When the then defending champion Pete Sampras was shown the door in 2001 Wimbledon, we came to know of a young man from Switzerland called Roger Federer. And even before we could memorise his name for the rest of the season, he got eliminated in the quarter finals at All England Lawn Tennis Championships. We felt then he was just a one time wonder and infact he never gave us an opportunity to speak or write about him for the remaining part of 2001.
The next year, 2002, was even worse as he succumbed to defeat in the very first round of Wimbledon at the hands of Mario Ancic. The gentleman from Switzerland did not look promising for us thereafter. The tennis world considered and spelled Lleyton Hewitt of Australia and Andy Roddick of USA as the players of future by then. But the man who went to the finals in Wimbledon in the year 2003 was Roger Federer and opposite to him on the other side of the net was a veteran Australian called Mark Phillippousis. Phillippousis would have heaved a sigh of relief not seeing Pete as his opponent out there and most of us were feeling, given the experience and acumen of the Australian in grass, Roger would be receiving a plate and not a cup at the end of the match. But it was not to be as Federer, defying all odds and dealing with the big serves, eventually stole the match right under the nose of the mighty Aussie to win his first ever grandslam title at Wimbledon.
Ok, that was one odd slam, as we did not expect him to continue surprising us and so was he. He had a very brief outing in the US open which followed and was ousted by a prolific David Nalbandian in the fourth round there. We all by then knew that though Federer had the talent he was not going to do something remarkable in his tennis as we had already seen an era of the great Greek American by the name of Pete Sampras, whose records of 14 majors, we thought, at that moment, were literally untouchable.
We hardly had a clue of the year which we were about to witness then. Federer’s next grandslam title happened to be at down under which he won at Rod Laver Arena. Two grandslam titles out of the last three he had played! Oh, that was good enough. But was he going to do anything more??? The tennis fans were proven right as he succumbed to a humiliating defeat in the French open 2004, where he was ousted in straight sets by the ageing Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten in the third round itself.
We felt that our instincts had prevailed over Federer’s talents. Winning a grandslam title emphatically one time and losing pathetically in the next did not augur well in Swiss’ favour either. We thought we judged him right but we did only just as he ridiculed our stance by winning his second consequtive Wimbledon title, defeating Andy Roddick in four sets. At that time we slowly began to understand that he was not the one who could be taken lightly. We thought he would go on to, maybe, win another three to four titles max as we felt the competition which he had in Roddick, Safin, Nalbandian and Hewitt was going to prevent him from succeeding. We never saw it coming but he surprised us by showcasing his genius by winning his first ever US open title which meant that he was just left with French open to complete a career slam. Three slams out of the four played that year was something we never thought was going to be seen once Sampras became inactive in tennis.
By then Federer simply seemed to have outplayed his critics and the fans alike. From then on we, as fans, started to believe in him and were absolutely sure that he was going to take Australian open 2005, hands down. But that time Federer fooled us as he lost to the eventual champion, Marat Safin, in the semifinals, which was something very hard for us to digest. We felt we were completely fooled by the charm and charisma of this gentleman that we had only great expectations, seeing his invincibility in 2004. We thought Federer would at least prove us wrong in the following slam, which was least preferred by great players at that time. Federer’s successive grandslam semifinal defeat followed by French open as the former’s aspiration for a career slam was undone by an eighteen year old Spaniard called Rafael Nadal, which was his first stint ever in Roland Garros. An accomplished player like Roger losing to a new comer in a semifinal of the grandslam was not taken well by us. Little did we realize what role the Spaniard would play in Federer’s career.
We felt that the year 2004 was going to be the first and last of its kind for Federer and he was never going to repeat it anywhere in his career henceforth. But Federer’s eyes lit up once he viewed the grass. He chose to end Roddick’s desire yet again in Wimbledon as he raced past the American quite easily winning hatrick of grass court grandslam titles. We were ashamed at our judgement on Federer by estimating him very quickly once he lost in the semifinals of the previous two grandslams. If a player is good he can win a Wimbledon and if he is very good may be he can win two and only a legend can win three Wimbledon titles and that too all of them on a trot. So we were totally convinced he was there to rewrite the history books. Back to back, he won three Wimbledons alright, but – “would he be able to win two US opens on Succession?” – was the question which we had as he was in the finals of 2005 US open. And Roger did just that, thereby erasing the bad memories of the ‘slam-less’ first half of the year.
