to go about it in a much more professional and strategic manner.”

In order to assess how Federer’s foundation could most effectively help children break from the cycle of poverty and to also nurture their potential, he decided to focus on education. In doing so, the Roger Federer Foundation concentrated its investments on improving quality of education in existing educational institutions for children aged 3-12 in six different southern Africa countries and his native Switzerland.

Looking back over 15 years since creating his foundation, Federer recalled, “the first lesson I learned was that empowerment is crucial if you want to change things in a sustainable manner.

“When I visit our programs in rural Africa, I am always inspired to see how incredibly strong and committed the local population is. In the middle of one of the poorest regions in the world, mothers do everything to provide school meals for the children every day, and fathers build new classrooms where their children can learn and perform better. …

“My foundation concentrates on mobilizing and empowering local communities to initiate a process that increases the quality of education. Through mentorship, they can start to understand that a better future lies in their own hands and that through a joint effort they can achieve sustainable change.”

Since its launch in 2003, the Roger Federer Foundation programs have involved 650,000 children, over 7,600 teachers and 1,555 kindergartens and primary schools – all impressive numbers.

Transparency, measurability and evaluation of the foundation’s engagements are fundamental, according to Federer, and “we try to achieve all of this in a most cost-efficient manner.” He notes that more than 92 percent of the Roger Federer Foundation’s expenditures flow into the countries and programs, “and this is a metric that we are extremely proud of.”

As the father of 8-year-old twin girls and 3-year-old twin boys, Federer speaks easily from the experience of being a dad. “I see how much you learn from 0 to 7 years old. … It’s amazing and I become more inspired to give my kid or any other kid in the world an opportunity to learn a lot at that age,” he tweeted.

“If I can help in something for a good cause, I am there and it’s only a matter of time. Doing charity makes me feel better.”

While his love of tennis remains as strong as ever, Federer realizes that the time will come when his tennis career is done. However, it will allow him even more time to spend with his foundation. “I definitely look forward to being able to travel more often to Africa, visit our programs, and raise more money for our cause,” Federer concluded in his essay. “Of course, there will be challenges along the way – but I hope to grow in my knowledge and experience every day. Becoming a good philanthropist is a never-ending journey.”

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.