He beat me at 16 but I didn’t recognise Roger’s genius
The first time I met Roger Federer was at a practice in Hamburg. He was 16 and had lost in qualifying. The session was set up by my coach Sven Groeneveld, who had worked with him on the Swiss junior programme. I was ranked No5 in the world, and he was beating me all over the court.
I was thinking: “I am playing terrible tennis, I’m going to have a terrible week in Hamburg.”
But then Sven said: “This kid will be one of the great players one day, a giant of the game.” I was like, “Yeah, come off it”.
When you are in the top 10, your ego does not allow you to talk about someone of that age becoming an all-time great. You’re too busy trying to keep your edge. But you can see the genius when you look back at it.
There were only four youngsters I encountered who really struck me as something special. You’ve guessed it: they are now the Big Four. I played Novak Djokovic in a Davis Cup tie in Glasgow. Everyone told me his forehand would break down, but it was like a wall and he won in five sets.
I practised against Rafael Nadal, and I remember thinking: “Once he gets it on his forehand side, I haven’t got a chance.” And then there was Andy Murray, who had this awkward intensity about him. We played a three-match exhibition series in Aberdeen when he was 18, on a lightning-fast court that should have favoured my game, and he won it 2-1.
The thing about Roger was that he had a complete game, with nothing really overpowering. When you played against Pete Sampras, you sometimes felt like you were just changing ends. You had to guess which way the serve was going to go.
Roger, by contrast, would not blow you off the court. You would feel, “Hey, I’ve got a shot here”. And then he would beat you anyway. Everything was clean, technically sound, and he moved uncannily well.
I played him for the first time in Vienna in 1999, and wanted to make sure I put the youngster in his place. I’ll always remember the scoreline – 6-3, 6-4. Afterwards Peter Lundgren, who was coaching Federer then, passed on Roger’s own verdict to me: “He served me off the court and didn’t give me any rhythm.”
It did not last. Next time in Milan, he beat me in two tie-breaks, and I could feel he was improving every single year. After that, it got less competitive. I became old; he became great.
What I love so much about Federer is his continual love of the game and striving for improvement. You would not put one of his shots down as the greatest of all time, but he is the greatest overall.
The serve and the forehand are both outstanding, but the movement is second to none, and the remarkable thing is that he now moves even better than he did 10 years ago. Also, his mentality is incredible. He has a real calmness under pressure in big situations, and has been able to maintain that over time.
Like a big kid, Roger just loves what he does, and it doesn’t seem that there is going to be an end to it. He feels like a Peter Pan character who will simply go on forever.
To turn to Marin Cilic for a moment, he has the game, but does he believe? Can he find the answers on the big points? In Federer’s semi-final against Tomas Berdych, there were moments when he was under pressure. But he pulled out a big serve every time – a tell-tale sign of a deeply confident player.
The only players who have matched Roger on the big points are Nadal and Djokovic, and they’re the only ones with winning records against him.
If Cilic is going to pull out a shock today, then Jonas Bjorkman, his coach, has to get him into that zone and thought process.
The fact that no one expects Cilic to win could make him more dangerous.
But then Roger will probably have 80 per cent of the support, so he’ll feel like he’s playing in his own front room. It’s hard to look past Federer on the court that he has made his own.
Sven said: ‘This kid will be a giant of the game.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, come off it’
Davis Cup foes: Greg Rusedski shakes hands with Roger Federer in Geneva in 2005