For modern tennis fans, it’s hard to imagine a time when Roger Federer was considered to be an underachiever on the ATP World Tour. Much was expected of the young Swiss in the early stages of his career but he could not seem to find his game at majors. But in 2003, everything changed. This Swiss finally put his game together, going on a tear at the All-England Club to claim his first major title and has never looked back.
With the next edition of Wimbledon fast approaching, it’s time to take a look back to Roger Federer’s breakthrough.
Federer was a junior champion at Wimbledon, having won both the boys singles and doubles titles in 1998. But as he made the transition to the main tour, he found himself struggling in big matches. He would lose six of his first eight career finals and struggled to make any kind of breakthrough at a major.
It would take three years on the pro tour to reach the quarterfinals of a major, reaching the last eight in back-to-back events at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2001. In the latter, he upset four-time defending champion Pete Sampras in the round of sixteen. He seemed primed and ready to start contending major titles. But he regressed after the runs, failing to advance past the fourth round of his next seven major appearances, including three first round losses. There were serious questions as to whether or not Federer would be able to win a major.
With the exception of his quarterfinal run in 2001, Federer had never advanced past the first round of the All-England Club. It seemed as though if he was going to make a breakthrough at a major, it would not be on the lawns of Wimbledon.
He got off to a dream start in 2003 simply by winning his first round match, disposing of Hyung-Taik Lee in straight sets. He would back up that win by racing past Stefan Koubek, again in straight sets. He faced his biggest challenge yet in the third round against American Mardy Fish. After Federer took the opening two sets, Fish would bounce back to take the third. The Swiss would prove to be untroubled by the loss of the set, racing through the fourth to reach the round of sixteen. Federer would not lose another set for the rest of the tournament.
Becoming a Champion
Federer faced what could have been a big test in the form of Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez in the round of sixteen, battling through in straight sets. In the quarterfinals, he found himself up against eighth seed Sjeng Schalken, who was coming off a win over Australian Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler. The Swiss made light work of his Dutch opponent, cruising through in straight sets to reach the semifinals of a major for the first time in his career.
His first career major semifinal was considered to be the real final, as he took on fellow up-and-comer Andy Roddick. The winner would be the heavy favourite in the final, so it was a golden opportunity for both men. In the opening set, Roddick gave the Swiss everything he could handle, even holding a set point in the first-set tiebreak before Federer turned the tables. An error levelled the breaker and the Swiss would never look back, winning the opening set in a tiebreak before claiming the last two sets with breaks to reach his first career major final.
Despite being the favourite in the final, it was going to be easy against the big-serving Mark Philippoussis. The Aussie was contesting his second career major final and played a style that was very dangerous on grass. Both men were dominant in their own service games and there was very little between them. What proved to be the difference was the very thing Federer had been missing throughout his career, the ability to win the big points. The first set went to a tiebreak, which he won, and followed it up by breaking twice in the second set. The Swiss was untouchable on his own serve, not allowing a single break point against his serve in the match. The third set would require a tiebreak and Federer did not let the occasion get to him, cruising through the tiebreak 7-3 to claim his first career major title.
The win changed everything for Federer. Within seven months, he had added a second major title and was number one in the world. That breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2003 morphed Federer into the champion that the world celebrates today.