At the end of 2005, he had a total of six grandslam titles, inching closer to players like Lendl and Borg on Grandslam counts. He started the year 2006 with a bang by defeating Cyprian Marcus Bagdatis in the final after trailing by a set in the Australian open. We started feeling anxious by then as we weren’t too sure of coming to a conclusion on the debate as to whether he would go on to beat Sampras’ granslam records. Out came French open where again he went on to lose in the final to Nadal, the Spaniard who was the then defending champion. Somehow, Federer could not muster his skills and get the elusive title on Clay. One slam gone and so then we felt okay, not many would do what Sampras and Borgs have done by winning four successive grandslam titles in London. So, we felt that unless he did it, the record of Sampras would always be miles away from Federer’s vision.
But that was only our view as Federer stopped Rafael Nadal’s bid to win back to back French open and Wimbledon by avenging the latter for his loss at Roland Garros a couple of weeks before. Slowly we started to come to an understanding with Roger’s game and we strongly felt it was going to be Roger every time he would play in a grandslam, maybe barring French open. Federer did not disappoint us when he won his third US open in succession. By the beginning of 2007, the understanding between Federer and his fans reached an agreeable state finally. We felt he would win all the three slams without a doubt and he might not win French as usual. So what? Even Sampras did not win it. He did as we thought and in the process equaled Borg’s record of five consecutive Wimbledons. At the end of 2007, his slam counts stood at 12, just 2 short of Sampras’ record.
We thought it would be a walk in the park for him from thereon and it would take something more than a herculean effort by someone to stop him getting past Sampras’ major tally in 2008. The strong agreement which fans started to have with Federer from 2006 finally began to crumble as he failed at winning the first three grandslam titles of the year including his beloved one in grass. Again, we were pushed back to square one and we started doubting him overhauling Sampras. Federer never was a favourite going into US open and he almost had a scare in the fourth round match against a weaker player called Igor Andreev. We felt Sampras’ record was safe and being Federer fans we understood his era was on the decline. But, Roger had other ideas as he beat our instincts again and cheered us up by winning his fifth successive US open in Flushing Meadows.
We were in a fix by then. We thought he was over, but here he was giving us a glimmer of hope as he was just one title away from equaling Sampras. How quickly things changed. It was the beginning of 2009 and Federer was one match away from matching Pistol Pete but he was denied by a highly motivated Spaniard Rafael Nadal in Australian open and Federer started weeping in the presentation ceremony. It all happened in a flash. We cried with Federer and we were absolutely more than 100% sure that he was not going to take his 14th grandslam title any sooner as he would require to win his least preferred slam on Clay. This time Federer pipped us again and gave us a beating of our lives. He went on to win the French Open final by beating, not Nadal, but Robin Soderling in the final, thereby not only capturing his 14th grandslam title, but also winning a career slam, which Sampras could never do in his entire career. Even after many a French open debacles, grasses looked greener for Federer. This time it need not look greener for him as he already had a resounding victory on clay. So, greener or not, he played a very nervy final to beat Andy Roddick in an epic match at Wimbledon, winning it for the sixth time, one shy of Pete Sampras and eventually gave a breather to all of us by dismissing the Greek American record at last. Now, we knew what would transpire in US open as we felt he was there to get it for the sixth time but to our dismay Federer shocked us by falling to Del Potro in a five setter at the second Sunday of US open 2009. Would you believe it? Whenver we felt very confident he would win, he had been losing and whenever we felt he would lose, he had been surprising us.
Then came 2010 and Federer, as per normal procedure, opened his account with a major by beating Andy Murray in Australian open final. Federer had then got 16 slams to his credit. From thereon we had been counting the chickens before they even hatched. We had been waiting for him to add one more to it but we were made to wait. At one point of time, we had come to a conclusion that it was all over for Federer. We thought number 16 was the one to beat. We gave up our hopes and Federer came into agreement with us much like we had with him in the year 2006 and 2007. Only difference was he was winning everything then but since Feb 2010, he was losing everything. When Federer finally lost to a 34 year old Tommy Haas on grass in Halle, we became absolutely sure it was all over for the maestro.
But, he destroyed instincts again. Federer lifted the Wimbledon Champioship for the seventh time in his career, winning his 17th grand slam title. Now number 17 is the one to beat. Now we are left to ponder, which way should we go? I hope Federer adds one more at the end of this year.