A Lunch With Roger Federer Helped Fuel Mikaela Shiffrin’s Record Run

From a Wall Street Journal story by Rachel Bachman headlined “A Lunch With Roger Federer Helped Fuel Mikaela Shiffrin’s Record Run”:

Mikaela Shiffrin and her mother, Eileen, last March pulled up the drive to a house perched in the Swiss Alps, one of the most breathtaking areas in all of Europe.

They saw a gleaming, modern home. They spied a green wall made famous by a viral video of a tennis player clad all in white—even his fedora—repeatedly volleying a ball during the early stages of the pandemic.

Then they were greeted by the world’s most surprising parking attendant, waving them toward a space: Roger Federer.

Federer, the all-time Wimbledon men’s singles title winner, Swiss national and skiing fan, had watched Shiffrin race at Switzerland’s Lenzerheide resort over the two previous days—Shiffrin’s first event since a disastrous Beijing Olympics in which she failed to win a medal.

Afterward, Federer offered an invitation that would help Shiffrin rebound from the disappointment: a leisurely lunch with a 20-time major champion who had some timely thoughts on managing a long career.

Shiffrin and her mother dined with Federer and his wife, Mirka, for a lunch of chicken, pasta and salad on the Federers’ patio nestled in the Alps. Shiffrin says the conversation helped reinvigorate her at a low point and steel her for the homestretch of a season in which she wound up winning the overall title.

t also buoyed her entering this season, helping rekindle her winning ways to a historic result: On Tuesday, she set the all-time record for World Cup Alpine wins for a female skier. On Wednesday she won again for her 84th career victory, moving within two of all-time men’s record-holder, Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.

“I feel like that lunch happened at a time when I really needed a reason to be positive and excited,” Shiffrin said.

Shiffrin had met Federer several times before. At one point, they were both sponsored by the pasta company Barilla (Shiffrin still is). They appeared in promotions together, including an ad in which Federer enlivens a dreary party by taking up a chef’s coat and sauté pan while Shiffrin cameos as a guest.

Federer retired from tennis in September, but at the time of his lunch with Shiffrin, he was still competing.

On that day last March, the four adults gathered around a table as the Federers’ four children played, and Federer talked to Shiffrin about her approach to skiing.

“He was saying, In order to preserve the longevity of your career, you need to take the moments to look around, appreciate where you are, breathe it in,” Shiffrin said. “As he got more into the depths of his career, when it gets harder to kind of look up and around you and appreciate everything right in that moment, is when it’s the most important to do it.”

Federer had become choosier about which events he played in as his career went on, she remembered him saying. He encouraged Shiffrin, who has a wide range of skill but excels most at the slalom event, to also be selective. At one point he brought up skiing’s longest and most perilous event, in which athletes can exceed 80 miles an hour.

“He mentioned that downhill seems, like, pretty scary,” Shiffrin said. “I was like, ‘It’s not that bad. It’s actually really, really fun to do.’”

Federer is a fan of elite skiing—and recently hit the slopes himself after abstaining for 15 years to avoid injury. Shiffrin recalled that his presence caused a stir on the first day of the Lenzerheide races when the competitors spotted him on a TV broadcasting the event.

“All of the women were like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re showing Roger—Roger Federer’s here! He’s in the finish!’” Shiffrin said. “Everybody got so nervous—more nervous that he was there than for the race itself.”

Shiffrin, likewise, is an admirer of tennis’s greats. She has exchanged messages with women’s world No. 1 Iga Swiatek. She also loved watching the top men’s players of the era—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer. “But Roger was like the person that inspired me to watch tennis and be such an enthusiastic fan,” she said.

Shiffrin also plays tennis—usually with her mom—as a workout and to train her mind. “It requires, obviously, eye-hand coordination, but also the mental fortitude to stay focused when you’re tired at the end of a long interval, essentially,” Shiffrin said.

During their lunch, Federer—a two-time Olympic medalist—downplayed the three-time Olympic medalist Shiffrin’s disastrous results at the Beijing Games in which she skidded off course in three races. He encouraged her to look at her entire career, not just that two-week period, and ask herself how long she wanted to compete in a way that was enjoyable.

He urged her to, “‘Enjoy the most incredible moments because what you do is incredible,’” Shiffrin said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Roger Federer’s talking to me about my career.’ It was a little bit hard to really reel it all in and understand everything he was even saying, because I was sort of awestruck the entire time.”

Eileen Shiffrin spent much of the afternoon talking to Federer’s wife, Mirka, whom Eileen described as “a stick of dynamite. She’s so cool and assertive and ‘girl power.’ She just rocks.”

As lunch stretched past two hours, Eileen remembered saying a few times that it was probably time to let the Federers get on with their day.

“And Federer would reply, “‘No! We’re not in a rush,’” Eileen said. “And he’d ask another question. He’d say, ‘I’m just curious about this….’”

Federer talked about longevity, throwing out that the now 27-year-old Shiffrin could compete for 10 more years. At first she laughed—it sounded like such a long time—but because the message came from him, she said, “I could definitely see quite a few more years.”

As Shiffrin and her mom drove away from the Federers’, Shiffrin says she felt relief. “For the first time since the Olympics I kind of got rid of that yucky feeling that I had there,” she said.

Eileen Shiffrin has a feeling that Federer’s invitation came from the sense that Mikaela needed a boost. “For me,” she said, “all I could think of was, ‘This is exactly the medicine she needs right now, just to talk to Roger.’”

Rachel Bachman is a senior sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She focuses on the Olympics, college sports and the business and finance of women’s sports.

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