The Roger Federer Foundation RFF Interview

It seems as if it’s the media’s favourite topic of discussion; when will Roger Federer end his tennis career. The answer; who knows. The Swiss will exercise the right, which he has earned, to make that call whenever he sees fit. You would suspect the 31-year-old to play on for at least another two to three years, but only as long as he is swinging from the hip at the highest peak of men’s tennis.

Tennis, though, in this article is a secondary point. The reason why I offered the so-called retirement thought at the start of these notes was to look into how Roger will take (and possibly transform) his positive sports ‘legacy’ and empire into other proactive areas of society when he calls it a day.

And this is where I mention The Roger Federer Foundation (RFF), which might, just might become the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s most prominent work for the rest of his record-breaking life.

Thousands of sports people invest their personality, time and profile into charitable causes, and while this should be commended, the assertion that a star’s blossoming relationship with those ‘significantly less fortunate than themselves’ is smart public relations, has wheatfields of truth.

Federer is not excluded from that argument at all, quite the opposite, in fact. He, as recently as December 2012, embarked on a post-season trip to South America to entertain his fans and tennis nostalgia alike. He succeeded, unsurprisingly, but why make such a physically exhausting trip in the winter off-season when that time is typically used for recuperation, on top of strength and conditioning work for the new season. That has been a question asked by many journalist folk. And if you add in Federer’s tiredness reasons for his withdrawal from a couple of (major) tournaments at the end of last year, then it seems it would have made sense to have rested those weary limbs, perhaps.

But The Fed doesn’t often squander opportunities or disappoint his fans and this was no different. He played and played well in South America. Indeed, Federer’s wand of a racket earned him, reports suggest, close to a cool £15m – more prize money than he accumulated on the entire ATP World Tour last season (excluding sponsorship and off-court endorsements). Quite the pay-off for a man who doesn’t need to worry about money, eh? It was a trip he didn’t need to make, but with hindsight who can blame him. Anyway, I’ve divulged, slightly, but it is Federer’s manner to make sure he does everything properly – which makes many believe his foundation will grow from strength to strength in years to come.

Interestingly, it’s not Federer’s broad shoulders that carry that weight of expectation, for now, at least. It’s the Roger Federer Foundation (RFF) CEO, Janine Handel, who will look to improve upon and progress the Foundation’s development. Handel’s passion, drive and commitment to the role was clear when I met her for an interview during the inaugural London Tennis Debate at The East Wintergarden, Canary Wharf.

The London Tennis Debate

(From left to right) Justin Gimelstob, Ion Tiriac, Janine Handel, Pat Cash and Marcus Buckland after the London Tennis Debate, which took place on Wednesday 7th November at The East Wintergarden, Canary Wharf

Handel, who is recognised as a leading philanthropist, began working for the RFF in 2010 – an organisation which aims to support and improve childrens’ situations in the world – with a few countries in Africa and Switzerland being the concentrated bases of project-related activity.

As Handel explains, the Foundation’s transition from a charity into a fully fledged organisation was an interesting one.

“It was actually quite a normal, natural development,” the former member of the Swiss Diplomatic Corps within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “It was a charity initiative of someone (Roger Federer), who at the beginning, just wanted to give back something and do something good. It’s classical, it started as a cheque-book donation charity movement and began with one particular project in South Africa. Then, as a result of an increase in expenditure, the projects progressed threefold, but the charity still retained its ‘charity donation character’.”

Perhaps reluctant to talk about Federer excessively, his aura or the element of mystery which surrounds the so-called ‘Great Man’, Handel was quick to assert that it was the Swiss tennis ace who was the first one to question what impact his foundation was making.

“Roger asked the important question: what was the Foundation’s overall impact during the last six years? He asked me ‘what did we achieve?’. If you want an answer to this question and put things into perspective, we (the Foundation), at the time, were not capable of doing so. That was the very moment when Roger actually said that we should start to measure what we are doing and that we should do it in a proper way.

“Before we didn’t know if the Foundation did harm without knowing and we didn’t know whether we were doing a very good job.”

Janine Handel

Roger Federer Foundation CEO, Janine Handel

It was the realisation of the challenges ahead which almost instantly enabled the Foundation to click into ‘FedExpress’ gear and achieve new outcomes and objectives. Frequent board meetings and discussions between Federer, Handel and others members’ of the Foundation, which often lasted over five hours, enabled the Foundation to work in the best interests of the causes closest to its heart.

“It was a crucial moment in 2010 as a normal, family charity became a professional, ground-making foundation. We really tried to measure and find out our impact and goals. It’s very important that this is firmly in place at the beginning before you start a project or initiative. For example, after our Malawi initiative, we did an external evaluation after 18 months to make corrections and take up the lessons we learned as early as possible.

“A lot of progress comes down to strategy and many things look so logical and so great on paper, but if you are out in the field, the reality is that it doesn’t always work and you need to correct that. We want to change things for the better.”

Moving forward and the Foundation’s vision is a lot clearer, without even reading too much into what Federer’s impact could be over the next few years.

“I would put the Foundation in three phases,” says Handel. “It began with the start up phase where we provided more financial support to different projects and now, in the second phase, we are building a professional portfolio of long-term relationships where we really promote these partners in terms of implementing their initiatives.”

The London Tennis Debate

The London Tennis Debate at the East Wintergarden, Canary Wharf (Stuart Appleby pictured second from bottom right)

Working for, and at times closely, with one of sport’s superstars I’m sure has provided Handel with many interesting insights into the character and mind behind this great public portrayal we have of Federer. Whether she has or not, she was not ready to disclose details of board meetings. But Handel did make a subtle reference to the seven-time Wimbledon champion’s future foundation input.

“The third stage of the Foundation will be after Roger’s professional career where he is willing to invest not only time but his credibility in becoming a change-maker. The potential is huge and it is a long-term process for his foundation. We will use that potential, but leading through that individual initiative takes time. We will keep testing our model and if it is functioning well then we can scale up, but not too early.

“It’s an exciting time for Roger. It will be another phase, another chapter and another profession for him.”

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