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Federer a coup for Brisbane

Before Roger Federer hit his first match ball on Pat Rafter Arena this week, he had cuddled koalas, posed at scenic Kangaroo Point, joined Rod Laver as the special guest at an intimate $1000-a-plate dinner, met a starstruck Sally Pearson and her fellow Olympic gold medallists Libby Trickett and Natalie Cook, and pretty much charmed everyone in sight.
Nanjing Night Net

The Federer Show. Brisbane’s debut episode.

”The hurdler in particular, I think she was very excited meeting me,” said the 17-time grand slam champion in that way that can sound so arrogant but is usually just, well, actually how it is.

And Pearson, certainly, has been in good company. However much it cost to help lure Federer to Brisbane for the first time since he was a 14-year-old on a family holiday, it was money well spent.

”Roger transcends tennis. He’s a global brand and he’s the most popular player of all time,” says Brisbane tournament director Cameron Pearson.

”The anecdotal evidence that we’ve seen, and the feedback that we’ve been given, is that so many people that haven’t been interested in the sport are now interested in the sport and are coming to the event and want to pick up racquets. It’s quite incredible really.”

After a first-round bye, the top-seeded world No.6 played his opening singles match against Finn Jarkko Nieminen on Wednesday night, but the value-adding doubles idea was his own, and Wimbledon marathon man Nicolas Mahut the lucky invitee after a quick ringaround on arrival.

The fact that the pair beat top seeds Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau in Tuesday’s opening round was a bonus, and not just for a veteran thirsty for early-season matchplay. ”He [Federer] said, ‘Do you mind if I play doubles’? I was, ‘You can do anything you want’. Do I mind?” laughs Pearson (not the hurdler).

”He just wants to play a lot of matches here in Australia and the weather has been very kind to us, so he’s getting out and getting acclimatised.

”The reality is he needs to play matches, he needs to play somewhere, and he wanted to play somewhere new and maybe somewhere that’s a little bit warmer [than the Middle East in January], and I guess Brisbane provides that for him.”

All of which represents the culmination of a determined recruiting drive that began in March 2011, and ended when the man who has spent more weeks at No.1 than any other landed safely – and, apparently, looking and acting as if he had disembarked from a five-minute limo ride rather than a long-haul flight from Dubai – on Saturday with pregnant wife Mirka and twins Charlene and Myla among a relatively modest entourage.

Federer, 32, had played in every Australian tournament besides this one during his career, and Pearson’s persistent negotiations with Federer’s long-time agent, Tony Godsick, finally paid off in June. It is a complex, expensive deal that is speculated to be worth close to the million dollars that the Swiss has reportedly been paid to play in Doha in past seasons.

No one is talking numbers, though, preferring to make this all about the legend who came to town, showed all the grace, warmth and class expected of the sport’s greatest ambassador, stroked a few co-operative marsupials, sold a lot of tickets, and is now into the business of hitting as many balls as he can manage before the year’s first grand slam starts on Monday week in Melbourne.

”Roger hasn’t played much in Australia outside of Melbourne in the last 10 years, so this is very rare,” says Pearson, quietly hoping that the first visit is not the last.

”So many people have said to me, ‘we want to see Roger Federer play before we see the back of him’, I guess. Hopefully that’s not for a few years and this is one of those opportunities.”

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