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Sport and Competition

Roger Federer's Three Petes

Explore the value of mentorship on the complex and winding road to mastery.

Key points

  • Roger Federer's ascent to the top was uneven and bumpy.
  • Coaching and mentorship were key in his road to mastery.
  • Expertise arises from the combination of smaller parts that create a greater whole.

In The Master, Christopher Clarey gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Roger Federer’s complex and windy road to mastery. (I write about mastery in my book.) While his talent was clear, he arrived later than most expected. Here, I point out a crucial component in the complexity of Federer’s rise through the lens of three mentors: Federer’s three Petes, Pete Carter, Pete Lundgren, and Pete Sampras.

Pete Carter

Carter was one of Federer’s earliest influences when it came to tennis. An Australian who had played for some time on the pro circuit, Clarey reveals all of the back channeling that occurs in the tennis world. In particular, was the connection between Federer and Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian champion who was coached by Daren Cahill, another Australian. Carter and Cahill were great friends, and they would sit and watch Hewitt and Federer rummage through a rainbow of moods and outbursts as they played during their junior careers. The tennis was brilliant, but the behavior was much less so. Carter was instrumental during Federer’s early years. In The Master, Clarey describes the way in which Carter had worked on a lot of small things. According to many, the backhand, in particular, was all Carter. Aside from being a great coach, Carter also served as a confidant. He was the kind of big brother that such a solitary sport requires in order to make the step to the next level. Carter was set to be Federer’s traveling coach, but another, Pete Lundgren, got the job initially. Everyone felt he would come back to Carter later. Unfortunately, Carter passed away during his honeymoon in South Africa. His death shook Federer, who cried at the funeral inconsolably. Clarey describes it as a pivotal moment during which Federer felt the need to honor his former coach, who had believed in him so unconditionally.

Pete Lundgren

Lundgren, the first coach to tour with Federer on the pro circuit, was a former Swedish player who came to coach in Switzerland. Clarey tells interesting anecdotes about Lundgren, the funniest one being Lundgren’s perfect imitation of Bjorn Borg, the great Swedish champion. One prank was to invite many of his tennis friends to a meal. Excited to meet the tennis great, they were quickly disappointed when, upon arriving at the restaurant, they realized it was Lundgren and not Borg who had invited them. Clarey also describes the work that Lundgren did with Federer in trying to help him realize his great potential.

What Clarey describes is interesting in light of a personal interaction I had with Lundgren in Houston. Some years ago, I read on the internet that Lundgren had made technical changes to Federer’s forehand by introducing elements from the great Swedish forehands. Around that time, I was attending the US Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston when I spotted Lundgren in the stands. I waited patiently for him to walk through the aisle. I then approached him and very politely asked him if he could answer a question. I floated the Swedish forehand theory to him. He shot it down pretty vehemently. He told me that Federer always had a great forehand. He denied making substantive changes to a great shot. I stood there stunned for a minute and thought quickly about what else I could ask him. I blurted out, “So, what did you work on with him.” He replied, “Footwork.” “Footwork?" I countered.

Lundgren went on to tell me that Federer had no backhand. It was all slice, and his volleys were terrible. He said that they worked on footwork extensively so that he could improve his backhand and his volleys. It is interesting that Carter had worked alongside Lundgren. Thus, Lundgren confirmed what Clarey so clearly shows in The Master: Federer was supremely talented, but he was also supremely unpolished. He was already 16 years old, and even as he became a pro, it was known that you could simply pick on his backhand. Just three years later, all of the work with the first two Petes, Lundgren and Carter, would pay off when he met the third Pete on the green grass of Wimbledon.

Pete Sampras

"Pistol" Pete dominated Wimbledon during the 90s. The style back then was serve and volley. In this style, the server hits the ball and immediately rushes the net to intercept the ball in the air. Moving to the net offers distinct advantages in that it forces an opponent to react quickly. The effect can be devastating. Sampras's attacking style shortened points, leading inevitably to incredibly narrow opportunities for his opponents to win. Because of his tremendous serve, Sampras would use his advantage to win games. He would simply wait until he had one chance to win the opponent’s serve. Clarey describes Sampras’s view of breakpoints as set points. His view was that once he broke serve, this small opening was enough to blow open the set.

In 1999, Sampras was the heavy favorite against an emerging but still-developing Federer. Note that at 19, Federer was just a few years removed from having a poor backhand and volleys, as Lundgren had indicated to me in person. The replay of this match gives us a glimpse into what he would become later. It also shows us what tennis used to be like. Attacking, fast with players cutting off each other’s oxygen at the net. Sampras was Federer’s idol, and the similarities were palpable. They both smothered the net whenever they could. They played neck and neck, trading blows while they tried to gain the upper hand. It would all come down to the most unexpected of outcomes. Sampras's great serve would let him down. On a crucial point, Federer was able to return a serve and pass Sampras on the return. Federer, unable to fathom having beaten one of his idols, would hit the ground as if he had won the whole tournament. Perplexed by it all, he would get up, lost on how to exit as Federer stumbled through the ritualistic ending of a match that Sampras had gone through many times before at Wimbledon.

Sampras and Federer would meet again a few years later, well after Pete’s retirement. By then, the torch had been passed, and tennis had changed completely. Sampras and Federer would play some exhibition matches. During this period, Sampras was very curious about what had happened to tennis. He asked Roger why no one was serving and volleying anymore, the way the two of them had done in their only professional match. Federer explained that it was no longer necessary to volley right away. Rather, the idea was to hit a forehand immediately after the serve and then volley if necessary. Craig O’Shaughnessy, who Clarey quotes in the book, has crunched the numbers even for the modern game that is played today. What O’Shaugnessy has noted is that serving and volleying leads to a 70% winning percentage historically and today. At the baseline, very few players win more than 50% of their points. In other words, Federer should have continued serving and volleying more, not less than he did. I myself often wonder whether playing like Sampras and the old Federer would still work at Wimbledon. Maybe the third Pete was on to something.

The three Petes and the winding road to mastery

Clarey’s book is a gem for those of us who want to look at the complexity of genius. The hours that elite athletes put in are crucial. However, what stood out to me in The Master was the emergent quality of tennis. An elite tennis player has to focus on very small skills at first. Over time, these skills morph and change, leading to better and better performance. Federer was able to control his temper, improve his strokes, and capture the strategy and tactics necessary to become an even better player. He clearly showed the talent to excel at a very early age. But even with all that talent, many things had to come together to form a much greater whole. In The Master, we see the process by which Federer came to be one of the greatest players to ever step on a tennis court. The value of mentorship, as exemplified by the three Petes, stands out in his complex and dynamic path to mastery.


Clarey, C. (2021). The master : the long run and beautiful game of Roger Federer (First edition). Twelve.

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