MELBOURNE, Australia — Roger Federer shakes his head and sounds a bit embarrassed when he’s asked why he’s never played a tennis match in South Africa until now.
It is, after all, where his mother was born.
“I don’t know what took me so long, to be quite honest,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion said. “I said, ‘It’s not possible that I’m on the tour for 20 years, I’ve become the player that I have been, and I’ve never played in South Africa. It’s just not OK.’ I couldn’t live with myself if that happened.”
Federer, a 38-year-old from Switzerland, is planning to finally fill that gap on his rather full resume on Friday, when he and his longtime rival, Rafael Nadal, are scheduled to play an exhibition match in Cape Town.
“You know how it is. Life on tour sometimes is what it is. I couldn’t be more excited now that it’s actually really happening. I hope I’m going to be really fine to play. I believe I am, but we’ll see,” Federer said after losing in the semifinals at the Australian Open, where his movement was hampered by a painful groin muscle.
“Also, that Rafa is willing to do it is exciting, of course, to say the least. I know my parents are very happy, very proud, as well. I’m sure it’s going to be very, very special for me on many levels to play there.”
The hope is to generate more than $1 million for the Roger Federer Foundation, which supports early childhood education in six African countries and Switzerland. Its CEO, Janine Haendel, said the foundation already has reached more than a million children in its history.
“It will be such an emotional moment for him,” Haendel said about the event in South Africa, which also is slated to include an appearance by Bill Gates. “For him, it’s really a dream. It’s been a project for quite some time.”
But this wasn’t just about raising – or making – money, Federer said. He wanted to make sure the event was accessible for spectators, so 10,000 tickets were available for about $11 each. The aim is an attendance of 50,000, which would be the largest crowd on record for a tennis match.
That goes along with part of Federer’s interest in burnishing his legacy – and that of the game he plays.
“Reminding people,” he said, “that tennis is a big-time sport.”
He tries to do that in various ways, such as appearances at the Oscars or the Met Gala or by playing in exhibition matches all over the globe.
“Maybe spread the word, the gospel, a little bit,” Federer said. “Go to places I don’t usually get a chance to play and maybe also bring tennis where it’s not maybe seen as much.”