The greatest thing about sport is that it teaches you how to win. It also teaches you how not to be a loser! Profound words. As sport lovers, it is easy to get carried away by emotions and lose objectivity. There are occasions, more often than a fan would like, when a player or a team plays extremely well and still ends up on the losing side. For instance, I lose my appetite whenever Roger loses, especially those close matches, where he amazes you with flashes of brilliance, but then shanks his forehands with more regularity than a Japanese bullet train. I am sure I am not alone when I say that, the player/team that plays the best does not necessarily always win. There are so many factors, external and otherwise, that contribute to a win. Weather conditions, physical conditions, interruptions etc. The reasons become more complex when it is a team sport. Keeping in line with the aforementioned theme, I would like to reminisce back on Roger Federer‘s career so far and rate a few of his matches where he did not win, but then, the matches were so closely fought and so high in terms of quality, that there really was no loser either.
1. Rafael Nadal – Roger Federer [6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7], Wimbledon 2008
Probably the greatest match ever played. Up until this match, Federer was the undisputed champion on grass, whereas Nadal was the king of clay. There was tremendous amount of anticipation in the build up to this match. Federer was the favorite but everyone ceded that Nadal was pushing the champion to his limits, and many pundits believed that Nadal had a very good chance of causing an upset.
The first two sets were strongly contested with just a break of service separating the two players. Federer had never been in a situation like this. With his back to the wall, and a relentless Nadal across the net, Federer had to step it up a notch and he did. The third set was won by Federer in a tiebreaker. The fourth set was again very evenly balanced and went to a tie breaker. Nadal had championship points but then, in a very rare show of nerves, he double faulted. Federer capitalized and to the thrill of all the viewers, won the fourth set to take the match into a decider. There was rain delay and all of it added to the drama of the occassion. Eventually, Nadal won the fifth set 9-7 to lay his hands on the coveted Wimbledon trophy. Heartbreak for Federer, but tennis was the ultimate winner in this contest.
2. Marat Safin – Roger Federer [5-7 6-4 5-7 7-6 9-7] Australian Open 2005
Few would argue that Federer was in his prime during 2005. His masterful display of tennis had won him fans all over. But this was 2005, minus the mammoth scale of records and statistics that Federer has built up over the years. He was a very good player, but was not surrounded by an aura of invincibility, yet. Safin was well, Safin. Unpredictable, mercurial, and capable of producing brilliant tennis if he wanted to. In my humble opinion, this match is better purely in terms of quality and the spectrum of shots when compared to the Wimbledon 2008 final. The power of Safin’s ground strokes against the variety and intelligence of Roger’s shots was a treat for tennis fans. The match kept going back and forth and ultimately it was the burly Russian who came on top. [He did try breaking his racket on a couple of occasions though!!] .
Match Highlights 1
Match Highlights 2
3. Rafael Nadal – Roger Federer [6-7 7-6 6-4 2-6 7-6], Rome 2006
This is a match Roger Federer should have really won. Yes, the match was on clay and yes, it showed the world that Federer could push Nadal on his favorite surface and yes, Federer failed at the last hurdle. Having lost to Nadal at both Monte Carlo and Dubai, few would have expected and many would have wanted Federer to put up such a spirited and consistent fight. The sheer class and dominance of Roger in the fourth set would have perturbed a lesser player. But not Nadal. In spite of Federer racing to a 4-1 lead in the fifth and final set, Nadal kept the fight on and was rewarded with a victory in the end. This match to me proves why Nadal is so successful against Roger, especially on clay. Apart from the obvious explanations regarding the surface being more suited to Nadal’s style and his oft repeated tactics of targeting Roger’s single handed-backhand, the deciding factor in my opinion is Nadal’s resilience. He may be defensive in his style of play and perhaps not the most elegant to watch, but no one can deny that, when it comes to determination and will power, he has no match.
