Roger Federer kisses the famous Wimbledon trophy after beating Mark Philippoussis for the first of his eight titles
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Roger Federer has won eight Wimbledon titles and is for many the greatest grasscourt player to have lived. Here’s how his special relationship with SW19 materialised.
Roger Federer vs Irakli Labadze – Boy’s Final, 1998
One of the greatest love affairs in modern sport had an inauspicious beginning. When a 16-year-old Roger Federer arrived at Wimbledon, ready to compete in the 1998 junior event, he walked out on court and found the whole experience so overwhelming that the net looked six foot high.
“I was very nervous going into my first round,” Federer has admitted. “I remember after the warm-up I felt like the net was double the height, like a volleyball net. The umpire actually went down and checked it. The net was, of course, accurate, so I kept on playing and won my match.”
Federer was not yet a bankable prospect, although there were already whispers that he might become something special. Throughout his teenage years, he was tempestuous and easily distracted, as one of his British contemporaries remembers.
“In 1997, we were in the same group as Switzerland at the European Under-18 Championships in Poland,” said Dan Kiernan, who now runs the SotoTennis Academy in Spain, but was then part of the British team alongside Simon Dickson and David Sherwood.
“Even then, everyone used to stop and watch Roger. You could tell that he had a special talent: he just oozed class. But his dedication didn’t seem so clear. I guess we’ve seen quite a few juniors start out as bright talents, and still fail to make the transition to the tour. He was a little soft, cried a bit, and his rackets would go flying.”
The British junior Simon Dickson had actually beaten Federer the previous year in Miami, while Sherwood would also hold a set point against him in the Wimbledon boys’ quarter-final of 1998. But these were fleeting moments; future anecdotes for the Britons, who all switched to coaching in their early 20s, to chew over in the bar.
Federer was on a different path. As he settled to his task that summer, the ball began to obey his commands. He might not yet have the discipline to trade from the baseline, but he was instinctive, creative, unpredictable. The magical hands, which would conjure up so many audacious strokes in years to come, were already confounding his opponents.
Federer cruised through the Wimbledon boys’ event without dropping a set. The final saw him dispose of the talented Georgian 17-year-old Irakli Labadze by a 6-4, 6-4 margin. “It was such a big deal for me to go up to the Royal Box and get the trophy on Centre Court,” Federer has said. Another memory related to the lodgings, and “sleeping in a dorm at Roehampton. It was a fun thing to do. In a way it felt like a little Davis Cup team.”
A young Roger Federer after he won his first trophy at the All England Club in 1998
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Kiernan supplied a little more detail on this point. “The juniors used to get rooms at Roehampton University. It could be quite lively there, like an 18-21 holiday – and I have no idea whether Roger got involved in any of that. At the same time, though, most people would complain about the facilities. When you play the US Open, you stay at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan. Whereas these rooms were a bit like prison cells. The Americans, especially, were never happy. But it says something about Roger and his whole mindset – his openness to new experiences – that he remembers Roehampton fondly.”
It seems likely that Federer’s winning streak tinted all his memories of 1998 with a rosy glow.
“Everything was so perfect,” he has said. “I had never seen anything like it. You want to get to Wimbledon and you want it to be amazing, but sometimes expectations are not always met. This time it was and I guess you can say my love affair at Wimbledon started that year.”
Roger Federer vs Pete Sampras – Fourth round 2001
After that perfect summer, it would be two years before Kiernan saw Federer again. They bumped into each other in the Dog & Fox – the iconic Wimbledon pub which becomes a tennis mecca during the Championships – early in the 2000 tournament.
“I was at an American college on a tennis scholarship,” Kiernan recalled. “But I was back for the summer, helping to collate the IBM stats on winners and unforced errors. When I saw Roger at the pub, he had a pint of beer in his hand, and he was standing next to his coach Peter Lundgren. He said ‘Hi Dan, how’s America?’ so we talked about that for a bit. Then I asked him ‘How’s tennis?’ and he said “A bit s—-y to be honest. I just lost first round. I’m still in the doubles, but things aren’t going great.’”
