Sunday, August 12, 2007

It’s Time to Welcome a Symbol of Substance

Roger Federer of Switzerland has won 11 majors in the last four years.

Published: August 12, 2007


In a Gillette commercial, Thierry Henry, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods appear as liquid mercury images stepping out of a movie screen of sports clips and into your home wearing Soho-inspired black suits.

The three of them — supernovas of soccer, tennis and golf — stand shoulder to shoulder at the end, with Federer playfully caressing Woods’s close shave.

On the set in Rome, where part of the ad was filmed months ago, Henry and Federer took their stage marks with Tiger in between. Or, rather, Tiger’s stand-in — a man in a green bodysuit with eye holes who could be digitally whisked away and later replaced with Woods.

“I touched an Italian guy in green,” Federer laughed as he sat in a Montreal hotel suite for an interview last week. “That was Tiger.”

Illusions are part of every icon’s pitch. Build an aura. Create an empire. But the increasingly common vision of Federer in America’s living rooms seems less of a camera trick and more of an honest outreach.

“In some ways, yes, what I’m looking for is definitely recognition in the States,” Federer said. “I hope they appreciate my achievements and results, but I don’t want to force it on the public because that is always up to them to decide.”

He is not David Beckham, imposing his global celebrity and Posh wife and exposed pecs on America’s soccer simpletons for the profit of Brand Beckham. Instead, Federer has moved judiciously into our culture, with more ads and more victories, becoming an excellent houseguest.

For one, he doesn’t break things — as in fan trust. With his fusion style, all at once high tech and retro, Federer has captured 11 Grand Slam titles in four years without surfacing in the tableau of sports scandals. No doping, dogs or deceit.

He is not an ill-mannered squatter on our landscape, either, revealing no symptoms of antisocial behavior. He doesn’t lord his greatness over, say, a headwaiter. Federer actually smiled at the absurdity of a recent report that praised him for refusing to pull a don’t-you-know-who-I-am moment at a crowded restaurant, as if acting like a normal person were heroic. “I knew I was too late,” Federer said.

He is not the kind of company who will come home sauced with a groupie one night — and land in the tabloids tomorrow. By all accounts, Federer’s big escape is downtime with his girlfriend of seven years, Mirka Vavrinec. “Honestly, I’d rather have tea with Mirka and speak about life,” he said.

He is a metro male on an Obama scale, isn’t he? Federer is a chatty Swiss who is curious about others. Many elite athletes use headphones as a convenient way to hide from the public, tuning out autograph requests or questions or even teammates. Federer owns about a half-dozen iPods but has little use for them.

“I think they’re a great creation, but if you put them in,” said Federer, pointing to his ears, “you can’t speak to anyone. You’re isolating yourself, and I don’t like that.”

Federer is a worldly boarder who prefers to leave a tidy legacy behind him when he exits. As a Unicef ambassador, he visited India last Christmas on the second anniversary of the destructive tsunami of December 2004. He rode hundreds of miles across the country, moved by the faces of determined people, impressed by the meticulous organization of the villages and sickened by a car ride turned thrill ride.

“They were driving so fast,” Federer said, widening his eyes. “And there was one lane going this way and one going that way and they were overtaking all the time. So you’d go heading right at another car, then they turned the wheel just in time. At one point, I think I’m not even looking anymore. You look out the side, but you get sick.”

He isn’t a backseat driver. So Federer won’t be barging into America this month — as the hardcourt season peaks with the United States Open — pushing an agenda other than winning another major and, if it’s meant to be, winning over the public.

He is on his way at least commercially. Tiger is not only his Gillette co-star but provides the voiceover to Federer’s Nike ads. Not a bad icon to provide Federer’s long-awaited introduction to the mainstream masses, from the Corn Belt to each coast.

Maybe there is a place for a Swiss to fill an American craving for a superstar of authentic quality this summer, one who is neither polarizing nor perplexing. Federer is, at least on stage, not an illusion. What a refreshing change.

“I take being a role model seriously,” he said. “So I hope I can fit that spot that is maybe missing at the moment. I don’t know.”

To date, Federer has never broken, trashed or ruined anything. He is a host’s dream guest.

E-mail: selenasports@nytimes.com

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