To the growing irritation of the locals, there is an American journalist at this year’s Wimbledon who is very keen to know what all the players think about Nelson Mandela.
As the great man ails in hospital, in every press conference this chap pipes up to ask what his legacy means to those coming off Centre Court.
You may wonder exactly why we need to know what Maria Sharapova – a Russian who has spent all her life in America – thinks about the South African freedom fighter, but the bloke asks anyway. And, as might be expected, he hardly elicits the most riveting answer. These are tennis players, not students of international politics. Serena Williams said she thought Mandela had done great things as a black man in a time when it wasn’t great to be black in South Africa. And you can’t argue with that.
Sharapova, looking more than a little surprised that her view was being elicited, said that while she had never met him he seemed a great guy. Roger Federer, meanwhile, said that while Mandela had never met him, he seemed a great guy.
OK, he didn’t quite say that. But, unlike everyone else suddenly obliged to come over all statesmanlike, Federer seemed entirely comfortable with the notion that he was of sufficient status to pass judgment on such things. He was not surprised to be asked. Of course we wanted to know what he thought. He is Roger Federer.
Self-doubt is not something that has ever plagued the magnificent Swiss. This, after all, is a man who once warmed up before an engagement on court in a tee shirt bearing his own image, a man who has endorsed razors, a product which requires him to indulge in his favourite activity: looking in the shaving mirror.
And it is the absolute belief in himself that has projected the Fed to the top of his game. Yesterday Serena Williams spent much of an easy first round stroll publicly berating herself and her game.
“I never feel invincible,” she said after easily dispatching Mandy Minella of Luxembourg. “I always feel that I have to be ready for each opponent in each game, and I never become over-confident. I think when I do or if I do, that's the moment that I'm most vulnerable.”
Serena may bestride the women’s game, but she never thinks she is going to win.
The Fed does not do vulnerability. His tungsten hide is utterly impregnable. That slight smile he always wears mocks the notion he might be defeated. Much of the rest of the world might consider he is in decline, that the consequences of chronology are taking their inevitable toll. After all, his critics say, he is now 31, and in a game of ever-increasing physicality, that is not the most encouraging place to be. But The Fed does not worry about such things. He continues to believe in his own ability, reckons it sufficient to overcome any structural decline.
That is what makes him such a special competitor. The alliance of exceptional technique, astonishing natural ability and unshakeable self-worth is a combination shared by few. When he steps out on Centre Court today, he knows he will win. His iron will brooks no other possibility.
And that is why anyone writing him off as a contender at this year’s championship would be hasty indeed. Sure, he has had a wretched season so far by his standards. At times he has looked his age. For a man who hoovers up trophies, just the one win so far this year suggests he has not been of his best.
But this is Wimbledon.
This is the Fed’s stage.
This is where his exceptional combination of talents has long reigned. Anyone thinking Andy Murray has an easy ride to the final this year be warned. Federer is here and – as he knows – he will take some shifting. If there is any doubt that he is still a contender, at his next press conference someone should ask Federer what he thinks of his chances. He will politely explain the very idea that his threat should be doubted is absurd.