Commentary

Roger Federer's 10-year journey

Updated: June 21, 2013, 7:42 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

A week before he departed ignominiously from the draw at Roland Garros, at the fabulous French hands of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger Federer remembered the good times.

Hard to believe, but it's been a decade since the proud champion from Basel, Switzerland, won his very first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon. Federer went on to collect an unprecedented total of 17 majors to date, but that fortnight's journey at the All England Club changed the chemistry in men's tennis forever.

"The picture I see, I guess that's the one after match point when I received the trophy and lifted it up," Federer said at Roland Garros when asked to name his most vivid memory of that groundbreaking day. "That's what I see. The dream becoming reality kind of thing, you know, that the chasing is over.

"Just one of the greatest moments in my life as a tennis player, yeah."

Yeah. The chasing was over.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
CARMEN JASPERSEN/AFP/Getty ImagesIn the beginning, a lot of people compared Roger Federer to Anna Kournikova -- until he started winning all those titles.
No one felt the excruciating weight of expectation more than Federer, who three years earlier had been ranked as the world's top junior. He was a supremely talented junior, with a diversity of game that was beautiful (and, for opponents, terrible) to behold. But it never could happen quickly enough.

A dozen years ago, I had the good fortune to speak with him as an ascending 19-year-old. Federer was coming off a skiing holiday at St. Moritz and was in Los Angeles training for Indian Wells. He was feeling good, having recently won his first ATP World Tour title, in Milan, Italy, by defeating two-time former Grand Slam champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Goran Ivanisevic, who would win Wimbledon four months later.

More than joy, Federer, who was already ranked No. 6 in the ATP's yearlong Champions Race, said he felt overwhelming relief after winning in Milan.

"I was very nervous," Federer said in a phone conversation. "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."

That barrier cleared, Federer eventually disappeared from the pack. His on-court focus, which had been spotty, improved dramatically. Three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2007, he won three of the four majors. Here in France, he just reached his 36th consecutive major quarterfinal and got his 900th match win. But those are lifetime achievement awards. The reality? Federer, recognized by many as the greatest player in the history of the game, now finds himself in descent.

This year's Wimbledon tournament, which begins Monday, will be a nostalgic one for Federer. It's where he first showed the world what he was capable of.

All the shots

Jurgen Melzer, a 32-year-old Austrian, is in his 12th season as a top-100 fixture. Back in March at the tournament in Miami, he remembered the first time he laid eyes on Federer.

"We were playing a junior event in Arezzo, Italy," Melzer explained. "He was 14, and he had really short hair. He was always a funny guy but intense on the court. We spoke the same language."

They played 16-under doubles together at the Orange Bowl in Coral Gables, Fla., and became friends.

"Even then," Melzer said, "he had all the shots. When he won his first title in Milan, you knew he was going to soon be one of the guys to beat.

"But, no, then you couldn't see what he would be. There was [Pete] Sampras, Agassi and a lot of good guys playing then. But he just pushed the game to another level. When he was on, he was unbeatable."

Federer was the No. 4 seed at the 2003 Wimbledon tournament, behind No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 2 Agassi and No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero. Federer was 21, four years older than a 17-year-old Spaniard who was playing in his first Grand Slam ever, Rafael Nadal. Federer was coming off a win at the grass warm-up event in Halle, Germany.

The first two rounds went easily, with Federer defeating Hyung-Taik Lee and Stefan Koubek in straight sets. Mardy Fish was slightly more resistant; the American won the third set, but Federer won in four.

Jimmy Connors had just turned 18 when he played in his first Grand Slam event, the 1970 US Open. He lost in the first round. In only his ninth major, he won the 1974 Australian Open and then, in succession, Wimbledon and the US Open.

"Sometimes, breaking through is the toughest thing, to get your first," said Connors, an eight-time Grand Slam singles champion. "Once you get that feeling off your back, then all the pressure's off.

"You hear 'He's the greatest player never to win a Grand Slam.' As unfair as it is, I say it's fair. You go and you make your reputation off winning. And winning the majors is what you're in business for."

In the fourth round, Federer handled Spain's Feliciano Lopez, then Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands in the quarterfinals -- both in straight sets.

At last, playing freely

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesRoger Federer lived up to all those expectations in the 2003 Championships at Wimbledon, at which he won his first of 17 Grand Slam titles.
Lurking below the seeded players -- and virtually everyone's radar at the All England Club -- was a strapping 6-foot-5, 226-pound Australian named Mark Philippoussis. He was ranked No. 48 among ATP World Tour players, and his 2003 season had been, well, all over the place.

Philippoussis exited his home Grand Slam in Melbourne in the third round but reached the final of Scottsdale, where he lost to fellow Aussie Hewitt. Coming into Wimbledon, his results hadn't been good; he lost in the second round at Roland Garros and, in his first grass test of the year, lost in the first round at Queen's Club.

