He beat me at 16 but I didn’t recog­nise Roger’s ge­nius

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport -

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

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