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Roger Federer returns to the O2 next week to search for a record seventh ATP Finals title. He is already ahead of the field, but opportunities to stretch that lead are running out. When the event moves to Turin in 2021, it seems unlikely that he will still be participating.
Like it or not, we are into the last act of Federer’s career. Or perhaps we should call it the end of the beginning. Because the world’s most famous player has been busy backstage, building an empire that has transformed him into a major player in a different sense. Father Time will eventually force him off the court, but not out of the game.
Federer’s vehicle is his management company, Team 8. The business was formed in 2013 after his long-time agent Tony Godsick left the sporting behemoth that is IMG. In this move, they were following Tiger Woods and his own IMG agent Mark Steinberg, who had made a similar breakaway two years earlier.
For the first three years, Team8 remained a player management agency, and went looking for new clients to join Federer. Their approach was defined by Godsick’s uncompromising personality. Married to Mary Joe Fernandez – an influential ESPN commentator and former American Fed Cup captain – he is enormously well connected and known as a tough negotiator.
To support Godsick’s recruitment drive, Federer personally courted players’ parents, or invited the targets themselves out for dinner. If they were male, he went out of his way to practise with them. Yet this tactic did not always pay off. “For some guys,” says one rival agent, “it was a little too transparent.”
Team8 did sign two big-name clients in this period, in Juan Martin del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov. But they were disappointed not to land a pair of young Americans – Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe – who opted for Creative Artists Agency instead. Meanwhile, a series of other approaches – towards Nick Kyrgios, Naomi Osaka, Eugenie Bouchard and Amanda Anisimova among others – fell flat.
The early turnover at Team8 suggested a company still looking for its identity. Dimitrov and del Potro both left in 2017. Meanwhile, Godsick’s first two backroom hirings – former ATP Finals director Andre Silva, and Chris McCormack, whose grandfather Mark had founded IMG – also moved on relatively quickly.
There was a sense of schadenfreude among some other agents at this stage. Godsick was seen as a disruptor and a threat: someone who didn’t play the game. Yet any rules that Team8 might have been breaking were unwritten ones. Unlike in football, there is nothing to prevent tennis agents from approaching players who have existing contracts.
It was in 2017, with the launch of the first Laver Cup, that the company’s fortunes changed dramatically for the better. Now in its third year, the Laver Cup was originally Godsick’s idea, but the donkey-work is mainly done by Tennis Australia, who backed the concept of a fuzzy yellow Ryder Cup from the start. Dozens of people fly out from Melbourne to each venue – Prague, Chicago and Geneva so far – to stage what is arguably the slickest production in tennis.
The stadia have been full and the unusual dynamic between the players – who muck in together with mid-match advice and choreographed celebrations – has gripped viewers. With such momentum behind it, the Laver Cup looks well placed to survive Federer’s future transition from player to European captain. Meanwhile, its success has transformed Team8 from a boutique management agency into a heavyweight stakeholder.
One useful side-effect has been to strengthen Federer’s bonds with the next generation of players. At both the last two Laver Cups, we have seen him exhorting his European team-mate Alexander Zverev, first telling him to move up to the baseline and then to cut out the “negative s---”.
Coincidentally or not, Zverev recently announced that he will henceforth be represented by Team8. This means breaking a five-year contract with former manager Patricio Apey – a split which could potentially involve an eight-figure compensation payment. The stress surrounding the move has disrupted Zverev’s season, although he found some belated form in Asia last month. The high point, ironically, was a three-set victory over Federer himself.
Zverev’s signing was clearly a coup for Team8, as was the emergence of Coco Gauff – who has been with the agency since the end of 2017 – as a global icon this summer. With its new status as an events company now established, the agency is beginning to spread its fingers once again into player management.
Seen in the round, 2019 has been another hugely significant year for Federer off the court. In August, he re-entered the viper’s nest that is the governance of the ATP Tour, taking a position on the player council for the first time since 2014. This was widely interpreted as a move to dilute the power of Novak Djokovic’s faction, which controversially declined to renew the contract of ATP president Chris Kermode in the spring.
As was once said of Samuel Johnson, Federer “doesn’t even drink tea without a stratagem”. This autumn, his commitment to the Laver Cup has been reconfirmed by his refusal to play in either of the other new team competitions – the Davis Cup and the ATP Cup – that are launching over the next couple of months. He could surely have picked up hefty appearance fees in either case. But one suspects that he sees them both as rivals, and is more interested in the long-term game.
Immediately after the ATP Finals, most of the field will catch a plane to Madrid for the rebranded Davis Cup finals. Federer is travelling to South America instead, where he will play exhibition matches in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Mexico City and Quito.
As for the first ATP Cup, which will be held in Australia in January, this decision was more of a surprise. The Laver Cup has created a close bond between Team8 and Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley, to the point where the former French Open doubles champion Julien Benneteau claimed last year that Federer was getting to dictate his own schedule at the Australian Open.
Not close enough, however, for Federer to participate in this latest competition. A week ago, he withdrew from the ATP Cup, citing the need to spend the extra fortnight resting and catching up with his family.
In London yesterday, Federer was asked whether this explanation felt contradictory when he is playing so many exhibitions – including three days in Hangzhou, China, just before New Year. He replied at length.
“When we had to sign up for the ATP Cup it was shortly after Wimbledon. The South American exho tour was already long in its scheduling [and] had priority. Then, when I realised Stan [Wawrinka] was not going to play [in the ATP Cup], and my family was not going to travel to Sydney, I said I’d rather be home with the family and make the priority the Australian Open and the ATP Finals. Also having the dream match with Rafa [Nadal] in South Africa on Feb 7, I’ve been trying to get a date with Rafa for the last two or three years. Something had to give, and that was the ATP Cup. I would have been very happy to play but it just wasn’t at that level of importance for me ... I don’t think it’s contradictory at all.”
When the news of Federer’s withdrawal had broken last week, Tiley had responded gracefully, saying “He has always done an extraordinary job of being a great dad.” As one of the smartest beasts in the tennis jungle, Tiley recognises the first rule of the sport: Federer is always right. A 20-time major champion, he has earned his eminence by bringing more fans and more electricity to the game than any man since John McEnroe. As an ambassador, he has been all but flawless.
But powerbroking is a much more complicated business, especially in this most unregulated of sports. The politics of tennis resemble one of Clint Eastwood’s early Spaghetti Westerns, in that it really is every man for himself. Between them, Federer and Godsick appear to understand this essential truth.