Federer’s downbeat mood was probably the result of his failure to take a set off world No 5 Yevgeny Kafelnikov. In the bigger picture, though, he was one of only three teenagers in the world’s top 100 at the time. (The other two were the even more precocious Lleyton Hewitt, and a Swede named Andreas Vinciguerra, whose career would be ruined by back trouble.)
And yet, there were still murmurings that Federer didn’t respond well to pressure, and didn’t train hard enough. As Lundgren himself would later admit, “He was lazy. He had concentration issues and physically he wasn’t on point.”
All that would change over the next year. The first key influence was Federer’s future wife Mirka Vavrinec – then a fellow member of the Swiss tennis team whom he met at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. According to Roger Federer: The Biography, an excellent new release from Rene Stauffer, “He would usually lose interest in training after an hour but he would watch her – stunned and full of admiration – as she trained for five or six hours without a break or a lapse in concentration.”
Federer and Pete Sampras shake hands after their meeting at Wimbledon in 2001
Inspired by Mirka’s work ethic, Federer hired a fitness trainer – Pierre Paganini – at the end of that 2000 season. They are still collaborating today. “His athleticism was poor,” Paganini has said of his first impressions. “There was enormous potential for improvement in his footwork and physical strength. His problem was that his tremendous talent allowed him to mask his athletic weakness … I gave us three years to bring us up to the top level.”
By the time Federer returned to Wimbledon in 2001, the fruits of this new dedication were already visible. He had just come from a maiden major quarter-final at Roland Garros, which he lost in respectable fashion to eventual finalist Alex Corretja. The grass was even more hospitable. Three first-week wins earned him a crack at one of his heroes on July 3: Wimbledon’s famous “Manic Monday”.
As a boy, the young Federer had tried to emulate Pete Sampras’s uniquely fluid and effortless service motion. Now he was facing Sampras for the first time, in the era when the All England Club might as well have been decked out in stars and stripes. Drawn against a man with seven Wimbledon titles from the previous eight years, most 19-year-olds would have panicked. Not this one. Federer found the challenge invigorating.
“I had cold hands and my pulse was racing,” he recalled recently. “Disbelief that I was actually playing my hero, but also being on Centre Court for the first time. My head was spinning. But it took me a couple of games and I was in it.”
All those Sampras impressions came in handy as Federer pinged down unreturnables at will. On slick fescue courts that played twice as quickly as today’s rye grass, these two Wimbledon legends split 50 aces down the middle: 25 apiece. But Federer – wearing the bushy, chestnut-brown ponytail that was his early trademark – had the greater variation once the rallies began.
Eventually, he threaded a forehand return up the line to close out his victory in five tight sets: 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. The match duration of 3hr 41min might seem unexceptional in the age of the Big Four, but it was a true marathon by the standards of the day, and underlines how much fitter Federer had become.
“Something definitely happened between 2000 and 2001,” Kiernan says now. “A decision was made. Roger links it to his wife and a couple of things that happened there. But when he came back, he had a different vibe about him. He wasn’t just another talented tennis player that was going to do okay.
“Before that, I thought he wasn’t too different from Xavier Malisse – another guy I knew from juniors. Malisse [the Belgian who peaked with a Wimbledon semi-final in 2002] was as talented as Roger if not more so; he stuck out a mile. But it was Roger who said ‘It’s now or never, I need to knuckle down.’”
Roger Federer vs Mark Philippoussis – Final, 2003
Was the Sampras match a false dawn? It had seemed so much like a coronation. But Federer would lose to Tim Henman in the quarter-finals, and then enter another period of tennis purgatory. Over the next couple of years, he kept bombing out of the majors in the first round.
Looking back, Federer believes that he overdid the emotional self-control. “I had a problem with being too quiet,” he has said. “No more emotions. So I had to find the fire again. I felt like I was walking on a string.”
