Commentary

My Federer recollections

Originally Published: May 21, 2010
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

My first impression of Roger Federer was that he was unfailingly humble and honest.

This was more than nine years ago, in March 2001, after the ATP World Tour set me up with a phone call from the 19-year-old rising Swiss player for an ESPN.com column. Federer was training for Indian Wells in Los Angeles and coming off a skiing holiday in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with his mother and some friends.

"It was 15, 20 degrees below zero, but it was relaxing, very fun," the teenager said. "It's the first time I've played so well for such a long stretch."

He had just won his first ATP title, in Milan, along the way defeating Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Goran Ivanisevic -- both now retired Grand Slam singles champions. Federer, who was the No. 1-ranked junior in 1998, suddenly found himself three years later at No. 6 in the ATP Champion's Race and, well, a little relieved after winning in Italy.

"I was very nervous," Federer said. "People were starting to compare me to [Anna] Kournikova. It felt really good to win; now I can say I won one more than her. I feel much better now."

Not to worry. As the world now knows, Federer eventually carved out a nice little career for himself. Two years later, he won his first Grand Slam singles title and inside three years he became the No. 1-ranked player.

There are days in the sports business when reporting feels like work, but they are exceedingly rare. Sometimes, when you are in the trenches of a deadline and searching for the right context in which to cast a story, you forget to tingle. I was lucky enough to happen upon the tennis beat right about the time Federer began to assert himself.

During this year's Australian Open I was at the Super Bowl in Miami when someone asked me how many of Federer's record 16 major titles I had witnessed. I was embarrassed to not know the exact number.

Because my NFL duties usually include the Super Bowl, I've regrettably missed all four of his Australian Open wins. Factor in the 2005 Wimbledon crown, when I was recovering from Achilles surgery, and you have a grand total (so to speak) of 11.

Federer, by a broad consensus, is the greatest player in the game's history. Nine years ago, only two years before securing his first major, you could sense his hunger to become better.

"I feel more comfortable on the court, and I hope to move up further and get higher," he said. "I still have some work to do. I'm trying to work on my volleys, return game and backhand. That's what's nice about my game. I can improve in a lot of areas.

"I feel like I have a lot of potential left."

Looking back, with all humility, here's a personal Fedtrospective, with excerpts from stories in italics, beginning with that first Grand Slam singles title:

2003 Wimbledon -- Only 21, Federer takes out Andy Roddick in the semifinals, then hammers Mark Philippoussis in a straight-sets final:

    WIMBLEDON, England -- When Roger Federer, the best tennis player without a Grand Slam singles title, reached the semifinals here at the All England Club, an eerie calm settled over him.

    [+] EnlargeRoger Federer
    AP Photo/Anja NiedringhausFederer won the first of his 16 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2003.

    "All these expectations." he said before his match with Andy Roddick. "Now I can play free."

    It was an achingly beautiful sight.

    The 21-year-old from Basel, Switzerland, wrecked Mark Philippoussis in straight sets.

    "He'll win many more Wimbledons," said Boris Becker, a three-time champion at the All England Club.

    "We have seen the future.

    "The future has come today."

    How did it feel, Federer was asked, to join the likes of Sampras?

    "Oh," Federer said, a little startled. "This is, you know, one of his seven. I'm so far away. I'm just happy to be on the board."

Here's the full story of the semifinals win over Roddick.

2004 Wimbledon -- Beating Roddick for the first time in the final at the All England Club, Federer needs four sets -- and a well-placed rain delay -- to win his second major of the year and his third overall. Already, the numbers were being crunched:

    How many Grand Slam singles titles will Federer win? Is he Pete Sampras, can he match his record total of 14? Or is he Andre Agassi, who has won a more modest eight majors? Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus?

    It is impossible to know, but the graceful Swiss player will be part of the Grand Slam dialogue for many, many years. He has so distanced himself from his peers that history is already his only yardstick.

    Federer became the first man to defend his title here since Sampras in 2000. Is it merely a coincidence that it was a 19-year-old Federer who ended Sampras' 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon the following year? Federer is the first man since Agassi in 1999 to win two Grand Slam titles in a calendar year.

Here's the full story of the finals win over Roddick.

2004 U.S. Open -- Federer bagels Lleyton Hewitt twice in a blistering straight-sets victory and finishes the year with three Grand Slam titles to run his career total to four. Mats Wilander, for one, is impressed:

    Federer, 23, thus becomes the first man to win three Grand Slams in a season since 1988, when Wilander failed only at Wimbledon.

    Wilander watched the match, every point, at his home in Hailey, Idaho.

