It is over a decade since Roger Federer won his first Grand Slam title. Few who saw it will forget his performance in the Wimbledon 2003 final against Mark Philippoussis. For years, many pundits and former players had been bemoaning the state of men’s tennis, especially on grass. Far too often, the key Wimbledon matches of the late 1990s consisted of a blizzard of unreturnable serves and two-shot “rallies” – while the top competitors were undoubtedly highly skilled, they seemed to lack imagination on the court, which made for a poor spectacle. The emergence of Lleyton Hewitt heralded a new emphasis on finesse, but the Aussie’s 2002 Wimbledon final victory over David Nalbandian, an uninspiring baseline battle, was not one for the ages.
Yet the following year, fans were treated to a tennis masterclass at the All England Club. In each of his seven matches, Roger Federer produced shots that few of us had ever seen before. Using every inch of the court, he had the balance and poise of a ballet dancer, but the killer instinct of a warrior. His beautiful one-handed backhand appeared as effortless as it was devastating; his serve and volleys were precision-perfect. Federer dismantled Philippoussis’ game the same way he had Andy Roddick’s in the semi-finals. Countering bullet serves with masterful anticipation and greater variety, he waltzed to his maiden Wimbledon title.
The Federer legend grew from that moment onward. The number one ranking, the career Grand Slam, 17 major titles, Olympic gold and a place on the honour roll of practically every big tournament were accomplished, and accomplished every time with elegance and grace. Roger Federer’s list of records is itself a record: no other player in the Open Era has been as dominant.
But as we watch Federer continue to school lesser rivals despite entering the twilight of his career, it is possible to forget that the man whose name is synonymous with class and success wasn’t always such a cool-headed customer. And although it is difficult for many fans to recall the era in which Federer didn’t coast from triumph to triumph, there was a time when it seemed as though he might not live up to his potential.
Born in Basel in 1981, Roger Federer was always an unlikely tennis champion. While his parents were keen players, they didn’t force the young Roger to spend hours drilling on the court as many “tennis parents” do. It was pure talent that earned him a spot in Basel’s Old Boys Tennis Club, where he received his first formal instruction as an eight-year-old.
Known today as one of the most unflappable of players, Federer was a temperamental youngster. He cried when he watched his idol, Boris Becker, lose the 1988 Wimbledon final to Stefan Edberg, and the young Federer’s own matches often ended in tears too. Desperate to win, he had difficulty controlling his emotions when he fluffed a shot. It wasn’t unknown for him to fling a racket to the ground in anger, behaviour that shocked his mild-mannered parents.
Federer’s mother Lynette recalls: “We used to say, ‘Come on Roger, pull yourself together. Your behaviour is bad and it’s upsetting us.’ But it just showed how ambitious Roger was, and how determined he was to succeed.”
At the age of 12, Federer realised that fulfilling these ambitions would entail sacrifice and dedication. Although a talented skier and footballer, he opted to concentrate solely on tennis in order to reach the next level. Around this time, he began working closely with Peter Carter, an Australian who was to have a major influence on the development of the young Swiss. As well as teaching him sound technique and a more disciplined approach to shot selection, he explained to Federer that his emotional outbursts cost him valuable energy. From that point onward, his charge became a lot less tempestuous on court, even if he was still years away from establishing the calm demeanour that would become his trademark.
Recognised as one of the most talented members of his generation, able to absorb instruction faster than any of his peers, Federer made another tough decision aged 14. He chose to move to Switzerland’s national training centre near Lausanne, a two-hour train ride from the family home. While he did visit his parents and his sister at weekends, spending so much time away from home was difficult for the teenage Federer, who didn’t speak French well and often felt excluded by the other pupils. Yet this was a defining period for him, both as a player and as a man.
“It was a great lesson in life for him,” said his mother. “He grasped that things don’t always go your own way, and that you can’t succeed through talent alone – you have to work hard. He wasn’t always happy, but overcoming those struggles and challenges was good for him, and helped him to develop as a person.”
After a few years at the national training centre, Federer enrolled at a new training centre in Biel, where he was reunited with Carter. The pair’s strong bond was still intact, and they continued to work together closely as Roger rose though the junior ranks. In 1998, under the additional guidance of former Swedish player Peter Lundgren, he swept the junior Wimbledon singles and doubles titles, the prestigious Orange Bowl championship, and made the final of the US Open. He finished the year as the top-ranked junior payer in the world.
