Courting Roger: an interview with Roger Federer

Words by
Laura Archer

15th January 2013

Moët & Chandon is the latest luxury brand to sign Roger Federer as their ambassador. What does he have that they all want? Laura Archer meets him in Dubai to find out.

When it comes to putting on a show, Dubai knows how to pull out all the stops. Its “more is more” mantra has made it a city of superlatives—the biggest this, the tallest that, a ski slope in the desert, islands fanning out like palm fronds in the Arabian Gulf—and now it rises again, phoenix-like, out of the flames of a global recession with yet more new hotel openings planned for this year. Nothing is too excessive for this Emirate, and on a surprisingly stormy December morning at the top of the Bhurj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building, as if you had to ask), it throws in a lightning storm for good measure, just to ratchet up the wow-factor a few extra notches. But the extraordinary views—all swirling clouds, apocalyptic rumbles of thunder and dystopian skyline—that are captivating the world’s press, assembled here for the unveiling of Moët & Chandon’s new global brand ambassador, are suddenly forgotten as Roger Federer walks into the room. 

Tanned, gym-fresh and perfectly groomed, Federer is as impressive off-court as on it. His presence entrances a room full of travel-weary journalists. With a sheepish smile he apologises that the inclement weather means his morning practice—which we were meant to be watching—has had to be cancelled. He’s instantly forgiven. You’d never guess that only moments before there had been much indignant muttering over the mini smoked salmon bagels as a result of this sudden change in schedule. You get the impression that with one flash of his pearly whites, he would be forgiven most things. After mingling with the now well-pacified press pack, he’s off again, and we turn back to the windows to discover Dubai has shaken off its storm mantle, its needle-like skyscrapers newly glittering after the rains. But it’s too late, our minds are elsewhere—Dubai is no longer the star of this show. That honour belongs to Federer. When it was first announced that Roger Federer was replacing Scarlett Johansson as the global brand ambassador for Moët & Chandon, the industry reaction was positive, if a little puzzled. Moët has a long history of association with sports—from christening Kaiser Wilhelm II’s yacht in 1902 to celebrating every America’s Cup reception since 1987—but A-list actress Johansson, with her red carpet credentials and Hollywood glamour, was an obvious face for a champagne brand. Federer, known for his self-discipline, hard work and clean living, hardly seems to personify the champagne lifestyle. Yet luxury has shifted significantly since the global economic downturn. More discreet values have come to the fore; overt, brashy displays of wealth seem not only distasteful but—worse—irrelevant. So it’s a clever move on Moët’s part to align itself more closely with virtues that resonate with the new consumer mood: dedication, achievement and the pursuit of perfection. “Affluent consumers say they want expertise, trustworthiness and kindness from brand ambassadors,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of New York-based analysts Luxury Institute. “They should be genuine… and positive, caring individuals.” And if they prove not to be—either on or off duty—brands often move fast to end the association and thereby protect their own image. “A $75 million day,” is how shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong described the moment his sponsors pulled out in the face of damning doping allegations. Tiger Woods lost six lucrative contracts following his extra-marital affairs, while Oscar Pistorius’ contracts with Nike and Oakley were severed before his bail hearing had even finished. 

Tennis, too, has seen its share of drama, from on-court tantrums to broom cupboard liaisons, but Roger Federer has proved cleaner than clean. He admits to being a “hothead” and a “rough diamond” in need of “some serious polishing” when younger but has long since learnt to channel his emotions more positively. He’s happily married, with young twin daughters, and eschews the party scene: “I have a lovely family life and great friends and I’d rather just spend time with them”. 

And then, of course, there’s his record-breaking sporting prowess: 17 grand slam titles, 302 weeks spent as world number one, eight Wimbledon finals, five consecutive US Open wins. In an era already described as a “golden age” of men’s tennis, Federer leads the pack. Small wonder that he’s such hot property among luxury brands. “Federer is a great spokesperson because he is a top athlete and is seen as an individual with humility and good values,” says Pedraza. As well as the obvious sports brands, Mercedes, Credit Suisse, Rolex and even Lindt chocolate have all signed him to represent them. “His appeal is unique, extending across all generations and continents,” says Arnaud Boetsch, director of communication and image at Rolex, with whom Federer has been affiliated since 2006. “We are privileged to have forged a lasting and close relationship with Roger, founded on shared values of excellence, mutual respect and appreciation for perfection.” 