4. Jo Wilfried Tsonga – Roger Federer [3-6 6-7 6-4 6-4 6-4], Wimbledon 2011
When Tsonga burst onto the tennis scene with a surprise victory over Nadal at the Australian Open 2008 and made it to the finals, many predicted that he was the next big thing, literally. His physical strength in itself is a massive weapon. Although he has not lived up to his promise, he is one of the most entertaining players around with a showmanship quality that endears him to crowds. When he walked on to the court to play Roger in the quarters of Wimbledon 2011, few would have put their money on him. After all, grass is not the kind of surface that is best suited to Tsonga’s style and Federer has a very good record against him (8-4). It was business as usual for the first two sets, but a resurgent Tsonga produced superb tennis and served immaculately to win the next two with a service break in each. These five setters against players that would perhaps have not troubled Roger much a couple of years back were becoming agonizingly more close and more frequent. This was the first time that Federer had lost a grand slam match after being two sets up. For his part, Tsonga thoroughly deserved the win for his sheer resolve and belief.
5. Novak Djokovic – Roger Federer [6-7 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5], US Open 2011
Djokovic and Federer have had some great matches between them. They have met 11 times in grand slams, and barring a few early on in Novak’s career, most of these have been high stake, high voltage matches. 2011 was a fantastic year for Djokovic. After a surprising defeat at the hands of Roger at Roland Garros early on in the year, he was going for his third slam of the year, while Federer was trying to stop him in his quest. It’s really strange how these rivalries play out because Novak seems to be the only one who can consistently beat Rafa at the slams, especially on hard courts, while Roger seems very capable of defeating Novak. We all know how the Roger-Rafa saga has played out. These strange permutations add great excitement for the tennis fan to follow the proceedings irrespective of their loyalty to a particular player. After winning the first two sets, Roger seemed in cruise mode. I for one actually changed the channel briefly thinking, it was near impossible for Novak to come back from two sets down. I was in for a rude shock. Novak really elevated his game as Roger dropped his level in the next two sets. Novak’s mental strength and fitness over five sets of grueling tennis were on full display, while Roger’s lack of the same made one realize that the ‘off-days’ would come with more frequency now. In fact of having match points, Federer was unable to close the match and eventually Novak won. This was one of those matches that left every Federer fan confused and perhaps a little angry too. With very few obvious flaws in his technique or game, it is hard to analyze why Federer plays the way he does sometimes. In an uncharacteristically unsportsmanlike press conference after the match, Federer seemed to attribute the loss more to Novak’s good luck than anything else. It was just not Roger’s day.
Matches that missed the list:
1. Rafael Nadal – Roger Federer [7-5 3-6 7-6 3-6 6-2] Australian Open 2009
Played just a few months after their epic Wimbledon clash, many were rooting for Roger to win this match. He is extremely popular in Australia and after having ceded his throne at Wimbledon, he desperately needed to hold on to the Australian Open. The match was tipsy-topsy with Federer winning his sets more comfortably than Nadal. Hard courts are Federer’s strongest surface and till the fourth set, he was neck to neck with Rafa. The fifth set was a total mental collapse though. I have seldom seen Federer look so disheartened in spite of playing well for the majority of the match. His emotional outburst during the presentation ceremony was in sharp contrast to his almost ice like attitude on the court. Federer seldom gives ways to emotion while playing. This was a rare occasion. The great champion let the entire world see what tennis and the tournaments meant to him. People remember this match for Roger’s tears and not for the match itself. The quality was not as high as their other matches although the match went to 5 sets. Added to that, Rafa’s semi final against Verdasco was far superior a match compared to the final.
2. Novak Djokovic – Roger Federer [5-7 6-1 5-7 6-2 7-5] US Open 2010
I was in a dilemma whether to put this match up on the list or the 2011 match at the same tournament. I eventually chose the latter because it was a much closer match, and there was more at stake in terms of history in 2011. Also, in terms of consistency of high quality, 2010 was not Roger Federer’s year. His serve and forehand were both his friend and enemy. He was his biggest nemesis, no matter who stood against him. Hence, in my opinion, the other matches were more of a contest than this.
3. David Nalbandian – Roger Federer[6-7 6-7 6-2 6-1 7-6] Shanghai Finals 2005
In light of Federer’s significant rivalry with Nadal and Djokovic in the recent years, it is easy to forget that at one point the temperamental Argentine was Federer’s nemesis. Played on a carpet court in Shanghai, this match was a brilliant display of tennis from both the players. Prior to this match Federer had a 3-5 record against Nalbandian. So, in terms of numbers, this was not a shocker of a result. Another fact is that, Federer was returning from an ankle injury and played this tournament at his less than best physical form. Not taking anything away from the tenacious Nalbandian, he played brilliantly, but given the circumstances, I feel, this match could have been even greater had the stars been more aligned.