As the Open Era of professional tennis celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the arrival of Wimbledon — the most famous tournament in the world, played in the land where tennis was invented — marks the best occasion to reflect on half a century of moments which shaped the history of this sport.
If asked to identify a small handful of moments which made the past 50 years what they were, Roger Federer’s name and presence have to be included in some way and to some degree. He might not be the best player of the past 50 years — Rod Laver and Rafael Nadal can make especially strong arguments, and Novak Djokovic should not be included from the discussion, either — but he is Wimbledon’s greatest male champion, standing alone with eight pineapples after his 2017 title.
Naturally, any attempt to rank Federer’s greatest Wimbledon moments should consider a number of choices:
1) The 2007 win over a hard-charging Rafael Nadal in five sets, which easily could have gone the other way and is therefore that much more impressive from Federer’s point of view.
2) The 2012 title which gave Federer his first major after turning 30 and showed that he had considerable staying power in the sport.
3) The 2009 title won over Andy Roddick in an unforgettable five-set match, the second straight extended fifth set in a Wimbledon (and Federer) final after the 2008 loss to Nadal.
4) The 2017 title, one month short of Federer’s 36th birthday, a shining testament to Federer’s enduring prowess as an “old man” tennis player.
Beating Nadal at Wimbledon.
Winning a 17th major.
Winning the major which broke Pete Sampras’s total of 14 major titles.
Winning a major just before turning 36.
Winning a record eighth Wimbledon.
These feats are all massive, and in terms of their special qualities, they represent Federer’s biggest achievements.
Yet, this is not a column which seeks to rank those achievements. The focus here is on the moment which — as a point of analytical judgment — gave rise to Federer’s shimmering Wimbledon career. It could very well be that Federer might have done everything he has done at Wimbledon even without the moment I am about to mention. Yet, I think it would have been much harder for Federer to become such a giant at SW19, with eight titles and a ridiculous 11-1 record in Wimbledon semifinals.
The moment: the 2004 final against Andy Roddick.
That day at the All England Club was gray and wet. It is true that both players knew the match was probably going to be interrupted at some point. What they couldn’t have known about was the timing of the delay. It came at the worst possible time for Roddick, leading by a break in the third set of a match which was even in sets at one apiece. Roddick and his power game had attained a noticeable rhythm by that time. This was the Wimbledon final in which Federer got lucky as a result of a rain delay, not the 2012 final in which he had already turned around the final against Andy Murray before the match moved to an indoor setup with the roof over Centre Court. One can only wonder how different the history of this era of tennis would have been if Roddick had rolled through the third set and won the match. It is one of the great what-ifs of Wimbledon history in the 21st century.
Yet, as fortunate as Federer was and as snakebitten as Roddick was (and continued to be) at Wimbledon over the years, one point has to be acknowledged: Federer did not have a coach in 2004. Then-girlfriend (now wife) and adviser Mirka Vavrinec offered considerable support from a place of genuine tennis knowledge, but she could not be likened to a full-time coach. She was handling his media responsibilities and logistical details, a job which was consuming and substantial in its own right. Severin Luthi — Federer’s longest-tenured and most successful coach — was not yet a regular presence on tour. In 2004, Federer was between coaches — Peter Lundgren in 2003 and Tony Roche in 2005.
Was he talented enough — and sure enough of his game — to go it alone for a year? In retrospect, we can all unanimously agree that he was… but in the present moment, the tennis world didn’t know how great Federer was going to become.
In the locker room during that third-set rain delay in the 2004 Wimbledon final, the man who had to get Roger Federer’s attention and snap the Swiss back into a state of lucidity and focus was not Lundgren or Roche or Luthi or Mirka.
It was Roger Federer.
Roddick might not have been as sharp after the delay as he needed to be — part of Federer’s good fortune — but the Swiss still had to improve, still had to make adjustments on his own, still had to call forth the greatness which lay within his bones and marrow.
Understand this about Federer’s 2004 Wimbledon: The tournament came at a time when he had not yet won a U.S. Open or reached so much as a French Open semifinal. He had just lost in the third round of Roland Garros. In 2003, he lost in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. It was hardly a guarantee that Federer was going to produce a legendary 2004 season. Had he lost on that day to Roddick, he might have lost confidence heading to the U.S. Open and left 2004 with only one major instead of three.
We know what Federer has become, but during that rain delay, his 2004 season hung in the balance. The aura of certainty which eventually filled stadiums in a number of his 2006 and 2007 conquests had not quite materialized. Federer had a total of only two majors in his pocket. The Golden Era of men’s tennis had yet to take off. Rafael Nadal was still a year away from announcing his clay-court genius at the 2005 French Open. It is easy to forget how different — and uncertain — men’s tennis was in July of 2004.
Federer winning that match by taking advantage of the rain delay was no foregone conclusion.
The Swiss did what he had to do. The rest is Wimbledon — and tennis — history.
The 2004 Wimbledon men’s singles final will be remembered for Andy Roddick’s bad luck — the first in a collection of highly unfortunate events for him at the Big Dubya — but it will also be remembered as the day Roger Federer, without a coach, responded to a delay with the levelheadedness of a superbly coached athlete. As a result of his inner calm, Federer made sure his confidence would not be shaken at the precise point when his career showed signs of taking off.
The takeoff was not aborted… and it’s reasonable to say that Federer is still in the clouds, not yet ready to come back to the ground.