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Federer with Moët’s CEO Stéphane Baschiera in Dubai for the announcement of his role as the champagne house’s new brand ambassador

Federer with Moët’s CEO Stéphane Baschiera in Dubai for the announcement of his role as the champagne house’s new brand ambassador

For these relationships to work, above all they must be believable. “Many wealthy consumers are not swayed by celebrity endorsement,” warns Pedraza, adding: “Usually, the story, passion and purpose of the founder is far more compelling and clearly genuine.” Federer convinces, however, because there is a natural backstory to his partnerships. He grew up in Basel, centre of the Swiss watch-making industry, so of course he would wear a Rolex. He wants to be an ambassador for his country, hence partnerships with Credit Suisse and Lindt. Bottles of Moët have adorned the winner’s podium at the ATP World Tour Finals and the US Open for many years. And there’s an amusing anecdote about how, as a schoolboy, he replied “a Mercedes” when a Swiss newspaper asked what he would spend his first prize winnings on—the actual answer, as his mother eventually deduced, was “more CDs”. Federer has been savvy when choosing which contracts to accept. “Eight years ago, people were saying I had no sponsors,” he says. “I wanted to wait for the right ones to come along. If you take the wrong decision at 18,19, you can never make it up, so I’m happy I took the road of ‘let’s not chase the first money, let’s not chase all the money—let’s wait for the right brands, the right moment and the right values’. It’s important that you feel comfortable with what you are representing.” And it’s a decision that has paid off, both in terms of the millions in the bank and his reputation. “People know what I say is actually true.” 

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Crowned the 2012 Wimbledon champion

Crowned the 2012 Wimbledon champion

Which brings us to Dubai, where Federer is ensconced in the plush Royal Suite at the One & Only Royal Mirage to discuss his latest endorsement, a five-year deal with Moët & Chandon. Looking suitably suave in head-to-toe Dior, Federer in person is chatty and charming. He manages to be both an international icon and the man next door, peppering his talk of tournament wins and world rankings with anecdotes about making hotel rooms more homely (“even the tiniest touch, like putting up a picture”), explaining his on-court emotion to his concerned young daughters (“I call them the happy-sad tears”) and pleading with Anna Wintour to not have to interrupt his precious vacation time to do a shoot for Vogue (she got her way). He admits to having been approached by alcohol brands before but it was Moët specifically who piqued his interest. “I was excited about the opportunity to work with a brand that had been around for so, so long—this is something that’s a real icon,” he says. And what of the apparent disconnect between alcohol and the life of a tennis pro? “I think Moët & Chandon stands for more than just champagne or alcohol. They’ve celebrated great performances for many years. They’ve long supported international tennis competitions and excellence in the sport.” He pauses and gestures at the glossy publicity photographs. “They talk about boldness, generosity and elegance,” he laughs, seemingly a little embarrassed by such flamboyant statements. “But the values we share I thought were very authentic, very legitimate—the elegance, the strive for perfection. When I went to Epernay to see how they produce the champagne, and saw how much care they put into it, I feel I do the same with my career—making sure I do the right things, surrounding myself with the right people, and they do the same. Maybe it’s a little controversial and because of the alcohol factor it took me longer to think about this one, but I feel really comfortable doing this and it’s an honour for me to be a part of the history of the house.”

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Federer, photographed for Moët & Chandon, embodies “stylish sportsmanship, elegant achievement and generosity of spirit”

Federer, photographed for Moët & Chandon, embodies “stylish sportsmanship, elegant achievement and generosity of spirit”

The feeling is mutual. “We take it very seriously when we select a new brand ambassador,” says Arnaud de Saignes, international director of marketing and communications. “Roger is the perfect match because he embodies the values that are most dear to our House—stylish sportsmanship, elegant achievement and a generosity of spirit.” And, as de Saignes points out: “Champagne is so much more than simply an alcohol. It is the embodiment of French elegance and savoir faire, a symbol of sharing, celebration, joy and conviviality.” 

Federer certainly has much to celebrate. To ensure he does so in style, he’s creating an impressive cellar in the chalet he’s building in Switzerland. He can count on laying down a few bottles of Moët—the 2004 Grand Vintage, released late last year, is his current favourite, as it represents his first year ranked as the world’s number one player. The connection between Federer and Moët—their shared values of time, graft and dedication—is clear when you think of that 2004 vintage. The grapes being picked in the vineyards around Epernay as Federer claimed that number one spot. The dust-covered bottles lying in the cool cellars as he won grand slam after grand slam. And now the wine itself, uncorked at last, being poured into glasses held by the world’s media in an opulent room overlooking a moonlit Arabian Gulf, as Federer poses for photographs as the brand’s new ambassador. As both Moët & Chandon and Federer know only too well, all good things come to those who wait.