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Playing tennis with Roger Federer

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Net gain

Playing tennis with Roger Federer

After years of giving speeches, I am usually pretty comfortable appearing in public. But this past weekend I did something in front of a crowd that made me a little nervous: I played tennis.

The setting was the fourth Match for Africa, a fundraiser for the Roger Federer Foundation. Roger and I had met for the first time about six weeks earlier, when he was playing the Indian Wells tournament in California. He asked me to be his partner in a doubles match at Seattle’s KeyArena versus John Isner, who is ranked in the top 25 worldwide, and another Seattleite, Mike McCready from the band Pearl Jam.

The Match for Africa

It was a no-brainer. I’m a huge fan of Roger’s, so the chance to play tennis with him was a dream come true. More importantly, it was a great opportunity to shine a light on the terrific philanthropic work that he and his family are doing.

I just had to make sure I didn’t screw it up.

I play a lot of tennis, but it is one thing to practice drills with your coach or go up against a friend. It is another to play in front of 16,000 people in a basketball arena. If you think too much or let your muscles tense up, you end up hitting bad shots, which makes you more tense, and suddenly you’re stuck in a vicious cycle. No one wants to watch a match where two of the players keep double-faulting and returning serves into the net. So last week I put in a lot of practice time. Mike told me he did the same thing.

At the arena, the atmosphere was intense. The crowd was buzzing. Mike played an amazing version of the National Anthem on guitar. When the emcee introduced me, I jogged out and nearly got singed by a big flamethrower. (You can watch the whole event on Facebook.)

During the match, I tried to just stay focused on what I was doing. Keep your arm up on your serve. I settled down after I got my first one in. It definitely helped that Roger and John put on a great show. They kept the ball in play, and sometimes it seemed like their volleys would last forever. I had to resist the temptation to just sit back and watch them work. I knew they were phenomenal athletes from watching them on TV and from the stands, but up close I got a new understanding of their grace and power.

Even though John and Roger took it easy on us amateurs, they naturally hit the ball with a lot of spin. Mike and I adopted similar survival strategies: Spend a lot of time at the net. A ball with lots of spin on it is hard to return if you’re standing back toward the baseline. Up at the net, you at least stand a chance. I managed to hit one winner against John that probably would’ve gone out of bounds if he had let it go. 

John sent one hard serve my way. It is hard to describe being on the receiving end of a tennis ball going 123 mph. I had no time to get my racket around. I barely saw the ball.

Even John’s softer shots were hard to return. He is 6 feet 10, so he tends to hit the ball down, which makes it bounce a lot higher than I am used to.

Roger and I won the match, and Roger won a singles exhibition against John, but the scores were beside the point. The event raised more than $2 million for Roger’s foundation. It is an impressive organization that is partnering with local NGOs in six countries in southern Africa to improve early learning and basic education there. And in Roger’s home country of Switzerland, they are working to expand access to extracurricular activities for low-income children. Roger is learning deeply about the issues and has put together a very capable team. They are well on their way to reaching their goal of benefiting 1 million children by the end of next year.

Thanks to Roger, John, Mike, and everyone who came out to the event. It was fun to check an item off my bucket list and help a great cause too.

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