Jolly Roger

He's gentlemanly, quiet and without a hint of arrogance, so it's hard to believe that you're in the presence of a sporting genius. But, having just eclipsed Pete Sampras's record number of grand slams and regained his rightful No. 1 ranking with a gladiatorial victory on the grass of the All England Club, that's exactly what Roger Federer is.

"Records are made to be broken," he says when asked about his achievement.

You can make your dreams come true with money. But my fantasies are all about tennis.

But Federer's gleaming image is no longer limited to his tennis prowess. This once shy and unassuming player now lives the life of a star, equally at ease on the red carpet as he is on the blue courts of Flushing Meadows.

Admired by pre-eminent celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, who trained her lens on the tennis great for the pictures that accompany this story, and a member of the select inner circle of Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue, Federer has become a fashion-conscious man-of-the-moment, in addition to being one of the world's most respected athletes.

Wintour takes Federer to runway shows and is a dedicated presence at his matches alongside his wife, Mirka Vavrinec. In return, the 28-year-old Swiss star hones the queen of fashion's game. Wintour also provides the world No. 1 with style tips, both on and off the court, as could be observed at Wimbledon. There, Federer donned an all-white pre-match ensemble that included full-length trousers, a dandy waistcoat and a gold-embossed macintosh with the player's familiar "RF" monogram.

"Fashion helps me understand who I am a little more," Federer says of his elaborate Nike wardrobe. This sartorial journey culminated with him collecting his sixth Wimbledon trophy, his record-breaking grand-slam title, in July, wearing a tracksuit top emblazoned with the number 15. It was symbolic of Federer surpassing Sampras, who was an onlooker in the centre-court crowd, as the most successful men's tennis player ever.

Federer, nonetheless, is quick to point out that he has not become some sort of sporting show-off. He's a regular guy with enough intelligence to reach his goals and manage those around him. "It's reassuring to know that you can make your dreams come true with money. But my fantasies are all about tennis," he admits.

"In contrast to gymnasts, us tennis guys, like footballers, can live normal lives. We burn a lot of calories. I can eat anything I want. And I eat as healthy as possible."

Federer is not known to be a big drinker and he has no obvious vices, except maybe card games. He went through a heavy-metal period, with a penchant for Aussie rockers AC/DC, as well as a video-game addiction, one he shares with his friend and fellow sports royal Tiger Woods. (Federer has the nagging tendency to select himself as his character in tennis games.)

He has a villa in South Africa. He owns a selection of apartments in Switzerland - one in Basel, another in Oberwil, and a third in Bach, where Federer's neighbours include the president of the Swiss investment bank UBS and former Formula 1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen. In Bach, he can train at the local tennis club with Martina Hingis's mother.

Federer's most recent real-estate acquisition is a 550-square-metre marina apartment in Dubai. Ostensibly, it is a place for him to "store his things". Among those belongings are at least six cars, including an Aston Martin DB9; Federer has been known to take the wheel in Switzerland and drive "to meditate". But for 10 months out of 12, the backdrop of his life is a succession of airport lounges and luxury hotels.

But it was Vavrinec, from whom he is inseparable, who made Federer the civilised man he is today. She was the one with the love of fashion, the glamorous life. It was for her that he stopped thinking only about tennis - at least to a certain extent. Before Vavrinec, Federer admits that all he did was "play tennis or watch himself play tennis".

The couple met at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where they were both competing in tennis for Switzerland. Now, not only has Vavrinec become his wife (they were married in an understated ceremony in Federer's home town of Basel earlier this year), but she is also his travel agent, adviser, press agent and mother of his recently born twin daughters. "The final was so tense I feared my wife would go into labour," Federer told guests at the Wimbledon champions dinner after he defeated Andy Roddick.

But Vavrinec would never not be by her husband's side, regardless of the stress and the whirlwind travel schedule. "I have everything I want. Roger is very generous," she confides. Federer's mother says he "spoils her". But, in general, the player's entourage are known for their complete discretion.

By the same token, Federer rarely strays from talking about tennis and avoids conflict at all costs. It must be this discretion that charmed Anna Wintour and the crowds of Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. It's what you remember after meeting this sporting icon: he's a true gentleman - on and off the tennis court. A nice guy, sensitive to what others think of him and never one to speak badly of his rivals.

"I knew that my chances of winning had got better; it was definitely a bonus," Federer tells me when we speak following his June French Open victory, his first. "But I wasn't hoping that he [Rafael Nadal] was going to lose. That's not my style." After backing up his first-ever grand-slam win on clay with his crowning achievement at the All England Club, he says: "What counts is that people continue to respect Rafa for what he has accomplished. Winning four times in a row at Roland Garros is an incredible feat."

The Federer story begins in South Africa. There, his South African mother, Lynette, met Robert Federer, a Swiss laboratory technician who was working for a pharmaceutical multinational. After returning to Basel, in Switzerland, the couple had a daughter, Diana, and then, 20 months later, a boy, Roger, born on August 8, 1981.