    "I have to say Roger Federer is -- we can't imagine how good he is," Wilander told ESPN.com five minutes after the match. "Dominant, that's pretty much as dominant as you will ever see. The guy is just one step ahead of everybody."

    Wilander, who last week predicted that Federer would win three Slams in a season -- but not this year -- said he was happy for him.

    "Why not? This is the most times my name has been mentioned on TV since I won it in '88," Wilander said. "Records are made to be broken. It's nice to see someone so complete as Federer."

    "It's still tough to believe," Federer said, " because I think once I settle down, have some time off, at the end of the year especially, I'll be looking back, thinking, 'How in the world did I do all this?'"

Here's the full story of the finals win over Hewitt.

2005 U.S. Open -- Agassi is the victim as Federer wins his second consecutive U.S. Open and sixth major. Agassi's take on Federer:

    "He plays the game in a very special way. I don't think I've seen it before. He's the best I've ever played against."

    [+] EnlargeRoger Federer and Andre Agassi
    Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesRoger Federer spoiled Andre Agassi's last Grand Slam finals appearance with a four-set win at the U.S. Open.

    Which means that Agassi places Federer above Pete Sampras, who holds the record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

    "Pete was great," Agassi said. "But there was a place to go with Pete. You knew what you had to do. If you could do it, it could be on your terms. There's no such place like that with Roger."

    What about it, Roger? The best ever?

    "No," he said. "No. Just look at the records some guys have. I'm a little cookie.

    "Him saying I'm better than Sampras -- I'm a little surprised. I appreciate it very much," he said.

Here's the full story of the finals win over Agassi.

2006 Wimbledon -- Winning his fourth straight at All England and his eighth major title, Federer defeats Rafael Nadal in the first of three straight finals between the rivals. Federer beat Jonas Bjorkman to reach the final:

    WIMBLEDON, England -- Nine years ago, Jonas Bjorkman had the best year of his career in singles, winning three ATP titles and finishing with a ranking of No. 4 in the world. That season, as a favor to fellow Swede Peter Lundgren, Bjorkman agreed to hit with a 16-year-old Swiss player in Key Biscayne, Fla.

    Bjorkman wasn't impressed.

    "I practiced with him," Bjorkman remembered. "Semi-tanked on the practice. [I] thought, 'Jesus, what kid is this? Not really ready.'"

    The kid was Roger Federer. The next time Bjorkman saw him, he was ready.

    "One year later, you see this unbelievably talented guy," said Bjorkman. "He's just the perfect No. 1 we can have, I think, both on the court and off the court."

    Nearly a decade after that unimpressive outing, Federer is the world's best player and Bjorkman, at 34, is coming to the end of his singles career.

    Before their semifinal match at the All England Club, Bjorkman essentially conceded defeat when he said his chief focus would be on trying to enjoy the experience. Still, Bjorkman didn't smile as much as grimace during Friday's fleeting, 77-minute match.

    Federer won with ridiculous ease, 6-2, 6-0, 6-2, to advance to his fourth consecutive Wimbledon final. It was the most one-sided men's semifinal at Wimbledon since the current format was instituted in 1922.

Here's the full story of the semifinals win over Bjorkman.

2006 U.S. Open -- Federer wins his third New York title in a row and, for the second time, captures three of the four majors in a year. This, from a finals preview:

    Andy Roddick's opponent in Sunday's championship final, naturally, will be Federer. The world's best player earlier dissected Russian Nikolay Davydenko with typically cool precision, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4. Federer has now reached the final in all four Grand Slams this season and, since Wimbledon 2003, has arrived in 10 of the last 14 major finals.

    He's won eight of those matches in a span of just over three years -- only five men have more Grand Slams in their careers -- and the prospects of a ninth are quite good.

Here's the finals preview versus Roddick.

2007 Wimbledon -- For the fifth consecutive time, Federer wins the title on grass, running his major total to 11. It is merely more history for Federer:

    WIMBLEDON, England -- Six years ago, a 19-year-old Swiss prodigy beat Pete Sampras in the fourth round here at Wimbledon. The five-set defeat prevented Sampras from winning his fifth consecutive title at the All England Club and, in retrospect, announced a challenge to his supremacy in men's tennis.

    That prodigy was named Roger Federer.

    On Sunday, a 21-year-old Spanish prodigy pushed Federer into another contentious five-set match -- his first in a Grand Slam final. Rafael Nadal was attempting to stop Federer from joining Bjorn Borg as the only man to win five straight Wimbledon titles and, not insignificantly, equaling Borg's and Rod Laver's achievement of 11 Grand Slam singles titles.

    In a larger context, another seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the game seemed to be in the offing. Not so fast, Rafa.

