Roger Federer: The GOAT who 'Slam'med his way to the top

Sakshi Gupta
Saturday, 8 August 2020

Federer turns 39 today. He is easily one of the greatest sportspersons to have graced the world, not just tennis. 

At 5-2, Roger Federer is serving for his 18th Grand Slam. 

Federer has not won a major title in five years.    

Rafael Nadal stands in his way.   

Nadal goes 0-30 up.     

Federer pulls one back at 15-30.     

Nadal earns two break points at 15-40.     

Federer bangs his 19th ace of the match to make it 30-40.     

The Rod Laver Arena witnesses yet another nail-biting rally between the two. Deuce!    

As the match ends with an iconic Federer forehand that just clips on the line, the Swiss Maestro is seen jumping up and down in disbelief. He runs to a devastated Nadal at the net to hug him. Federer has done it. It was a long wait, but he has his 18th Grand Slam title and what an occasion to secure that - by beating his most fearsome rival Nadal in their ninth Grand Slam final meeting.     

In less than 20 days, following the epic 2017 Australian Open final, the then 36-year-old Federer became the oldest World No. 1 in history. In 2018, at the same venue, Federer clinched a record 20th Grand Slam, the most among the ATP players. It was once again a demanding five-setter, this time against Marin Cilic, but Federer defended his throne in Melbourne.     

Federer turns 39 today. He is easily one of the greatest sportspersons to have graced the world, not just tennis. One wonders if Federer is done with tennis, but the Swiss Maestro betters his performance with each passing year. His undying determination, elegance on the field, flawless technique, and of course, his 100 ATP titles and counting are a true testament to the fact that there's still a lot of steam left in Federer. 

As an eight-year-old, Federer picked up a tennis racket and dreamt about emulating his idols Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg. It was a tough choice to make, but a 14-year-old Federer moved from his hometown Basel to the national tennis centre in Ecublens, around 200 km away and was a part of French-speaking Switzerland. (No wonder Federer is so fluent in French!)   

Back then, he could not speak or understand French vividly and was among the weakest players. His initial difficult days at the tennis centre were only preparing him to become one of the toughest men to play the sport. The Swiss player began his journey in the junior circuit in 1995 but took some time to settle in. His breakthrough year during his youth days was in 1998 when he won both the boys' singles final and doubles' final at Wimbledon before reaching the final at the US Open too. Unfortunately, he did not win in New York, but he ended 1998 as World No. 1 in the junior rankings and was awarded ITF junior World Champion that earned him a wildcard entry in his maiden ATP tournament in Gstaad.    

A 17-year-old Federer crashed out in the first round at Gstaad. But that was just a start. 

It has been a long journey, with a few ups and downs, as Federer began his professional career as a brat kid. The glimpses of Federer losing his cool and concentration on the court have been left far behind in the past, and now, if one tries to recall a hot-headed boy, it's a tough task given his calm and sustained temperament and image of a world champion who never gives up.    

They say tragedies either break you or make you. In Federer's case, it was the latter. From the age of nine, Federer was coached by Australian tennis player Peter Carter, who eventually changed Federer's career. The impact began to reflect after his death in 2002.  

Federer, who cried a lot, threw and kicked his racket on the court on losing, and occasionally swore. He worked a lot on his behaviour under the guidance of Carter, who taught the Swiss player the importance of respecting other people in the sport and in general. The former World No. 1 has admitted quite a few times that he did not know to draw a "balance between the two mental status: the anger and calmness."   

When Federer was playing at the Canadian Masters in Toronto in 2002, a week before his 21st birthday, his beloved coach Carter died in a car accident while on a trip in the safari. The book, 'The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection,' which was written by Swiss tennis journalist Rene Stauffer, revealed that Federer was "never so upset in his life". An Australian newspaper had reported in 2002 that Federer had "left his hotel and ran through the streets, bawling and hysterical".   

Carter was among the first ones to identify Federer as the future World No. 1. A devastated Federer was determined to keep that fire alive. "I guess it was something of a wake-up call. I really started to train hard," said Federer.    

In 2003, a rejuvenated Federer tasted his career's first major victory. With a win over top seed Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon semi-final, Federer went closer to his childhood dream, which he eventually fulfilled by defeating Mark Philippoussis in the final. The triumph that he secured in straight sets won him his maiden Wimbledon trophy. Who knew, it would just be the beginning of a love story between Federer and the Mecca of Tennis?   

Sports has seen various rivalries that have turned out to be legendary and are discussed with good spirits: be it Messi-Ronaldo, Tendulkar-Lara, or Federer-Nadal.    

Federer has always credited another person for bringing the best out of him, and that's none other than his arch-rival Nadal. The two may be fierce competitors on the court, but the two legends share great respect and affection for each other.    

Federer and Nadal, fondly called the FEDAL, came face to face for the first time in 2004 at Miami Masters. A 17-year-old Nadal announced himself against then-World No. 1 with a surprise win and there began the rivalry, which would go on to become iconic.    

Between 2006 and 2008, the two played against each other 15 times, including three Wimbledon finals. In 2006, Federer claimed a comprehensive win over Nadal in four sets to win his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title. In 2007, the final lasted for five sets, and it was again Federer who secured the winner's trophy. The match, however, was labelled as the greatest Wimbledon final since Borg-McEnroe in 1980.  

The year 2008 would see Nadal finally conquer in Wimbledon and dethrone Federer at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Despite rain delays, Federer and Nadal ended up playing the longest Wimbledon final - 4 hours and 48 minutes - with the Spaniard bagging the title by winning the final set in near darkness.   

So far, they have played against each other 40 times, and it is Nadal, who leads their head-to-head 24-16. Federer, to date, credits Nadal and confesses that he would not be this successful if he did not have a rival like Nadal. Federer, who detests losing matches, let alone a Grand Slam final, had said "I would have been happy to lose, to be honest" after defeating Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final. 

The Swiss man did not become a legend overnight. Federer had to work his way out to learn the skill of mental strength, a few years into his career. It was his toughness, grit, and perseverance that has helped him dominate tennis for two decades now, where he has won 20 Grand Slam titles, and the man is in no mood to give up, on the sport he loves so much, as yet.       

(Sakshi Gupta is a sports journalist and travel writer. More than a sport, it's sportspersons who have kept her engaged in work. She tweets at @sakshi2929.) 

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