By the time he was three, Federer was hitting balls against the family's garage door. He played squash with his father every Sunday and also dabbled in football, basketball and badminton. From the age of 10 until his early teens, Federer was coached by Australian Peter Carter, who would influence his playing style and teach him how to calm his emotions.

By 14, Federer was a national junior champion, but his temperament was turbulent and, although it's hard to believe now, he was prone to monstrous tantrums. He would slam his racquet to the ground whenever he lost.

Still 14, Federer tried out for the Swiss National Tennis Centre in Ecublens, near Lausanne. While his tennis-centre classmates hoped to reach the ranks of the top 100, Federer made his ambitions clear in the local newspaper, saying he wanted to be No. 1. "That could change our lives," his mother, overwhelmed by the ambitions of her son, said at the time.

The reality was different; things weren't that simple. Federer had trouble concentrating. A perfectionist, he berated himself on the court and doubted his abilities. The coaching at the tennis centre was severe. Living on the shores of Lake Geneva, he was obliged to learn French and live with a host family.

But in 1998 he won the Wimbledon junior championship and turned professional. In 1999, he hired Swede Peter Lundgren as his coach and became, at the time, the youngest player to reach the ATP's top 100. He was introduced to a sports psychologist who showed him how to turn his excess aggression to his advantage. Federer now had the keys to his winning machine. In 2000 he was ranked 29th. In 2001, he beat four-time defending champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon - it was a turning point in his career.

Federer's self-proclaimed strong point is his fighting spirit. Despite his early bouts of anger, he never doubted his own potential. "I knew I had more talent than the others. I had many more possibilities and facets in my game," he says. Pierre Paganini, Federer's personal trainer and a former Swiss decathlete, notes: "Roger has an innate ability for self-perfectionism and for self-improvement in his game. He makes things happen." There's creativity in Federer's game. He's one of the rare breed of players who don't just follow orders, but adds his own personal touch. "He is meticulous and inventive, rigorous and spontaneous, all at the same time," adds Paganini.

In 2002, Federer's mentor and former coach, Peter Carter, was killed in a car crash in South Africa. The player was profoundly affected by his death, and no one knows the full impact the tragedy had on his mental approach to the game. Nonetheless, he went on to win Wimbledon the following year and earned the world No. 1 ranking in February 2004. His career has been a stunning streak of victories and records ever since, a roll of honour that includes six Wimbledon titles, five US Opens, three Australian Opens and, as of June, that elusive Roland Garros title. With that, too, he became one of only six men to have won every grand-slam title.

"My parents didn't tell me: 'If you don't win the French Open we're going to abandon you!' But after losing three [French Open] finals in a row, I told myself maybe that would be my last final ... It was probably the best time for me to win the French Open. I'm very proud of myself."

It was with his first Wimbledon victory, his "childhood dream", that Federer learned to relax and begin to take pleasure in the sport. "But that took more effort than I expected," he says. Facing off against players less consistent than himself, Federer distanced himself from the rest of the pack. He reinforced his game and became a master of strategy. He never played the same shot more than twice. With his efficient and meticulously prepared playing style, he knew how to avoid injury, channel his energy and reach his goals.

Federer's contemporaries hold him in high esteem. Following the epic Wimbledon bout with Roddick, the fourth grand-slam final in which Federer had defeated the American, Roddick told reporters that he believed the Swiss was still improving, something he found "disconcerting".

But the praise is not limited to the current crop of tennis greats. Jim Courier said: "I'm still looking for a shot he doesn't know how to do." John McEnroe went even further: "You are watching the greatest talent that has ever existed on a tennis court." After witnessing his grand-slam record disappear before his eyes, Pete Sampras told the BBC: "Roger is a legend, an icon and a stud."

Federer, however, has trouble with the compliments - which, unsurprisingly, came flooding after his latest success, from the likes of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. He says he'll consider all that the day he hangs up his weight-perfect Wilson racquet. He smiles and stays in his bubble, taking nothing for granted, as if he could lose each time he takes the court.

Federer's most lauded character trait is his insatiable thirst to learn, even at this stage of his career. Full of curiosity, he asks McEnroe about Lendl, Vilas about Borg, and often talks with other sporting superstars like Valentino Rossi, Thierry Henry and Michael Schumacher. He understands he must do this to remain competitive.

Looking at his career achievements, Federer's greatest victory may be the one versus himself - versus that excessive personality he was able to rein in and control to his advantage. "It's much easier for me to accept losing now. I used to have a tendency to cry a lot and be very disappointed." But he admits that this "heavy anger" towards himself is still never far off. Time and experience, though, have taught him to accept the natural evolution of a tennis player. "It's normal to lose. It's normal for a career to reach its end," says Federer.

To those who think one of the greatest sports personalities of our time is nothing but a robotic winning machine, FedEx - as he is nicknamed in the US - simply says: "I have emotions, you know. All I am is a human being." But he is a finely tuned human being who doesn't release pressure until his mission has been accomplished. Hence the tears only after game, set and match have been achieved. "Winning never leaves me indifferent," he says. "That's why I'm always emotional after winning a tournament."

Sport&Style is published on the first Thursday of every month in The Sydney Morning Herald and the first Monday of the month in The Age.