Aware that early success does not always translate into triumph later in life, Federer took some canny steps as he embarked on his senior career. He hired Lundgren as his full-time coach, and played a smart schedule that alternated between main draw ATP events and Challenger tournaments. In 1999, boosted by quarter-finals showings at events in Basel, Marseille and Rotterdam, he became the youngest player in the ATP’s top 100.
For the next couple of years, Federer steadily built on his initial senior success. He reached his first ATP final in 2000 in Marseille, narrowly losing to compatriot Marc Rosset in a third set tie-break. He made the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the first time at Roland Garros, and only just missed out on a bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics. He thrilled the home fans by making the showpiece match in Basel, and ended the year ranked 29. In just his second full year as a senior professional, Federer had stated his intentions emphatically.
The following year, he continued his ascent of the rankings, all the while building his reputation as one of the stars of the future. He won his first title on the indoor courts of Milan, and reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open a few months later. But it was at Wimbledon 2001 that he really announced his arrival. Taking on Pete Sampras in the fourth round, the 19-year-old Federer showed maturity beyond his years to edge the seven-time champion in five memorable sets. Sampras was in deep shock after match point; Federer, overcome with joy, burst into tears.
That match was hailed as a “changing of the guard” moment by many, but Federer initially struggled to build on the breakthrough. A groin injury hampered his progress for the rest of the summer, and he fell tamely to Andre Agassi at the US Open. The pattern of inconsistency continued for much of the following year. While there were many highlights, including a tournament win in Sydney and his first Masters series final in Miami, it seemed that Federer was struggling to cope with the pressure of increased expectations, as he tended to follow up impressive wins with head-scratching and disheartening losses.
After winning his first Masters title in Hamburg, he was dumped out of the French Open in round one. Four weeks later, defending quarter-finals points at the All England Club, he lost to 154th-ranked Mario Ancic, also in the first round. Touted as a title contender at the start of Wimbledon 2002, Federer’s early exit prompted murmurings that, while he undoubtedly had the talent required to succeed, he lacked the necessary mental toughness. When he won only one of his next five matches, the detractors grew louder.
It was tragedy that finally prompted Federer to reevaluate his approach and rededicate himself to tennis. At a tournament in Toronto in August 2002, he learned that his old coach, Peter Carter, had been killed in a car accident. Federer was initially inconsolable, but in time he reflected on what his former mentor had taught him about the importance of hard work, detailed preparation and the right attitude. With a renewed focus, Federer ended his string of early round losses with a fourth round appearance at the US Open. In the autumn, he reached three quarter-finals, the semi-finals in Basel and won the title in Vienna. Now ranked six in the world, he qualified for the elite end-of-year ATP Championships, won his first three matches and pushed world number one Lleyton Hewitt to the limit in a classic semi-final. He ended the year a more emotionally mature man and a tougher, more resilient player.
As the 2003 season dawned, Federer had his sights set firmly on his first Grand Slam title. He lost a dramatic five-setter at the Australian Open to former junior rival David Nalbandian, but made it into the top five for the first time after winning titles in Marseille and Dubai. At Roland Garros, however, he lost his first round match to journeyman Luis Horna. Federer’s growing number of fans feared that this was another major setback, on a par with those he suffered the previous summer. Yet this time, Federer’s response couldn’t have been more different. In Halle, he twice recovered from the loss of the opening set to win the title. At Wimbledon, he dropped only one set in his first four matches, and overcame a troublesome back strain to reach the semi-finals.
Those who had never seen Federer before that point lauded this unique tennis player, a competitor who possessed every shot in the book and could create winners from nowhere. Here was a man who made a mockery of his rivals’ one-dimensional games, who appeared to motor around the grass powered by pure natural ability. But Federer knew that his final two matches at that year’s Championships, in which he outclassed the heavily favoured Roddick and bamboozled Philippoussis, were the culmination of thirteen years of toil.
As he held aloft the Gentlemen’s Singles trophy that Sunday ten years ago, the 21-year-old Swiss transformed from a young, gifted contender into a genuine champion. Talk of his unfulfilled potential ceased; now he was a potential all-time great. Rigorous training, expert guidance, familial sacrifice and the tragedy of losing his first coach all played a part in helping Roger Federer reach the top in 2003. His character, work ethic and unrivalled talent have kept him there ever since.