    In a magnificent 3-hour, 45-minute match pungent with drama, Federer closed out Nadal 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 as shadows lengthened on Centre Court. Nadal, only a month past his 21st birthday, is still getting better. He just wasn't good enough to beat Federer in his prime, on his favorite court in the world.

Here's the full story of the finals win over Nadal.

2007 U.S. Open -- Federer, closing in on Sampras, wins his fourth straight title in New York, dispatching Novak Djokovic in straight sets:

    Federer's 12th Grand Slam singles title pushes him past two titans of tennis, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. The 26-year-old from Switzerland is now tied with Roy Emerson and only two behind Pete Sampras.

    [+] EnlargeRoger Federer
    David Lobel/Icon SMIFederer took down Novak Djokovic in the final of the 2007 U.S. Open, and with it, exacted revenge from a loss that year in Australia.

    "I think about it a lot now, honestly," Federer said. "In the beginning, I felt pushed a little bit into the corner, put under pressure about the situation because you don't win Slams like that; it's too tough.

    "I feel these 2½ weeks, it's so draining. I'm exhausted in the end. I know how tough it is. So to come so close already at my age is fantastic, and I really hope to break it."

The full story of the finals victory over Djokovic.

2008 U.S. Open -- After going 0-for-3 in Grand Slams, Federer breaks through with his fifth consecutive title in New York and his 13th overall. The story of the final began this way:

    NEW YORK -- He has been variously described as vulnerable, beatable and, in extreme cases, finished.

    All season long, going back to the Australian Open, Roger Federer has taken it in and refused to make excuses. The mononucleosis virus that infested him is gone, but the effects clearly lingered well into the summer.

    Something was missing: His elegant, well-oiled movement, the crackling volleys, the sizzle on his forehand, the scintillation of his serve.

    On Monday evening, the vintage champion returned. Like Carl Sandburg's "Fog," he rolled in on little cat feet; his footwork was extraordinary. His running forehand was again a velvet hammer, his volleys sang and his serve was sometimes impossible to read.

    Federer throttled 21-year-old Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 to win his fifth consecutive U.S. Open title, something that was last achieved 84 years ago by Bill Tilden.

    "I would have been disappointed losing today," Federer said. "You feel you missed an entire year, being so close and yet so far, because semis and finals don't help me a whole lot anymore in my career.

    That's why this is huge -- this is massive, really.

Here's the full story of the finals win over Murray.

2009 French Open -- With Nadal -- who had beaten him four straight times in Paris -- knocked out of the tournament, Federer records his first championship at Roland Garros, which ties Sampras' record total of 14. Federer beats Robin Soderling, the man who dispatched Nadal, in straights:

    PARIS -- In his very first service game, Roger Federer hit a drop shot so sublime it may have evaporated.

    It was a deceptively gentle backhand flick of the wrist, and the ball nearly grazed the net cord before bouncing about a foot in the air and spinning back toward the net. It was, upon reflection, the yin to Rafael Nadal's yang of a punishing topspin forehand that had dominated Roland Garros for the past four years.

    Sometimes, in the frenzy of the moment, we forget to appreciate Federer's artistry. It may not be fully possible to process his supreme command of the court.

    On a blustery Sunday visited by rain, Federer's subtle brushstrokes were all over a 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 victory over Robin Soderling in the final of the French Open.

    "In some ways," said Andre Agassi, the 1999 champion here, "it almost feels like destiny for him."

Here's the full story of finals win over Soderling.

2009 Wimbledon -- With defending champion Nadal resting his sore knees at home in Spain, Federer -- a month shy of his 28th birthday -- breaks Sampras' record with a victory over Roddick in a spectacular match:

    Even with a horrific history against Federer -- Roddick had lost 18 of 20 matches -- he never lost his resolve. He kept banging those unreturnable serves, those forehands, and kept bravely coming in to the net and facing Federer's stinging groundstrokes.

    In the 30th game of the fifth set, his serve was broken for the first time.

    The final score -- 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 -- almost fails to do the match and the efforts by both men any kind of justice.

    "You just keep going," Roddick said in his postmatch interview. "Looking back, it seems like a lot. Each time it was a point, then another and another. They kept adding up."

    "It was frustrating because I couldn't break Andy until the very, very end," Federer said. "I really thought I had to play my very, very best to come through."

    Roddick had praise for Federer's toughness.

    "He gets a lot of credit for a lot of things, but not a lot of the time is how many matches he kind of digs deep and toughs out. He doesn't get a lot of credit for that because it looks easy to him a lot of the times. But he definitely stuck in there today."

Here's the complete story of the final.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.