And yet, something happened to him that fortnight, something quite good. After three fairly routine matches, Philippoussis stunned No. 1-ranked Agassi in the fourth round. It took five sets, as did his quarterfinal match against Alexander Popp. In the semifinals, Sebastien Grosjean went quietly in straight sets. And so, Philippoussis was through to the second major final of his career. Five years earlier, he had lost to another fellow Aussie, Patrick Rafter, in a four-set final at the US Open.

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

When Federer beat Roddick in straight sets, the final was set.

"You know, that match was one of [the] biggest moments of my career," Philippoussis said recently, on his way back home from a surfing expedition in Southern California. "I always dreamed of playing in a final and holding up the trophy. I always watched the finals as a kid.

"I always remember they show the walk from the locker room to the court. It's very special. They make you wait for a minute before going out to Centre Court, and you're standing right in front of the trophy."

Philippoussis said he wasn't totally nervous before the match, and neither was Federer, who was exceptionally composed and had neglected to shave for several days before the match. Still, Federer, with his pony tail -- secured with an elastic -- and broad, white headband with a Nike swoosh, looked much younger.

To this day, Philippoussis seems haunted by a missed forehand volley in the first-set tiebreaker. He remembers that frame, shot by shot.

"I was up a mini-break in that first tiebreaker, and I just missed it," Philippoussis said, his voice filled with surprising emotion nearly a decade after the fact. "If I'd won that first-set breaker, it could have been a completely different story. Momentum was huge in that one.

"Being Roger's first major final, maybe he would have doubted himself. We'll never know."

The final was 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3), and it was over in 116 minutes. Federer's serve was never broken.

On the board

Boris Becker, a three-time Wimbledon champion and seven-time finalist, broadcast that match for the BBC.

"He'll win many more Wimbledons," Becker said at the time. "We have seen the future. The future has come today."

Afterward, Federer was typically humble. How did it feel, he was asked, to join the likes of Sampras?

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

Federer would go on to win five consecutive titles at the All England Club.

"Obviously," Philippoussis said, "everyone knew he had talent to do great things. Can he win more Grand Slams? Yes. Can he win, what, 17? No, not really. I thought Pete Sampras' record [of 14 majors] would last a long time.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Ed BetzIt's safe to say not many thought Roger Federer would pass Pete Sampras as the King of the Slams as swiftly as he did.
"I don't think even Roger thought that would happen. He would literally win matches in the locker room. Guys knew they'd have to play out of their comfort zone to beat him. He's a fantastic player. To be part of that, to see it firsthand, was great."

Darren Cahill was Agassi's coach in 2003, when he met Federer in the ATP World Tour's year-end event in Houston.

"They played in the first round, and Roger beat him 7-6 in the third set," said Cahill, now an ESPN analyst. "Andre gets to the final, and Roger put a beating on him -- from start to finish, he was two levels up.

"Andre walked into the locker room, sweat pouring out of him, and said, 'This guy is a genius. He's capable of anything.'"

Cahill, who briefly worked with Federer a few years ago, has followed his transformation closely.

"He finally found the belief in his game," Cahill said. "It was like he stepped into his body and said, 'You know, it's about time I gave myself the best chance to win.' Wimbledon was a turning point for him."

German Tommy Haas, at the age of 35, was the surprise of this year's French Open. He has been friends with Federer for years.

"I think maybe for every player that, if you win it once and you have that feeling of winning a Grand Slam, which I can't speak about it, but you want more of that," Haas said in Miami. "Once you have done it, the belief is there. Everything, you know, sort of falls, you know, to the side. The monkey is off your back. You feel you can do it.

"After winning that Wimbledon, he just took off to another planet."

At Roland Garros, Federer was in the mood to reminisce. He talked about that win at Wimbledon, his consistent excellence. Interestingly, he is just as proud of the consistency as the excellence.

"I'm entering my 50th Grand Slam in a row," Federer said in Paris. "It's incredible. I never thought I was going to play that many, have that many opportunities to do well at the Slams. I never pulled out of any live match. I have only pulled out of two tournaments once I started a tournament in my career.

"So for me, it's just something I just kept on doing. Now here we are."

Federer reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros but was swept out in straight sets by Tsonga. Only 30 minutes later, Federer was talking about the upcoming grass season.

"I have no choice but to move on," he said "Now I look forward to other things. I love the grass-court season. Especially, it's been 10 years since my first Wimbledon victory.

And, just as he did a decade ago, Federer won the grass-court tuneup at Halle before snaring his first major victory. Now he'll try to pull off the double again.   

"I feel good right now, and I hope I can show it on the tennis court," Federer said.

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.