WASHINGTON — “Mr. John Connolly died three years ago. He was my mentor. I don’t know if he knows this, but I really miss him. I miss him a lot. I miss his guidance and wisdom. To see someone who supported me with every step of the way and believed in me, I will never forget his name. He always made sure that I was in a good spot mentally and physically and on and off the court.”
I am not quite sure how many years have passed since Roger Federer last heard the voice of his coach. The Swiss great had returned to the No. 1 spot for the first time in two years and had enjoyed another dominant triumph when he spoke to an awed media after his overwhelming 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over American Steve Johnson in the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open on Friday night.
He said Connolly — whom Federer’s best pal, Prince William, referred to as his “best mate” at a charity event last year — “always believed in me, and it’s nice that I can give a shout-out to him for that today. It was really important for me to come back after three years and show everyone that I’m back, that I was still motivated to play tennis.
“There were times when I thought ‘hmm,’ about coming back. … He always said I should do whatever it takes to make sure I was there. I didn’t want him to regret not having me at the highest possible level.”
It was an important moment, but there was a sentiment in the joy that was in his voice — and in his words — that maybe the full impact wasn’t yet fully realized, and that the direction toward winning the trophy will be worth a lot more now that he has returned to the very top.
“The things I should be doing every day, I did them,” Federer said. “I put in all the time I could. With Steve, it just was kind of one thing at a time. I had to focus on these tournaments and this game of tennis. And when I took the time to celebrate last season after the Australian, I played against (Novak) Djokovic in the final and went for a little bit more. I played for really the first time in ages in my career against some great players that I didn’t know a lot about.”
The quality of his competition is also growing for the 20-time Grand Slam winner, in what he called “the most open tournament ever. There is no obvious favorite and the one loss could decide the last six, maybe the last four.
“I just have to go out there with an open mind and be ready to play every single day. I think if I do that, it will work out in my favor.”