Such was the backdrop of his defining Wimbledon: the summer of 2003. Four weeks earlier, Federer had suffered his most embarrassing slam result of all – a first-round howler against unheralded Peruvian Luis Horna at Roland Garros. Brickbats flew in from all directions. The French newspaper L’Equipe compared him to golfer Phil Mickelson – another future great who was then still majorless. The American tennis author Jon Wertheim composed a little ditty to the tune of “If Only I Had A Brain” from The Wizard of Oz: “I play exquisitely in patches / But choke in big-time matches / Because I have no nerve.”
And yet, out of such unpromising beginnings, something special emerged. Previously, Federer had been slumming it at the slams. He had played 16 major tournaments, with nothing more than a couple of quarter-finals to show for them. But now, at last, the penny was beginning to drop. The game’s greatest artist was ready to put the awe back into lawn tennis.
Seeded No 4 at Wimbledon, Federer dropped only one set – against Mardy Fish in the third round – en route to that long-awaited first grand-slam final. Apart from one awkward moment against Feliciano Lopez, when his back locked up and he needed the trainer to apply heat cream, he was in a different class from his opponents.
It was the same story on finals day. His rival, big-serving Australian Mark “Scud” Philippoussis, had already claimed the prize scalp of Andre Agassi. But Gerry Armstrong – the chair umpire for the match – had an inkling of what was to come. “My personal feeling going into the final was that it was going to be a bit one-sided,” Gerry Armstrong told Telegraph Sport. “Philippoussis kind of came out of nowhere that year, a bit like Goran Ivanisevic in 2001. I didn’t expect it to be a long afternoon, put it like that.”
By the time of his 2003 Wimbledon win over Mark Philippoussis Federer had knuckled down and was on the verge of dominating the sport for the next few years
Credit: RUSSELL CHAYNE
This proved to be an accurate prediction. Philippoussis put up a decent fight, particularly in the first set where he landed 80 per cent of his first serves at an average speed just shy of 130mph. As against Sampras, though, the rallies were a different story. In fact, the two men barely seemed to be playing the same sport. It took Federer only 1hr 56min to seal a 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 win, before falling to his knees in tearful triumph. One headline the next morning dubbed him “Roger Blubberer”, while the Daily Telegraph’s John Parsons spoke of an amalgam of the sport’s greatest virtues: Bjorn Borg’s temperament, Stefan Edberg’s volleys, Sampras’s serve and Agassi’s returns.
It had taken Federer four years of elite tennis to discover that blend of relaxation and intensity – “a mixture of fire and ice”, as he put it – with which he would dominate the game. Now that he had located the appropriate headspace, he could return there at will. And for the next seven years, the titles tumbled like dominoes.
“It’s very nice to be Wimbledon champion,” Federer said five months later, as he returned to the All England Club for an appearance on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show. “It’s like Superman in his cape. I feel I’ve changed. I feel more confident walking on court. It was such a relief to win my first grand slam, especially Wimbledon. It was always my favourite tournament by far. That’s why it’s great for me to come back and drink my cup of tea.”
For a post-script, let’s return to Dan Kiernan, Federer’s contemporary from the juniors. “At the Australian Open of 2012,” said Kiernan, “I was coaching Liam Broady and Josh Ward-Hibbert, who won the boys’ doubles. Liam [who is left-handed] also warmed Roger up for his semi-final against Rafael Nadal.
“It was the first time I had seen Roger in over a decade, but one thing hadn’t changed: his humility. He was saying to me ‘Dan, how are you doing, how is the academy in Spain?’ And I was like, ‘How do you know about that?’ And then he was saying ‘How is Simon Dickson, he was an unbelievable talent, where is he now?’ [The answer is coaching at the Edgbaston Priory Club.]
“His knowledge and remembrance of his junior days was very strong. He had a few words about everybody – and that’s a mark of who he is. Not just a great tennis player but a terrific human being.”