The Swiss are not used to this. They rarely produce great athletes, not ones that foreigners notice anyway, but now they have a tennis player who is being described as the best ever.

Though Roger Federer is just a boy from Basle, he seems to possess every tennis stroke in its platonic form. His victory in last week's US Open was his third in this year's four grand slams. Could he be the first Swiss hero since Wilhelm Tell?

Non-Swiss readers may not be fully informed of the country's sporting heritage. Switzerland used to produce great skiers, simple men from the mountains who were popular partly because in the Swiss mind skiing is linked with the army. The skiers are no longer very good, but last year a Swiss sailing team admittedly loaded with New Zealanders won the America's Cup. Despite the local shortage of oceans, the Swiss also excel at beach volleyball.

However, none of Switzerland's sporting triumphs has had the masses dancing in their suburban roads. It is not that sort of country. “The Swiss don't love their heroes that much,” explains the Swiss ethnologist Fabrizio Sabelli. “That type of personality needs a collective complicity to be raised to the status of national hero. In Switzerland, there is no unity. Everything is fragmented, at the level of languages, cantons, communes, even bistros.”

Then along came Federer, who seemed the designer Swiss hero. He was friendly, handsome and a genius. He came from a middle-class suburb. He enjoyed the national card game of Jass. He spoke both the country's main languages, Swiss German and French, even if he rarely said anything interesting in either. “Rodscher”, as they called him locally, was often seen in the stands of the Basle football club. Admittedly his mother was South African, but this simply fitted the Swiss tradition of having roots abroad.

Here was a well-behaved young man, not an arrogant superstar like other countries produced. Die Weltwoche, weekly organ of Switzerland's German-speaking Bürger, praised Federer for reaching the top “with the virtues of the middle-class Swiss, with seriousness, solidity, politeness and a touch of hardness”.

When he won his first Wimbledon last year, the Swiss were pleased. The organisers of the Gstaad tennis tournament gave him an 800-kilogramme cow, whom he christened Juliette, prompting speculation about which former girlfriend this could refer to.

The Swiss newspaper Le Matin prayed that the “little Swiss” would not be “eaten up” by the great big world, but he never was. Just as Juliette has refused to become an international jetsetter, preferring to spend her summers in a Gstaad meadow, Federer too has stayed loyal to Switzerland. He claims the only thing he misses in the country is a beach. Whereas Martina Hingis, an earlier Swiss tennis champion, emigrated to Florida, Federer merely moved with his parents to a slightly wealthier suburb of Basle. His Mum and Dad run his business affairs. His girlfriend manages his schedule, and she is not some foreign model but a former Swiss tennis player named Mirka Vavrinec.

Next month he will dutifully return to Basle to play in the Davidoff Swiss Indoors championship. This is something of a family event: Federer was once a ballboy here, his sister a hostess, and his mother handled accreditations.

Federer has remained a Swiss patriot. When asked whether winning the US Open compensated for his failure in the Athens Olympics, he replied that he had already had his compensation: carrying the Swiss flag at the Olympic opening ceremony. He had also hung a flag from the balcony of his room in the Olympic village. Admittedly his patriotism did not extend to doing military service he got out of it by pleading a bad back but then you can't have everything. Mostly, Federer is a good boy, an appropriate hero for a country that does not like stars.

Nonetheless, he is now threatening to acquire that status. In 2003 Swiss television viewers voted him “Swiss of the Year”, which makes you wonder what they will give him this year after three grand slams. Last Sunday night some Swiss even stayed up late to watch him win the US Open. But not many did. The Swiss admire Federer, but they don't love him as they did their skiers. He is perhaps too perfect, not quite equal enough.

“Abroad, a Roger Federer would be a real star,” shrugs Sabelli. “Here people don't accord them the quality of being out of the ordinary.” The nice Swiss boy prefers it that way, or at least that is the official line.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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