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An emotional visit to Ethiopia

13.02.2010 | Foundation

World number one Roger Federer sends the ball spinning into the net. His opponent, Ethiopian teenager, Jirata Demksa, smiles and prays the Swiss is having an off day. But Federer just pauses and, taking a deep breath, serves a blistering ace. The 17-year-old, realising he's beaten, simply shrugs.


"He's the best tennis player ever," he says. "I am just lucky we played ping-pong." Jirata says he will never forget taking two points from Federer in an impromptu game of table tennis at a school the tennis ace funds in the poor country. For Federer, this week's visit to Ethiopia was one that moved him to tears. "When I arrived at the school and all of the children were singing, it was very emotional," Federer told Reuters. "They sang, `Roger, our Father' to me. I didn't really understand it at the beginning but I still had tears in my eyes." Federer, limbering up for an attempt to win all four grand slams in a calendar year having already claimed the Australian Open title, was taking some time out to visit Ethiopia -- one of the countries his charitable organisation works in. The Roger Federer Foundation, founded in 2003, spends $1 million a year on education in Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, Mali, Malawi and Zimbabwe.



"My Mum being from South Africa is obviously the inspiration behind the foundation," Federer said, as local kids screamed `Number one!' behind him. "I went there on vacation a lot when I was younger. So we started with a project in South Africa and, as I got older and got more money, I wanted to expand."


Eating a lunch of traditional injera -- a sort of spongy pancake -- with the students at one of two schools he pays for in the country, Federer was peppered with questions. Most of the children wanted to know if he had any of his own. His seven-month old twin girls, Myla and Charlene, could eventually take over the charity Federer wants to continue long after he stops playing, he said. "I definitely want to show them that this world exists as well," Federer said, gesturing at the tin-roofed classrooms around him.


"There's no way around it for them because I'll be travelling. It will be a very exciting ten years for me because I'll be trying to educate and help them and show them all these things." Ethiopia is the world's seventh largest recipient of foreign aid, receiving more than $1.94 billion in 2006, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). About 12 million of the Horn of Africa country's people are reliant on foreign food aid to survive.


As multi-millionaire Federer drove through the streets of the capital Addis Ababa, four street kids caught a glimpse of him through the window of his coach. Leaping to their feet, they ran after the bus. "Federer! Federer! We love you! We love you!" they shouted.




For Federer, who has won 16 grand slam titles, the level of recognition in one of the world's poorest and most remote countries, more known for athletics than tennis, was a surprise. "It's my first time here so I didn't expect this," he said. "I always think I should have been to a country before people know me. I forget about the television." Local girl Nihlaa Omar, stretching before racing against the tennis maestro in a 1km fun run, said she had seen him on television in a nearby town.


"We know he's as famous as our famous runners like Kenenisa Bekele," she said referring to the twice Olympic 10,000 metres champion. "But I think Ethiopians can beat him at running." Federer, who was to run against the school's best athletes, agreed saying: "I'm in a lot of trouble". The race kicked off, with the tennis star immediately humbled as the Ethiopian children, who live at high altitude, overtook him en masse, a goat leading the field for the first 500 metres. Federer finished near the back of the field.


"I've always had massive respect for long distance sports," he said. "The terrain was so dangerous and they ran barefoot. It was impressive to say the least." The children, too, were confused by a man more used to split-second exertion. "How old are you?" one girl said. Super-fit Federer, 28, asked her to guess. "I don't know about white people," she said, shyly. "45?"


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02/19/2010 | 08:11 AM
Oh wow! How nice of you to interact with those children. They are really blessed to meet a great human like you. Yes, Ethiopians uuuuare champions in their own way with great runners like Haile Gebrsalassie, Abebe Bikila, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Diba
02/18/2010 | 04:42 PM
Roger i love you coz you are
02/18/2010 | 10:51 AM
u r so awesome... im so so so so proud to be ur fan:)...
02/18/2010 | 08:45 AM
Roger, whatever Gods there be, and to each his own, may they bless you for your good works in such deserving places. I plan to make a donation to the Roger Federer Foundation again. Greetings from the mountains of Utah, USA. Nancy
02/18/2010 | 05:54 AM
Again, the best of the best.
Role model, humanitarian, called the greatest player of all time by the greatest players of all time.
02/18/2010 | 04:55 AM
it's lovely to see roger giving back what he has gained. awards, achievements, and recognitions will fade with the passing of time. in the end, it is how you have touched other people's lives that you will forever be remembered.

live, love, learn, and
02/18/2010 | 04:19 AM
Roger, I don't have words to thanks you! Many people could follow your example, because you're making people happy, you're giving chances and opportunities for the children know another side of the world! I want that your work can grow up more and more, a
02/17/2010 | 04:19 PM



02/17/2010 | 12:32 PM
You are at the top of your profession, a great ambassador for tennis and you still have the time to show what a great humanitarian you are. You have accumulated great riches but are so happy and willing to give much back.
02/17/2010 | 12:29 PM
I can imagine Roger must be very kind to those children. I am so proud to be your fans.